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St Pelagia the Penitent
I just got a panicky note from your twin sister, who is extremely anxious about the state of your soul. I realize that she tends to overreact, but some of the things she mentioned are worth going over a bit, even though I need to be quick about it (this new warden is determined to “break down my defenses” as he puts it, and another “dialogue session” starts in just a few minutes). The main point is your vanity. Don’t be alarmed; I have long known how eagerly you seek recognition and praise from your peers. Some people are too proud to care about their popularity; you, on the other hand, tend to exert yourself too much to attract the crowds. The story of today’s saint, though its historicity seems spurious, will be quite instructive for you. Here’s it is in a nutshell.
Pelagia was a Palestinian actress who lived the great ancient city of Antioch. She was “equally celebrated for her beauty, her wealth, and her disorderly life” as one biographer eloquently put it. It so happened that the Patriarch of that city had called a synod (kind of a board meeting) of his bishops. One day the bishops were gathered in the portico (kind of a front porch) of the great basilica, listening to the words of St Nonnus (bishop from Edessa), when Pelagia and her retinue of slaves and accomplices drove by. She spied the clerics and pulled up beside the portico, whereupon all the bishops lowered their eyes to avoid seeing her audacious glances and her provocative attire – all except St Nonnus, that is. She tarried only for a few moments, then laughed at them and moved on. St Nonnus kept looking at her until she was out of sight. Then, much to the astonishment of his fellow pastors, he queried, “Did not that woman’s beauty please you?” The other bishops were nonplussed, and they didn’t answer. St Nonnus continued, “I was well pleased to see her, for it seems to me God sent her as a lesson to us. She goes to an infinity of trouble to keep herself beautiful and to perfect her dancing in order to please men, but we are considerably less zealous in the care of our dioceses and of our own souls.”
And that, my dear niece, is my point. If you tend to seek inordinately the approval of your peers, your teachers, and everybody else, it is a weakness, and the tendency will never completely disappear. But why not simply redirect that desire to please, so that you are equally (if not more) concerned about pleasing your Lord? In all things, occupy yourself with winning his approval and pleasing him, and you will be a saint before the semester is out, guaranteed! (Pelagia soon repented, by the way, and was baptized by St Nonnus). You will have much more peace (because our Lord is easier to please than your peers – though harder to satisfy), and you will be storing up great treasure in heaven.
I have to go. Count on my prayers.
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