When a saint is canonized today, his or her historical background is first thoroughly investigated. Centuries ago, when it was local bishops who approved the cult of saintly people, the approach was not so scientific. Thus certain persons came to be popularly venerated as saints about whose holiness or even whose existence there have since been some doubts.
For instance, in the eastern Christian churches there is a feast on October 8 of St. Thais, a reformed prostitute. The Roman Martyrology (the list of saints drawn up for the Latin or western church) does not commemorate her.
The traditional story of the conversion of Thais is nevertheless fascinating and deserves to be recounted. Thais, the legend tells us, lived in Egypt in the fourth century. She had been brought up a Christian, but had foregone all standards of Christian morality, shrewdly selling her physical charms, and becoming a woman of wealth and notoriety.
Now, this was also the century when Egypt was experiencing its monastic revolution. Thousands of Christian men and women were inspired to flee to the deserts and become monks or nuns. One of these leading Egyptian monks decided to see if Thais could be converted from her life of sin to a life of penance. The monk is usually identified as the aged St. Paphnutius; but some versions of the legend call him Serapion; others, Bessarion.
Paphnutius, runs the story, doffed his religious habit for the time being, and donning secular clothes, went to the city (probably Alexandria) and knocked at the prostitute’s door. When she let him in, he said he wanted to speak to her, but in a more private place.
“What is it you fear?” she said. “If men, no one can see us here; but if you mean God, no place can hide us from His eye.”
The disguised monk was amazed. “You know that there is a God?”
“Yes,” she answered, “and I moreover know that Heaven will be the portion of the good and everlasting; Hell, the punishment of the wicked.”
“Is it possible,” he continued, “that you should know these truths and yet dare to sin and draw so many after you, before Him who knows and will judge all things?” As he continued to speak with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Thais began to see the inconsistency of her situation. She could recite the basics of the Faith, yet her actions contradicted it.
Finally, she broke down in tears. Throwing herself on her knees, she begged him, “Father, tell me what to do.” He told her he would return. Meanwhile, she promised to rid herself of her possessions. She hastened to take out into the public square her furniture, jewels, and other items acquired by sin. After inviting all who had given her these presents to join her in penance, she set fire to the pile. Then she hastened to the place of meeting designated by Paphnutius.
Paphnutius took her to a monastery of nuns. There he prescribed a stringent penance. She was to be locked into a sealed cell and be given only bread and water. For prayers, he directed that she simply face the east and repeat, again and again, the petition “Thou who hast created me, have pity on me.”
It was a painful assignment, but Thais accepted it in good grace, and mourned her way to holiness. After three years, Paphnutius, having consulted with other monastic leaders, released her. “God,” he now assured her, “has blotted out your sins.” Thais then went to join the rest of the nuns who lived the community life, but God took her to Himself two weeks later.
Catholic scholars are inclined today to consider the story of Thais, whatever her actual history, more fiction than fact, and to be repelled by the mode of penance imposed on her, however obediently accepted.
However, whether parable or fact, or a little of both, the tale of St. Thais simply restates, does it now, the doctrine of the infinite mercy that God is ready to show to His prodigal sons and daughters.
–Father Robert F. McNamara