Near Antioch in the year 341, a group of bishops met to discuss matters lingering from the Council of Nicaea 16 years earlier. As they spoke, a beautiful woman who was also a known harlot passed by them riding a donkey and wearing little more than jewelry and precious stones. Groaning and sighing, the bishops looked away in disgust in the face of such grave sin. All but one, that is; only bishop Nonnus watched intently as she passed by, and kept watching until she disappeared into the distance. Turning, he then asked his brother bishops if they weren’t delighted with her beauty.
In the gospel passage we read that the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle (John 8:3). Although the woman in Antioch had passed them by, Nonnus centered her image in the minds of his brother bishops. Like the scribes and Pharisees, they saw nothing more than a woman caught up in worldliness and sin. They remained silent, for they already passed sentence.
Jesus also remained silent, but he did have something to say. The evangelist tells us that he bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger (John 8:6). We don’t know what he wrote, but we are reminded of Jeremiah’s prophecy that those who turn away from God shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 17:13, Revised Standard Version). Only after beginning to write did Jesus speak; not to the woman but to her accusers. If they were concerned about worldliness and sin then their proper focus was themselves, for they were the objects of judgment, not the arbiters of it.
Bishop Nonnus remembered this, for in his brothers’ accusing silence he said, “(W)e have vast promises…stored up with our hidden Lord who cannot be seen. It is he we should please, but we fail to do so; it is for him that we should adorn our bodies and souls, but we totally fail to do so. We should take pains over ourselves in order to scrub away the dirt of sins, to become clean from evil stains; but we have paid no attention to our souls in the attempt to adorn them with good habits so that Christ may desire to dwell in us… (W)e have not taken pains to make ourselves pleasing to God nearly as much as this prostitute… has taken pains to please men – in order to captivate them…” 1
Mercy begins when we look upon someone else and see our own sinfulness. Compassion is born in the eyes of those who see that as others have fallen, so we have fallen. Their pain is our pain; their healing, our healing; their God, our God.
In the marvelous healing providence of God, it so happened that this same woman heard bishop Nonnus preach the homily the next day at Mass. Whatever he said moved her to repentance. She asked him to make her a Christian. Not long afterward, the same bishops who once looked away in disgust now watched in wonder as this woman threw herself upon the floor of the church, washed the bishop’s feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair. Once baptized, she traded her jewels for a robe and devoted the rest of her life to penance in the strict regimen of a cloistered monastery. The beautiful, bejeweled harlot once known in Antioch as Margarita (meaning “Pearl”) transformed herself into a beautiful model of penitence known to this day by her birth name, Pelagia.
We and bishop Nonnus both know that through the grace of Orders, it was Jesus who preached, Jesus who baptized, and Jesus who transformed Pelagia, just as he does to all who ask him with a contrite and humble heart. Like the woman caught in adultery, the only gaze she knew from him was that of merciful love and the only words those of him who said, Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more (John 8:11).
St Pelagia, pray for us.