From Harlots to Saints: Imitating St. Mary of Egypt

Last Sunday we celebrated the week of St. Mary of Egypt, recalling her life as a vivid example of the depth of repentance. But from the hagiographies of Orthodox saints, we know of other amazing cases when harlots sincerely repented of their sins and became saints.

Venerable Pelagia the Penitent

Saint Pelagia the Penitent was converted to Christianity by Saint Nonnus, Bishop of Edessa (Saturday of Cheesefare Week). Before her acceptance of Christianity through Baptism, Pelagia was head of a dance troupe in Palestinian Antioch, living a life of frivolity and prostitution.

One day Pelagia, elegantly dressed, was making her way past a church where Saint Nonnus was preaching a sermon. Believers turned their faces away from the sinner, but the bishop glanced after her. Struck by the outer beauty of Pelagia and having foreseen the spiritual greatness within her, the saint prayed in his cell for a long time to the Lord for the sinner. He told his fellow bishops that the prostitute put them all to shame. He explained that she took great care to adorn her body in order to appear beautiful in the eyes of men. “We… take no thought for the adornment of our wretched souls,” he said.

On the following day, when Saint Nonnus was teaching in the church about the dread Last Judgment and its consequences, Pelagia came. The teaching made a tremendous impression upon her. With the fear of God and weeping tears of repentance, she asked the saint for Baptism. Seeing her sincere and full repentance, Bishop Nonnus baptized her.

By night the devil appeared to Pelagia, urging her to return to her former life. The saint prayed, signed herself with the Sign of the Cross, and the devil vanished.

Three days after her baptism, Saint Pelagia gathered up her valuables and took them to Bishop Nonnus. The bishop ordered that they be distributed among the poor saying, “Let this be wisely dispersed, so that these riches gained by sin may become a wealth of righteousness.” After this Saint Pelagia journeyed to Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. She lived there in a cell, disguised as the monk Pelagius, living in ascetic seclusion, and attaining great spiritual gifts. When she died, she was buried in her cell.

Venerable Thais of Egypt

Saint Thais of Egypt, raised by her mother in a spirit far removed from Christian piety, led a depraved and dissolute life. She was famed for her beauty, leading many on the path to perdition.

The account about the prodigal Thais spread throughout all Egypt and reached even Saint Paphnutius, a strict ascetic who had converted many to salvation. Paphnutius dressed himself in worldly attire and went to Thais, giving her money as though he wished to pay for her favors. He pretended to be afraid that someone would see them, so he asked her if there were a place they would not be discovered. Thais said that they could lock the door and enjoy complete privacy. “But if you fear God,” she said, “there is no place where you can hide from Him.” Seeing that she knew about God and the punishment of the wicked, the Elder asked why she led a sinful life and enticed others to ruin their souls. He told her about the eternal punishment she would have to face for her own sins, and for the people who had been corrupted and destroyed by her.

The words of Saint Paphnutius so affected the sinner that she gathered up all her riches acquired through her shameful life, then set them afire in the city square. Then Saint Paphnutius shut her up in a small cell, where for three years she dwelt in seclusion. Turning toward the East, Thais constantly repeated the short prayer, “My Creator, have mercy on me!”

“From the moment I entered into the cell,” said Thais to the Elder before her death, “all my sins constantly were before my eyes, and I wept when I remembered them.”

Saint Paphnutius replied “It is for your tears, and not for the austerity of your seclusion, that the Lord has granted you mercy.”

Saint Thais was ill for three days, then fell asleep in the Lord. So this woman, who had been a harlot and a sinner, has entered the Kingdom of God before us (Mt. 21:31). Saint Paul the Simple (October 4) saw in a vision the place prepared for the penitant Thais in Paradise.

Venerable Zoe of Bethlehem

Venerable Zoe lived in Caesarea Palestinae in the 4-5 centuries and, like Mary of Egypt, was a famous harlot. Once in the city where she lived, a rumor spread that a righteous hermit named Martinian had settled in the desert nearby. People talked a lot about his virtue, so Zoe, out of her pride, decided to seduce this holy man. She even made a bet for money with one of her friends that the monk would not resist her.

Disguised as a wanderer, the harlot came to Martinian’s cell at night and began shamelessly seducing him. However, the saint did not succumb to the temptation of lust, standing with his feet on the hot coals. Seeing such an incredible determination in the fight against sin, in which Zoe carelessly lived all her life, she was horrified. In tears, the woman threw herself at the saint’s feet, asking for forgiveness for what she wanted to do. Martinian blessed her to leave everything worldly and go to a convent. Zoe spent the rest of her life at the convent indicated by the hermit in salvational fast and prayer. Not long before her death, Zoe received the gift of healing people — so the merciful Lord showed the ascetic that He accepted her sincere repentance.

Sources: https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2008/10/08/102899-venerable-pelagia-the-penitent
https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2014/10/08/102902-venerable-thais-of-egypt

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About the author

Anastasia Parkhomchik,
Literary editor and Orthodox journalist, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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