Prologue from Ochrid - October 8 [October 21]
1. Our Holy Mother Pelagia.
A repentant sinner, she was born a pagan in Antioch and endowed by God with great physical beauty, but she used this beauty to destroy her own soul and those of others, acquiring great wealth from her prostitution. One day, walking past the church of the holy martyr Julian, where Bishop Nonnus was preaching, she turned into the church and listened to the sermon, which was about the Dreadful Judgement and the punishment of sinners. These words so shook her, and wrought so great a change in her, that she was of a sudden filled with self-loathing and fear of God, and, repenting of all her filthy sins, fell down before St Nonnus, begging him to baptise her: 'Holy father, be merciful to me, a sinner; baptise me, and teach me repentance. I am a sea of iniquity, an abyss of destruction, a net and weapon of the devil.' Thus this penitent implored Christ's hierarch with tears. And he baptised her. Blessed Romana, a deaconess of that church, stood sponsor to her at her baptism and, after that, as her spiritual mother, grounded her well in the Christian faith. But Pelagia was not content just to be baptised. Feeling the weight of her many sins and the pricking of her conscience, she decided on a great ascesis. She gave away to the poor the enormous wealth she had amassed by her immorality and went secretly to Jerusalem, where, under a man's name as the monk Pelagius, she shut herself in a cell on the Mount of Olives and there began a strict ascesis of fasting, prayer and vigils. Three years later, St Nonnus's deacon, James, visited her and found her still alive, but when he went to her again a few days later, he found her dead body and gave it burial. St Pelagia entered into rest in about 461. Thus that sometime great sinner, by repentance and striving, received the mercy of God, the forgiveness of her sins and sanctification, and her purified and sanctified soul was made worthy of the Kingdom of God.
2. Our Holy Mother Thaïs.
A repentant sinner, she was an Egyptian by birth. Like St Pelagia, Thaïs spent her youth in prostitution being set on the way of evil living by her shameless mother. But God the merciful, who desires not that sinners should perish but that they should be saved, found a way in His wonderful providence to save the sinful Thaïs. One of the disciples of St Antony the Great, Paphnutius the Sindonite, heard of Thaïs, of her sinful life and the spiritual poison with which she was poisoning the souls of many, and he decided, with God's help, to save her. Holy Paphnutius, therefore, dressed himself in ordinary clothes, took a gold piece and went to the town. He found Thaïs and gave her the coin. Thaïs, thinking that the man had given her the gold piece with evil intent, took Paphnutius off to her room. Then Paphnutius opened his blessed lips and denounced Thaïs's sin, calling her to repentance. Thaïs's soul and conscience were roused, and she gave herself to tears of heartfelt repentance. Giving away all her goods to the needy, she went to a monastery of virgins, near to Paphnutius's hermitage, and stayed there for about three years, shut in a cell and living only on bread and water. Just before her death, St Paphnutius visited her, and made her leave her cell against her will. She quickly fell ill and, after a short illness, gave her purified and sanctified soul to God. St Paul the Simple, another disciple of St Antony, saw in a vision in Paradise a most beautiful dwelling prepared for the penitent Thaïs. This holy soul entered into rest in about 340.
3. The Holy Martyr Pelagia.
She was a virgin of an eminent family in Antioch. In the time of the Emperor Numerian, the governor of Antioch sent soldiers to bring Pelagia to trial as a known Christian. The soldiers surrounded the house and called the holy maiden to the door. She appeared, and when she heard that they had come to take her for trial, she pretended delight and asked the soldiers to wait a moment or two while she got herself ready. She then climbed up onto the roof of the house, raised her hands to heaven and prayed for a long time, begging God to receive her soul and not let her virginity be fouled. God did so, and her dead body fell in front of the soldiers. 'Her death', writes Chrysostorn, 'came about not as a natural occurrence but by the command of God', and he continues: 'And thus this virginal body, purer than any gold, lay on the earth; angels surrounded it, archangels paid it. honour and Christ Himself was with her.'
In the Slavonic Prologue there is recorded the following occurrence with an unrepentant sinner: A deacon, Raphael, was sick unto death. This was told to St Epiphanius, who loved Raphael, and the elder came to him at once. Recognising his spiritual father, Raphael began to weep and wail bitterly. Epiphanius also wept, then asked the deacon why he was in such grief. The deacon replied: 'Woe is me; devils have snatched away my works, and the angels of God have withdrawn themselves from me!' After that, he began to bleat like a goat, and then bark like a dog. And at that he gave up his soul. St Epiphanius said that this was because of some great sin, unconfessed and unrepented.
Oh, if only we would invest as much effort in our souls as we invest in our bodies! Oh, if only we could become as desirous of adorning ourselves with virtue before God and His glorious angels, as we do with the vain, transitory, external displays of appearances! At first, both Pelagia and Thais were only aware of theier bodies, while their souls were slaves bound in the prison of the body. Both were adorned with nothing but vanity: clothed in vanity, arrayed with vanity, surrounded by vanity, and flattered by vanity. But what a sudden change! What a divine turn of events in their lives! More wondrous than if a wild apple were to be grafted and begin to bring forth sweet fruits; or if a turgid, fetid swamp were suddenly to become clear, pure potable water. When Bishop Nonnus, in the company of other bishops, first saw the sinner Pelagia in her outward splendor-clothed in the most expensive garments, adorned and bedecked with rings, necklaces and baubles, perfumed, and surrounded by slaves-Bishop Nonnus began to weep, and said to his companions: "In truth, I have learned much from this woman. The Lord will set her before His Dread Judgment and will rebuke us through her. How many hours does this woman spend in her room bathing herself, clothing herself, adorning herself, and looking at herself in the mirror-and for what? Only to appear more beautiful to men. And we, who have the immortal Bridegroom in heaven, do not strive to adorn our souls with repentance; we do not hasten to bathe them with the tears of repentance and clothe them in the beauty of the virtues, that they might appear more beautiful before the eyes of God!"
Contemplate the unrighteousness of King Ahab, and God's punishment of him through the Prophet Elias (I Kings 16, 17):
- How Ahab gave himself up totally to idolatry, and did that which is evil in the sight of the Lord;
- How the Prophet Elias shut the heavens by his prayer, and there was no rain for three years.
On how the weapons of the enemy will vanish in the end
O thou enemy, thy destructions are come to a perpetual end, even as the cities which thou hast destroyed; thy memorial is perished with a roar (Psalm 9:6).
The enemy of the human race, the murderer of men from the very beginning, has used every weapon and intrigue against man. He thinks up new weapons and new intrigues day and night, in order to destroy someone as a roaring lion… seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). He hides like a poisonous snake and awaits his prey; he stretches his webs everywhere, like a spider, with the sole purpose of ensnaring some human soul and entrapping it in his foul kingdom. Pagan peoples were his cities. Until the coming of Christ, he ruled untroubled and absolutely in them. When they served idols, they served him; the practices of soothsaying and fortune-telling served him; he protected, directed and enhanced men's unbridled licentiousness; human sacrifice, fiery passions, discord, war, evildoings of all descriptions-this was all pleasure for him. But in the end, no weapons remained in him; his "cities" were destroyed and his memorial is perished with a roar. This "end" of which the prophet speaks is the coming of Jesus Christ the Lord into the world. The Lord manifested His power over the devil when He overcame his temptations on the mountain. He manifested His authority in driving demons out of men, commanding them to go this way or that; He manifested His invincible lordship over sin and death by His suffering and Resurrection. And, what is perhaps most important, He harrowed hell and scattered the demonic power. He did not desire to utterly destroy the demons, but to disperse them and smash their weapons; He smashed them and scattered them as He later did the Jews, but more terribly than He did the Jews. He freed the people from their domination; and even more importantly, He gave men authority over the demons, such that they can drive the demons out by the power of His name. Do you see how the Lord linked His victory over the demons with His mercy toward men? He so weakened and broke them, He so confused and dispersed them, that He placed them under the authority of men. Even so, the Lord did not grant authority over demons to all men, but only to those who believe in Him and who follow His commandments. He gave them authority, and He also gave them a weapon. That weapon is the Cross.
O Lord our God, our Savior from the dominion of the devil, help us also to do that "least part" that Thou hast left us to do.
To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.
From The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich
© 1985 Lazarica Press, Birmingham UK