Wednesday, January 17, 2018

"Ho! What's-your-name, I am Pior, your brother." ~ Saint Pior of Scetis in the Egyptian Desert

Saint Anthony the Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit (by Velazquez, ca. 1634)
Besides being the feast day of Saint Anthony the Abbot, January 17 is also the feast of one of the lesser-known desert fathers, Saint Pior.

As almost no one outside of patristic scholarly circles has ever heard of Saint Pior, here is his brief biography, as taken from the roughly contemporary Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen (penned in the mid 5th century AD):
Pior determined, from his youth, to devote himself to a life of philosophy, and with this view, quitted his father's house after having made a vow that he would never again look upon any of his relations. 
After fifty years had expired, one of his sisters heard that he was still alive, and she was so transported with joy at this unexpected intelligence, that she could not rest till she had seen him. The bishop of the place where she resided was so affected by the groans and tears of the aged woman, that he wrote to the leaders of the monks in the desert of Scetis, desiring them to send Pior to him. The superiors accordingly directed him to repair to the city of his birth, and he could not say nay, for disobedience was regarded as unlawful by the monks of Egypt, and I think also by other monks.
He went with another monk to the door of his father's house, and caused himself to be announced. When he heard the door being opened, he closed his eyes, and calling his sister by name, he said to her, "I am Pior, your brother. Look at me as much as you please." [In the slightly more picturesque version of this story recorded by Palladius in his Lausiac History, Pior opens with, "Ho! What's-your-name, I am Pior, your brother. I am he."] 
His sister was delighted beyond measure at again beholding him, and returned thanks to God. He prayed at the door where he stood, and then returned to the place where he lived.
There he dug a well, and found that the water was bitter, but he persevered in the use of it till his death. Then the height to which he had carried his self-denial was known, for after he died, several attempted to practice philosophy in the place where he had dwelt, but found it impossible to remain there.
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I am convinced that, had it not been for the principles of philosophy which he had espoused, he could easily have changed the water to a sweet taste by prayer, for he caused water to flow in a spot where none had existed previously. It is said that some monks, under the guidance of Moses, undertook to dig a well, but the expected vein did not appear, nor did any depth yield the water, and they were about to abandon the task, when, about midday, Pior joined them. He first embraced them, and then rebuked their want of faith and littleness of soul. He then descended into the pit they had excavated, and, after engaging in prayer, struck the ground thrice with a rod. A spring of water soon after rose to the surface, and filled the whole excavation. After prayer, Pior departed, and though the monks urged him to break his fast with them, he refused, alleging that he had not been sent to them for that purpose, but merely in order to perform the act he had effected. [Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 29].

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Saint Anthony the Great ~ "A time is coming when men will go mad..."

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“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when
they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him,
saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'”

~Saint Anthony the Great
January 17 is the feast day of Saint Anthony the Great, the founder of monasticism. He is reputed to have lived over 100 years, dying in ca. AD 356 after having lived most of his life in the harsh Egyptian desert. Today, he is known by a variety of names, including, among others:
  • Saint Anthony the Abbot 
  • Saint Anthony the Hermit 
  • Saint Anthony of the Desert 
  • Saint Anthony of Egypt
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The quote above is taken from a work known as Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers as translated into English by Benedicta Ward. I have seen bits and pieces of this work all over the internet, but I still need to acquire a copy for myself.

Here are some other samples of quotes from Saint Anthony the Great from the same work:
"God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much." [My God, what would he say about our own age?]
"Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain."
"I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility.'" 
These quotes were picked up from a more extensive list here.

An ancient biography of Saint Anthony was written by his near-contemporary, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, and is available online at From this work may be found the explanation of the strange painting of Saint Anthony featured above (by Bernardino Parenzano, ca. AD 1494) as he is beset by all variety of demonic forces while he lived alone in the ruins of an abandoned fort:
"But those of his acquaintances who came, since he did not permit them to enter, often used to spend days and nights outside, and heard as it were crowds within clamoring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices and crying, '"Go from what is ours. What do you even in the desert? You can not abide our attack."
"So at first those outside thought there were some men fighting with him, and that they had entered by ladders, but when stooping down they saw through a hole there was nobody, they were afraid, accounting them to be demons, and they called on Antony. Them he quickly heard, though he had not given a thought to the demons, and coming to the door he besought them to depart and not to be afraid, "For thus," said he, "the demons make their seeming onslaughts against those who are cowardly. Sign yourselves therefore with the cross, and depart boldly, and let these make sport for themselves."
"So they departed fortified with the sign of the Cross. But he remained in no wise harmed by the evil spirits, nor was he wearied with the contest, for there came to his aid visions from above, and the weakness of the foe relieved him of much trouble and armed him with greater zeal. For his acquaintances used often to come expecting to find him dead, and would hear him singing, "Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, let them also that hate Him flee before His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; as wax melts before the face of fire, so let the sinners perish from the face of God." And again, "All nations compassed me about, and in the name of the Lord I requited them."
Saint Anthony the Great's vividly described torments and temptations have been the subject of numerous magnificent and disturbing works of art down through the centuries, by artists from Giotto and Michaelangelo to Bosch and Dali.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

"The fire marvelous strangely turned back" ~ Saint Marcellinus of Ancona

Terracotta statue of
St. Marcellinus of Ancona,
dated to the early 1300s.
The Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great contain numerous picturesque accounts of late antiquity, all framed within his stories of virtuous men and women of Italy. In many cases, these accounts amount to the only written record of the individuals described that have come down to us from ancient times.

One of these is the curious tale of Saint Marcellinus of Ancona whose feast day is today, January 9. Here is the brief account offered by Pope Saint Gregory to his interlocutor, Peter, of a great miracle wrought by Saint Marcellinus:
GREGORY: "Marcellinus, also a man of holy life, was Bishop of the same city of Ancona [as described in the previous story of St. Constantius], who was so sore troubled with the gout, that being not able to go, his servants were enforced to carry him in their hands. Upon a day, by negligence, the city was set on fire, and though many labored by throwing on of water to quench it, yet did it so increase and go forward that the whole city was in great danger, for it had laid hold of all the houses that were next it, and consumed already a great part of the town, none being able to help or withstand it.
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"In so pitiful a necessity and great danger, the Bishop, carried by his servants, came thither, and commanded himself to be set down right against those furious flames, and in that very place whither the force of the fire did seem most to bend: which being done, the fire marvelous strangely turned back into itself, and as it were cried out, that it could not pass the Bishop. And by this means was it stopped from going forward, [and] went out of itself, not being able to touch any other buildings. By which, Peter, you see what an argument of great holiness it was, for a sick man to sit still, and by his prayers to quench those raging flames." 
PETER: "I do both see it and much wonder at so notable a miracle."
For this reason, the intercession of Saint Marcellinus has been invoked against fire by pious Catholics for centuries.

It is said in secondary sources that Marcellinus was bishop of Ancona from AD 550 through AD 566. I could not find confirmation of these dates in any of the ancient sources I am able to access, but I suppose it is based on his association with the Gospels of Saint Marcellinus, a mid-sixth century manuscript that is preserved in the Museo Diocesano di Ancona to this day.

A fragment of the 6th century Gospel manuscript associated with St. Marcellinus.
If true, it means that the fire at Ancona and St. Marcellinus's subsequent miraculous intervention, took place during Gregory's own lifetime. While he clearly heard this tale second-hand—probably from the same friends who related to him the stories of Saint Constantius of Ancona—his witness is nonetheless contemporary and therefore especially noteworthy.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

“If I am Jonah, cast me into the sea!” ~ Saint Germanus of Constantinople is deposed by Emperor Leo III

Painting of Saint Germanus, borrowed from the Mystagogy
Resource Center's Synaxarion of St. Germanos
Today is the anniversary of an act of great bravery and saintly virtue. On January 7 in the year AD 730, an important bishop resigned his office rather than sign on to the heretical demands of the secular authority. In this case, we are talking about Saint Germanus I, archbishop of Constantinople who stood up to the emperor Leo III when the latter forbade the veneration of holy icons. This was the beginning of the so-called “Iconoclast” period of Byzantine history which was to last over a hundred years until the middle of the 9th century AD.

Here is an excerpt from the near-contemporary Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor recording the event:
In the same year, the lawbreaking Emperor Leo raged against the true faith. He brought in the blessed Germanos and began to entice him with coaxing words. The blessed chief prelate told him, “We have heard there will be a condemnation of the holy and revered icons, but not during your reign.” When the Emperor forced him to say during whose reign he said, “During the reign of Konon.”

The Emperor said, “In fact, my baptismal name is Konon.”

The patriarch said, “Heaven forbid, my lord, that this evil should come to pass through your rule. For he who does it is the forerunner of the Antichrist and the overthrower of the incarnate and divine dispensation.”

Because of this, the tyrant became angry. He put heavy pressure on the blessed man, just as Herod once had on John the Baptist. But the patriarch reminded him of his agreements before he became Emperor: he had given Germanos a pledge secured by God that he would in no way disturb God’s church from its apostolic laws, which God had handed down. But the wretch was not ashamed at this. He watched Germanos and contended with him, and put forth statements to the effect that if he found Germanos opposing his rule, he would condemn the holder of the [patriarchal] throne like a conspirator and not like a confessor.” 
Later, in the same chapter, Theophanes describes how Leo III’s decrees were received in Rome, and the final confrontation between Leo and Germanus:
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“In Byzantium, the champion of pious doctrines—the holy and marvelous priest Germanos—was in his prime, fighting against the wild beast who bore the name Leo and against his henchmen. In the elder Rome, Gregory, a holy and apostolic man who held the same throne as had the prince Peter, caused Rome, Italy, and all the west to secede from both political and ecclesiastical obedience to Leo and his Empire...

But since Germanos was under his control, Leo expelled him from his throne. Through letters, Gregory openly accused Leo of what was known to many...

On January 7, of the thirteenth indiction—a Saturday—the impious Leo convened a silentium against the holy and revered icons at the tribunal of the nineteen Akkubita [a meeting hall in the imperial palace]. But in no way would the noble servant of Christ obey Leo’s abominable, wicked doctrine. He rightly taught the true doctrine, but bade farewell to his position as chief prelate. He gave up his surplice and, after many instructive words said, “ If I am Jonah, cast me into the sea. For, Emperor, I cannot make innovations in the faith without an ecumenical conference.”

He went off to the Platanaion and went into seclusion at his ancestral home, having been patriarch for fourteen years, five months, and seven days.”
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The above passages are taken from Turtledove’s translation of Theophanes which may be purchased here. This book should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in Late Antiquity.

Leo III appointed the much more malleable Anastasius as the new patriarch. Things did not end well for him, however. After Leo’s son Constantine V was deposed by Artabasdos, Anastasius changed his opinion on icons and now opposed iconoclasm, declaring Constantine a heretic. However, once Constantine’s forces defeated the usurper and restored him to the throne, Anastasius was deposed as patriarch and severely punished, being blinded and paraded on an ass through the Hippodrome. Later, he changed his position again to favor iconoclasm, begged Constantine’s pardon, and was restored as patriarch.

Now, as we reflect upon these events from nearly 1,300 years ago, it is well to consider whether our modern Catholic leaders more resemble Saint Germanus or the weaselly Anastasius in their dealings with secular authorities.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Sound advice for parents from Saint John Neumann of Philadelphia

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January 5 is the feast day of Philadelphia's own Saint John Neumann. If you have ever been to his shrine at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia, then you know that his remains are on public display in the lower church of Saint Peter the Apostle parish. Though there are some claims that his body is incorrupt, I do not believe that's the case. In any event, his face is covered by a wax mask which is visible in the photo below.
This photo taken from here.
The biography of Saint John is available in numerous places and is familiar to many Philadelphia-area Catholics. A good brief summary of his life and works may be found by clicking here.

But to get a real sense of what Saint John Neumann was about, it's helpful to delve into some of his writings. Please enjoy the following excerpt from one of his pastoral letters. Here we see the powerful, challenging words of a Catholic prelate who took the teaching role of the bishop seriously. He spoke not words that tickled the ears or made folks comfortable in their sins. Rather, he fearlessly reminded Catholic parents of their grave responsibility to put their own wants and needs second, and to focus on nurturing goodness and piety in their children:
"Frequent the church and not the taverns.
"Banish from your homes dangerous books, the bane of purity in every age, the scourge of modern society.
"Watch over the children whom God hath confided to you, if you would not set the seal to your own condemnation. For Christ's sake who said -"Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God" (Mark 10:14) -- bring them to Him by your good life and holy conversation. Allow them not to grow up in ignorance and vice. Teach them to pray: to pray for all men; benefactors, friends and enemies; to love their homes, their native land, and never to be ashamed of their Religion; rather to be always ready to reply in the spirit of the noble St. Hilary to the Emperor Constantius, "I am a Catholic, I am a Christian; I will not be a Heretic."
Taken from his pastoral letter of November 4, 1854. Click here to read the full letter. 

Would to God that more Catholics, past and present, had listened to this sound advice and taken it to heart. How many of our current societal ills may have been ameliorated?