23 November 2009

'That Through Thee I May Come at the Sight of His Holy Face'—St Nonnus of Heliopolis

No, my dear readers, I have not yet seen my own laptop fixed, but as my good wife is out of town until late this evening, I have availed myself once again of her computer in order to offer this small post. I apologise for its lateness, but I didn’t want to miss entirely the opportunity to post a particular story about one of today’s Saints.

This morning, 10 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Nonnus, Bishop of Heliopolis (471). Helen Waddell points out that the Council of Chalcedon referred to St Nonnus as ‘“Amantissimus Dei”, a great lover of God, [which] was almost Byzantine common form, but when they spoke of Nonnus, the added the word nimirum, beyond question’ (The Desert Fathers, trans. Helen Waddell [NY: Vintage, 1998], p. 183). Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 181):

He was renowned as a great ascetic in the Tabennisiot monastery in Egypt, because of which he was chosen as bishop in 448, in the diocese of Edessa. He was later translated to the diocese of Heliopolis, and there brought thirty thousand Arabs to the Christian faith. After the death of Bishop Ibo, St Nonnus returned to Edessa, where he remained till his death in 471. Through his prayers, the notorious sinner Pelagia was brought to the Christian faith. She was later glorified for the holiness of her life (see Oct. 8th).

It is this connection with the renowned penitent, St Pelagia, that constitutes one of St Nonnus’s chief claims to fame, as well as the subject of the story that I wished to relate. St Pelagia’s hagiographer, James the Deacon, relates that St Nonnus was ‘a man marvelous great and a mighty monk of the monastery called Tabenna’ who ‘by reason of his rare and gracious way of life . . . had been reft from the monastery and ordained a bishop’ (Waddell, p. 186). According to James, St Nonnus was once in Antioch speaking with some of the other bishops who had wished to ‘have some instruction from his lips’, when the shameless Pelagia went riding by in all her splendour (p. 186). Then the holy Bishop, having prophesied that God would set Pelagia in judgement upon him and the bishops, said:

What think you, beloved? How many hours hath this woman spent in her chamber, bathing and adorning herself with all solicitude and all her mind on the stage, that there may be no stain or flaw in all that body’s beauty and its wearing, that she may be a joy to all men’s eyes, nor disappoint those paltry lovers of hers who are but for a day and tomorrow are not? And we who have in heaven a Father Almighty, an immortal Lover, with the promise of riches eternal and rewards beyond all reckoning, since eye hath not seen nor ear hath heard nor hath it ascended into the heart of man to conceive the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him—but what need is there of further speech? With such a promise, the vision of the Bridegroom, that great and splendid and ineffable face, whereon the Cherubim dare not look we adorn not, we care not so much as to wash the filth from our miserable souls, but leave them lying in their squalor. (pp. 187-8)

After the liturgy the next day, when St Nonnus preached to the people ‘of the wisdom of God that dwelt in him, with no alloy of artifice or of philosophy, naught unfitting, naught of human vanity: but full of the Holy Ghost, he reasoned with and admonished the people, speaking from his heart of the judgment to come and the eternal blessedness that is in store’ (p. 189), Pelagia happened to be in the church and was moved to tears of repentance. She wrote to the Bishop:

And thou my lord, who art a great saint, although thou hast not looked with the eyes of the flesh on the Lord Christ Himself, who showed Himself to that Samaritan woman, and her a harlot, at the well, yet art thou a worshipper of Him, for I have heard the talk of the Christians. If indeed thou art a true disciple of this Christ, spurn me not, desiring through thee to see the Saviour, that through thee I may come at the sight of His holy face. (p. 190)

Thus, St Pelagia came to him and begged to be baptized. When she had received Holy Baptism and the Mysteries, she gave away all of her goods and on the eighth day stole away in the night to live out the rest of her life in a cell on the Mount of Olives.

The illustration above, from a 14th-c. manuscript, shows St Nonnus praying for St Pelagia.

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