Today April 22nd the Church celebrates a saint with a rather eyebrow-raising calling. During the time of Patriarch John the Merciful in Alexandria, so the Prologue of Ohrid, Volume 1 January to June says, a young monk entered the monastery, and as soon as he arrived wrote out off the top of his head a long list of women’s names, much like you would do on the long slips of paper to commemorate the Living and the Dead during the Liturgy. Not only was it strange that a monk would have such a long compendium of women’s names exclusively, but what made it shocking was that all these women were prostitutes. How did he know all these prostitutes so intimately? The word soon got out that he was a frequent customer to all the brothels in the city. The brethren, I’m sure, had to be mindful of grappling with quite a few tempting thoughts on that discovery. How could he remain a monk and still visit houses of ill repute and not be excommunicated as a fornicator?
St. Vitalis was born and lived in the Gaza area in the 7th century. At the age of 60, however, the monk took on a calling to travel to Alexandria to redeem the harlots there. This was his operation: he would work at menial and back-breaking jobs during the day to gain wages to visit whorehouses during the night. He would go in as a “john” paying for a girl and a room and shut himself in the room for the entire night. Once inside locked up, he would beg the woman to lie down and sleep while he would spend the entire night in a corner of the room in prayer to God for that sinner. Instead of doing the “dirty” he would pray the entire night and so save her from at least one night of sinning. Imagine the surprise of the prostitutes when instead of having to serve they would be prayed for. The monk Vitalis, (his name incidentally means “full of life”) would make rounds of the brothels, visiting one woman and then another, until he came full circle to the first.
As a natural extension to his many visits, he would develop a relationship with the women and they would get to talking about their lives. It was during these nightly counseling sessions that Saint Vitalis exposed their souls and engaged in intercourse with their spiritual being. As a result many a prostitute abandoned her trade; others married, others entered convents, and still others chose to change their profession. Vitalis forbade all of these women to reveal the reason why he was visiting them. Of course, this created such a scandal for Vitalis that he became the butt of many jokes and presented as evidence for the hypocrisy in the clergy. It was common for men to spit on him, insult him and even beat him up on the streets while walking. In a spirit of humility, he bore the ill will and the shame of his fellow citizens without ever defending himself. Thus he personified the spirit of humility in imitation of Christ, who is abused and slandered without cause and without protesting and whose suffering could end in the face of easy defense. Vitalis escaped from vainglory by concealing his good works from the eyes of men. He never revealed his secret. The truth did not get out till after his death when all his deeds were revealed. There are contrary versions of how he died, but the more plausible one had something to do with an enraged pimp who struck him in the head with a knife after he came out of one of the brothels in retaliation for the monk’s meddling in his business.
After his death, many visited his grave. Many sick became well, and miracles occurred in his spirit. So the hypocrite fornicator with a soft spot for prostitutes became a saint. Which goes to show those who are scorned by men are exulted by God. You can never judge a book by its cover and you can never really tell what happens behind closed doors, even in a brothel. God’s grace can appear to even the most disgraced among us.