Paphnutius and Thais
Thais was the child of Christian parents, and she had heard in her earliest years of God and the Christian faith. But her parents died, and she came to Alexandria very young, inexperienced, and beautiful.
The passions of sinful nature were in league with the allurements of the world, and she trod the path of perdition. As she was not only very beautiful, but also clever and sensible, she won some by her grace, and others by her talent. The fame of her personal charms, and of her miserable way of life, rang through all Egypt, and penetrated even to the ears of the holy and enlightened abbot Paphnutius. What he heard of her did not awaken in him the curiosity of the worldly, or the scorn of the Pharisee, but an unspeakable sorrow that a creature so richly endowed and beautifully made after his image by the Creator, should be faithless to all his graces, and should precipitate herself headlong into hell. Like a good disciple of the merciful Savior, who sat down by the Samaritan woman at the well, Paphnutius longed that she should acknowledge the gifts of God, and God enlightened and guided his holy servant.
He put on worldly attire, took some money with him, and traveled to Alexandria, where he easily found the magnificent house of the beautiful Thais.
Paphnutius caused himself to be introduced to her, and she received him in a splendidly furnished apartment. He then begged her to take him to a room more remote. She did so, but he asked her again if there was not a still more solitary room in her house.
"Yes," answered Thais, surprised; "but what dost thou fear here? No man can see thee, and there is no place in the whole world where thou canst hide thyself from the all-searching Eye of God."
"Thou knowest, then, that there is a God?" asked Paphnutius.
"Certainly," replied Thais; "and I know also there is a paradise of eternal bliss for the good, and a hell of everlasting torture for the wicked."
"O miserable one," exclaimed Paphnutius, "if thou knowest this, how canst thou then condemn thyself to eternal torments, to which thou art sending, not thine own soul alone, but the souls of others also?"
Never in her life, had Thais heard such words. They penetrated her heart like a thunderbolt, and a shower of grace followed them. At one glance she saw the guilt of her whole life. Overcome by the horror of the sight, she fell upon her face, and with many tears exclaimed: "O my venerable father, impose upon me a salutary penance, and by thy prayers obtain for me from God the pardon of my sins! What shall I do? Whither shall I go?"
The holy abbot described to her the gate of a convent of nuns at which he should wait for her.
"I will come," she said; "give me first three hours time, and then I will come without fail."
Paphnutius left her, for he saw that the grace of God was powerfully working in her. It was the age of great conversions, and great penance, the age of great souls, in which grace abounded, as sin had done before. When sinners were converted, they were so grieved for their offences against God, that public humiliation was eagerly welcomed by them. These dispositions rendered possible the public penances of the Church, which consoled the deep sorrow of the sinner, and made satisfaction for his sins, and afforded to the rest of the faithful great edification, and a wholesome example of humility.
Thais collected together all her valuables, jewels, pearls, gold-embroidered garments, all that she possessed of trinkets and rich ornaments, and had them made into a heap in the public market-place, and then set fire to it with her own hand; in the sight of all the people. She did not leave the spot till the costly pile was consumed; the gold melted, the jewels blackened, and the purple and silks reduced to ashes.
Then she went away and sought the holy abbot at the appointed place. Paphnutius received her, and led her into the nuns' cloister, and into the cell which he had ordered to be prepared for her. It was a very small room, with a little opening in the door.
"Here," he said, "thou shalt do penance, and through this little window thou shalt receive daily a small quantity of bread and water. The religious will bring it to thee, but thou shalt never speak to them."
"And how shall I pray?" asked Thais, humbly.
"Thou art not worthy to speak with thy impure lips the Name of God, nor to lift up thy sin-stained hands to heaven, so thou shalt content thyself with turning towards the rising of the sun, and saying: 'Thou who formed me, have mercy on me."
Thereupon he left her, shutting the door, and securing it with a leaden seal.
Thais was alone. So she remained for three years. No human voice encouraged her, no human eye beheld her, no human consolation refreshed her. She felt that one who was unworthy to associate with mankind was still more unworthy to approach God. Without once lifting up her eyes to heaven, she prayed with a truly contrite heart, using no other words but those which Paphnutius had prescribed to her. After three years, the holy abbot thought that Thais had sufficiently purified herself by penance to be instructed in the faith and received into holy Church. But lest he should be moved by untimely pity, and do her soul harm rather than good, he went to the great St. Antony in the desert and besought his advice. The saints so highly esteem the concerns of a single soul, that Paphnutius did not hesitate to make this long and wearisome journey on her account, and Antony bade all his disciples betake themselves to prayer to obtain light in this matter, and then impart to him their opinion upon it.
They all obeyed, and among them Paul the Simple, who had a beautiful vision. He saw a magnificent couch in heaven, and three august virgins watching it. When Paul rejoiced, and with childlike simplicity exclaimed, "That must be for my father Antony," he heard a voice which said: "By no means, for it is for Thais the penitent."
Paul related this in the assembly of the brethren to the great edification of all, and Paphnutius, enlightened in his spirit by this vision, repaired to Alexandria to the captive of God, and taking off the seal from the door, said to her, "Come forth, and tell me how thou hast spent these three years."
Thais answered, "I have prayed as thou didst bid me, and have contemplated day and night the number and grievousness of my sins, and have wept."
"See," said Paphnutius, "God forgives thy sins, not because of thy penances, but on account of thy contrition."
As Paphnutius desired it, Thais left her cell, although she would rather have remained in it. But at the end of a fortnight God called her to himself in heaven.