Of prostitutes and prophets
Stories that link prostitutes and repentance are common in both Judaism and Christianity. But the very different roles played by the prostitute in Jewish and Christian literature attest to different views of both women and penitence.
By Tali Artman-Partock Sep.25, 2012 | 8:44 AM
I excerpted this part - the part I found most interesting, actually:
In its first few centuries, and especially the fourth century, Christianity created a new literary genre: stories about repentant prostitutes who become nuns. The plots are usually similar: The heroine of the story is a famous woman living a life of sin, who meets a saintly man. In the wake of this encounter, she finds God, changes her ways and becomes a sexual recluse, a holy woman.
These stories were first told and documented in monasteries in the Roman provinces of Palestine and Syria. Their attractiveness to this particular audience was, of course, twofold. They reinforced a Christian axiom - the spiritual principle holding that there is no one who cannot find God and repent. But they also supplied erotic amusement devoid of guilt feelings in a place that had completely repressed eros and continually cultivated guilt. These stories also stoked the monks' egos, because all the women who repented did so after having met a holy man, so the retelling of the woman's history was always framed in the story of the holy man's life. Thus the repentance of the prostitute always represented a spiritual victory of the monk.
These stories - about Mary of Egypt, Pelagia, Thais and others - spread like wildfire through the Greek- and Syriac-speaking Middle East. They were beautiful, fascinating and brazen, the box-office sensations of the ancient world. They were also playing at a theater near your home: in the Babylonian Talmud, but dubbed into Hebrew, a drama about proper Jewish repentance.
From prostitute to monk
One of the stories that most faithfully represents the Christian genre is the tale of Pelagia - or in the monastic version, the story of the monk who redeemed her, Nonnus. For a special gathering of clergymen and monks at Antioch, the bishop Nonnus is asked to leave his monastery and address the gathered audience. As they are standing outside the church, an entourage passes. At its center is a stunning woman riding on a donkey, her head bare, her body clad in jewels and nothing else. It is the well-known actress Pelagia. All the bishops turn their heads away with disdain, but Nonnus stares, transfixed. Thereafter, he thinks about her, talks about her, dreams about her.
Nor is she apathetic. She hears him in church, and arrives at the understanding that she has taken the wrong path in life. She struggles with the devil, and stubbornly insists on meeting Nonnus. He is afraid to meet her alone. But she has already decided that he is the man who will redeem her. Nonnus baptizes Pelagia; she gives him all her money to distribute to the poor. On the third day, she removes her clothing, dons Nonnus' hair shirt, and heads into the desert.
Years later, one of Nonnus' students comes across her in Jerusalem, living in an isolated monk's cell on the Mount of Olives. He is the only one who knows that she is a woman. In the Land of Israel, she has become the saintly monk Pelagius. Her gender is revealed only when she dies, and even then the other monks try to conceal the fact. But the large crowd that has gathered for her funeral does not let them keep the secret.
This story is one of the more refined tales in terms of sexuality, but it is quite bold in terms of spirituality and emotion. It asserts that sin and holiness have a surprising common denominator: temptation. The bishop's greatness lies in his ability to perceive this. While his friends are deterred by everything she represents, and essentially give up on her, Nonnus is spellbound. In her art of seduction and her devoted adherence to it, he discerns spiritual virtue from which he and his friends can learn.
But his fear of meeting her also reveals the sexual attraction he feels for her. And the delicate work done by temptation is converted along with her. When she decides to abandon the devil, she redirects all the skills she has acquired toward a new objective, a new addressee: Jesus. Her impressive intensity is preserved; it merely changes form. Yet here, too, the implicit erotic link between the two is preserved: She insists on Nonnus alone as her teacher and baptizer, and wears his hair shirt on her body. And Pelagia's next transformation is no less revolutionary than the previous one: In her new life, she chooses to live as a man, and as a monk.
I have put man before monk here, because this choice is first of all one of gender. If every woman, as the second-century church father Tertullian said, is the gateway to the devil, this is because woman is the representation of sexual temptation. In effect, she is sex itself. Man is the pure but weak subject, while sexuality is attributed entirely to women. If this is how every woman is represented, the prostitute - defined by her sexual occupation - is the purest representation of womanhood. In order to be rid of this burden, Pelagia chooses to become not only a nun but a monk, a holy man. She has to completely rid herself of her sexuality, and therefore also her gender.
In a more humane interpretation of the story, one can imagine another motivation for her decision - primarily, considerations of self-protection for someone living alone in the desert, along with an inner desire to create as great a distance as possible between her current and her former life.
The monks' attempt to conceal her true gender following her death reveals the cognitive dissonance and shock in which they find themselves, as well as their own political considerations. The surprise inherent in discovering that a person who lived for years among them, and was considered holy by them, was in fact a woman shatters all the conventions about men and women, and about their attitudes toward holiness. If this were revealed to the masses, how would they interpret the fact that the saint was not only a woman, but a former prostitute?
The same short-sightedness that characterized the conclave of bishops in Antioch, who refused to look at her when she was an actress, is also found among the monks with whom she lived. But the masses, like Nonnus, are prepared to revere a person who changed her life and broke the conventions of both worlds - the world of sin and the world of holiness.
I would very much like to check my Walker The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets but it's packed away somewhere since March (eek) when I ill-advisedly decided I was going to redo my family room. It could be in any one of a dozen boxes holding books and I'm not about to go digging for it. Sigh. I guess I will finally have to start working to get the family redo going, just so I can get my books out of the stacked boxes in the garage!