October 21st is my birthday. 42 years ago, I was born on this day in Hakodate, Japan. Back when I was young, parents often let their priest decide the baptismal names for the children born into an Orthodox family, and our baptismal names were based on our birthdays. The priest decided I would be baptized as “Pelagia”, because St. Pelagia is commemorated on my birthday according to the Julian calendar (the Orthodox Church of Japan follows the Julian Calendar, since the church was founded by a Russian missionary, St. Nikolai of Japan; they are commemorated on October 8th in the new calendar).
As I got older, I’ve lived in different parts of the world (Japan, Canada, and the US) and became more active in church life. I encountered many people who would call me “Pelagia” in church. This name became especially handy when I traveled to Greece and Slavic countries. The more times I was called “Pelagia”, the more curiosity arose in me. Until then, I took my name for granted for many years and never fully acknowledged what St. Pelagia was like.
So, my search on St. Pelagia began. But wait - there are two women with the name Pelagia commemorated on the same day! Who am I to follow? My parents had no clue, and my baptismal priest had fallen asleep in the Lord as well as my faithful godfather. I decided to read the hagiographies of both saints.
The more well-known St. Pelagia is St. Pelagia the Penitent. She was a promiscuous dancer in Antioch in the 5th century. Her licentious life was dramatically changed by her encounter with St. Nonnus, the bishop of Edessa. She was struck by the Christian messages delivered by him. Soon after, she wholeheartedly repented, became a hermit disguised as a monk, and lived her prayerful life in a small cell near Jerusalem. What an extreme life she had!
Another St. Pelagia is from the 3rd century and also lived in Antioch. Emperor Numerian (282-284 AD) found out that Pelagia, a daughter of a prominent family, was a Christian, and sent his soldiers to capture her and rob her of her virginity. In hopes to remain faithful and pure, she tried to escape from the window and fell to her death. Another extreme life!
Who is my St. Pelagia, and how should I follow either of them in their paths to follow Christ? Their lives appear to be almost too extreme and difficult to exemplify. Although I didn’t choose my baptismal name by myself, I imagine this is probably the case for many people when they choose their Orthodox patron saints. Virgin martyrs, royal queens and princesses, monastics - all these saints are very inspiring, but not easily attainable examples for average people.
While I often struggled with finding a meaningful connection to both St. Pelagias, I have come to embrace them both no matter what. Both St. Pelagias had so much love and dedication to Christ, and that teaches me to look deeper into my own faith.
I don’t think I can jump out of the window to remain pure. I don’t think I can leave all my earthly possessions and become a hermit. I have responsibilities as a wife and mother of two daughters. I direct the choir at my parish, so I cannot abandon that responsibility and run to the monastery (at least, not yet).
My life has so many earthly connections, which are difficult to let go of. Is that bad? I hope our Christ is merciful to me. At the end of the day, whether a harlot, a hermit, a virgin martyr, an aristocrat, a teacher, a doctor, a homemaker - whatever path we choose, we are all led to live our life in Christ through communion and prayers. We try to do what we can. Our 2000 years of history has it all, and no one is perfect.
Of course, our modern life could be complicated, but it doesn't have to be all that. My father simply thought “it was good” for me to be a part of this church. My parents let the priest choose the baptismal name based on my birthday. That simplicity in faith is probably more natural than a cerebral understanding of the church. So, I surrender myself and accept my name “Pelagia” as a part of who I am. St. Pelagia the Virgin Martyr and St. Pelagia the Penitent, intercede to God for us, sinners!
Miho Ochiai Ealy grew up in the Orthodox Church in Japan. As clergy wife in an OCA parish in Ohio, she serves as choir director, organizes events, troubleshoots the audio system, and raises their two young daughters. She worked as a healthcare chaplain until the lockdown. She holds a masters degree in pastoral studies, a master’s of arts in theology, and a bachelor’s in international cultural studies. She is a member of the OCA’s Clergy Wives Advisory Group and facilitator of the OCA’s Thriving in Ministry program. She serves on Axia's operating board.