A woman, whose comeliness today might have won her the crown at a beauty pageant and whose reckless escapades would have commanded the headlines in scandal, chose in the third century to serve Him who had worn a crown of thorns, and after exchanging a life of debauchery for the life of ascetism, commanded a respect that earned her sainthood. The story of St. Pelagia was not unlike that of countless others who have gone from evil to piety, but hers was a unique contribution to the cause of Christianity, and she stands in sainthood as the symbol of any femme fatale who has resisted temptation and assumed a decent posture in the Christian faith.
Born into immense wealth in the city of Antioch, Syria, Pelagia grew up in a hedonistic class whose sensual sins were an affront, not only to the rest of society but to God as well. She took such delight in every form of wickedness that the respectable people of Antioch strongly suspected that her great beauty and wealth were derived from Satan himself. In any case, it appeared she was in league with the devil because her wild dissipation took no toll on her beauty, and she seemed to thrive on the unwholesome living that would have wrecked anyone not allied with the forces of evil.
Pelagia customarily spent her Sabbath on a pleasure seeking tour, borne in a carriage drawn by a quartet of the finest Arabian horses, and would have passed the cathedral without incident had the faithful been within its walls, but on that fateful day an unusually large crowd had spilled out into the courtyard because of the presence of a prominent prelate, Bishop Nonnos.
The preacher's sonorous voice carried out to the street and out of curiosity Pelagia stopped to hear what was being said. The bishop's theme must have been salvation, and whatever the aim of his words, they found a target in the curious beauty sitting smugly in the coach. Her curiosity turned to interest and that into a deep sense of regret, which eventuated in her seeking out the Bishop, thereafter to be baptised by him and with a sincere repentance to become a Christian in the purest sense of the word.
Renouncing her lurid past, Pelagia began her new life by giving away every scrap of her worldly possessions, which she had in abundance, and turning her back on the leisure class that might prove her ruin, she undertook to cleanse her soul and to serve God with all her heart, a transformation that surely put the devil to rout.
In the disguise of a monk, with much of her radiant face concealed, she commenced her avowed asceticism and service to God by secluding herself in the desert and devoting herself to the study of religion, philosophy, and theology to a degree that would assure her acceptance in God's favour.
Realising that to expose her beautiful face in the company of females would be to invite embarrassment, no matter how well- intentioned the women may be, Pelagia reasoned that her only assurance of achieving a reasonable proximity to God was to go it alone. It is that doubtful her beautiful face would have been the handicap she construed it to be, but in light of what it had brought her in the past, she could scarcely be blamed for seeking isolation.
She realised a cherished dream when she was allowed to enter the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, there to abide for three years in an unceasing supplication for forgiveness and deliverance.
When she finally emerged from this holy ground, she was a spectacle of piety, with such beauty of soul that it exceeded her fair countenance, and to speak with her about the Lord would be like being given a first-hand account of Heaven and the Holy Spirit. There was an aura of purity about her that belied her reckless youth.
For the fifty-eight years that remained of her long life, she remained a symbol of the power of God to transform a sinner to a Saint. She died a peaceful death in the year 284 A.D.
From "Orthodox Saints" Vol 4 by Fr George Poulos,
Holy Cross Orthodox Press