Wednesday, October 8, 2008
The Penitence of Pelagia
On this day replete with interesting saints (Sergius and Bacchus, the emperor Maximilian’s “Personal Favorites”; Thaïs, an Egyptian courtesan who burned all her jewels and fancy clothes publicly in the street before shutting herself up in a lead-sealed cell to pray for the rest her life; Saint Keyne of Wales, a virgin who turned snakes into stone) I was hard put to chose.
That is not true.
There was never any doubt, for me, that I would write about Saint Pelagia the Penitent. I will take any available opportunity to write about Saint Pelagia the Penitent: she whose romantic legend has been conflated, confused and confabulated over the years, and spawned numerous other cross-dressing hermetic saints (e.g.Apollinaria, Euphrosyne, Marina).
And especially, now, when the misdeeds and mis-steps and tacky associates of one’s past lives are being bandied about the political stage (OB’s bff the rhyming Weatherman; JMcC’s bff, the raper and pillager of Savings and Loans; SP’s early life as an Elvis-impersonating dog sledder; my own early years as a burlesque dancer in Montevideo; even the upright CSB has a scandal in his past, but we can’t mention it) it seems timely to think about the merits of reinventing oneself. Again and again, if necessary.
The beautiful Pelagia was an infamous ‘actress’ in early Antioch. One day, while Bishop Nonnus was hanging out with a group of bishops*, Pelagia rode by on her white donkey, brazenly baring her shoulders and needless to say, all eyes were on her. Even the bishop’s. After Pelagia and her donkey rounded the corner, Nonnus asked his fellow bishops how they enjoyed the sight of her beauty. They declined to answer. Not Nonnus. He declared how pleased he was to see her because she was a message from God. Clearly, he told the others, Pelagia went to a lot more trouble to be beautiful and perform her dances for the pleasure of men, than they took in caring for their own congregants.
The very next day Pelagia happened to hear Nonnus preaching; the words “went straight to her heart” and she begged to be baptized.
Eight days later she gave away all her beautiful clothes, dressed as a man and headed to the Mount of Olives where she lived alone in a cave for the rest of her life. She was called the “beardless monk.” When she died a few years later, those who buried her were shocked to discover her true sex.
• We have a murder of crows, a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese, but what do we call multiple bishops? An EXHORTATION of bishops.