St. Pelagia of Antioch and Jerusalem, The Penitent

icon of St. Pelagia of Antioch and Jerusalem, The Penitent


The primary life was written by the Deacon James of Edessa, and was an eyewitness to her conversion. Manuscripts are preserved in several languages and manuscript traditions. The Greek life is that of St. Symeon the Translator. (Lives of the Spiritual Mothers, Holy Apostles Convent, 1991). The Latin life is that of Eustochius (Harlots of the Desert B. Ward, Cistercian Publications ©1987,). Internal evidence does not allow exact dating, she is discussed in a homily by St. John Chrysostom, and the third century is probable.


Conversion from Paganism

Born in Antioch of pagan, Syriac-speaking parents Pelagia was a woman of both great beauty and immodest sensuality. She prostituted this beauty, enabling her to adorn herself richly, own slaves, and gain the attention of many wealthy customers. In Antioch, she was known as Margaret, or "Pearl", due to the great number she owned.

One day, Pelagia's parade happened by the church dedicated to the martyr St. Julian, where Bishop St. Nonnos of Edessa, in the company of a number of other visiting bishops, was delivering a sermon. An ascetic from the Tabennisis monastery, St. Nonnos did not advert his eyes from her shameful appearance; he gazed upon her, and was overwhelmed with compunction, and seeing in her extreme attention to and success at attaining physical beauty and desirability, and said to the others:

How many hours does this women spend giving all her mind to adorning herself, in order that nothing is lacking, lest today's lovers will not come back tomorrow for bitter pleasure. Yet, here we are, who have the immortal Bridegroom, the Pearl of great price, 'who promises riches such as the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to know' for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9). How is that we neglect our selves, neither adorning ourselves with virtues nor washing the dirt from our souls?

At the next Sunday liturgy, though never having attended Divine Services, St. Pelagia was again drawn to the church of St. Julian and stood outside, listening St. Nonnos preach on the immortality of the soul, the judgment of God, and the need and rewards for repentance.

This shook her so profoundly that she was filled with self-distain, the fear of God, and an overwhelming urgent need to repent of her entire life. Falling down before St. Nonnus, soaking his feet with tears:

Holy Father, be merciful to me, a sinner; I have heard how your God bent the heavens, coming down to earth not for the righteous but for the salvation of sinners. I am a sea of iniquity, an abyss of destruction, a net and weapon of the devil. Baptize me, and teach me repentance, for by reason of me, many have gone to damnation.

After testing her sincerity, explaining repentance through the abandonment of harlotry, and hearing her confession, it was arranged for the Blessed Romana, a deaconess, to stand as her sponsor and as her spiritual mother to ground her in the Christian faith, Pelagia was baptized and communicated.

This vexed the evil one greatly and he appeared to her in the night trying to recall her to her material way of living. Pelagia dispelled him by making the science of the Cross, blowing on him saying: "My God who snatched me out of your teeth and led me into the heavenly bride chamber will resist you for me."


After visiting several other ascetics and communities, James, made a return visit to her cell, discovered her to have reposed. Elders and brethren from the surrounding communities came to assist in the burial of the holy relics. They were then astonished to discover the truth of the identity of Pelegios as the women Pelagia, so that many female and male ascetics from all of Palestine bore her body to its place of burial.

Understanding Her

Every detail of St. Pelagia's life is an inversion. From a life wealth gained by soliciting every man, she hides herself as a man of sorrow and grief in order to become the companion of the wise virgins, entering the bridal chamber of God: Margaret's quest for pearls lead her to acquire the Pearl of great price. With her repose and the unconcealing of her identity, St. Pelagia's salvation is manifested.

St. Pelagia's repentance was possible because she was intolerant hypocrisy. Her material integrity moved Bishop Nonnos to profound tears over his own superficial, hypocritical life. He proclaimed, but did not live by, authentic love.

Margaret was motivated by material loves, which is insatiable and, as it is transactional, instantly dies. Transactional material loves are the absurdity of living in death: existential hypocrisy. This kingdom of the demons, who eat but are never full. This hypocrisy, this life of sin, clung to her, and ensnared her customers.

Bishop Nonnos's own repentance, reflected in his homily, attracted hers. What St. Pelagia heard from Bishop Nonnos was the more excellent way: Do you not know you are the Temple of God? That God came into the world to save the thief, to give the harlot virginity, to redeem publican, calling all sinners to repentance. However, God will not enter the temple if it is unclean. To enter the Bridegroom's wedding feast, the unity of love, one must put on the wedding garment of repentance. Then He will desire to be with you. Wash with tears, takeoff the dark clothing of sin, put on humility, and seek the pearl of salvation. The merciful lover will make you radiant in the festal robe of purity and with a crown of righteousness. God, the Eternal Lover, grants virginity in those debauched by death when they adorn themselves through repentance, abandon worldly charms, and zealously cut off all hypocrisy. Be fruitful in the labors of love in which material sorrows drift away, replaced by fragrant stillness, the presence of the Bridegroom.

The Lenten prokeminon for the Third Hour: " O Lord, Who didst send down Thy Most-holy Spirit at the third hour upon Thine apostles: Take Him not from us, O Good One, but renew Him in us who pray to Thee."

Troparion and Kontakion

Troparion for St. Pelagia, in the Fourth Tone

Like a fragrant rose growing from thorns thou wast shown to the Church through thy virtuous deed and wast a source of joy for the faithful. Thou didst offer thy life in sweet-smelling fragrance to Him Who made thee wonderful. Entreat Him to save us from every passion, O righteous Pelagia.

Kontakion for St. Pelagia, in the Second Tone

Thou didst wear out thy body with fasts, vigils and prayers and pray thy Creator for total forgiveness. This thou didst obtain and dost show us the way to repentance, O holy Mother Pelagia.