Thus wrote Saint Paulinus of Nola in the early-5th century AD in his biography of Saint Felix of Nola, a confessor who passed to eternal life on January 14 during the persecutions of the 250s AD. In some traditions, St. Felix is a martyr, but in the poetic biography of Paulinus, he is acclaimed a confessor--one who fearlessly preaches the Gospel during dangerous times and who suffered for it but who is not granted the grace of martyrdom. Here is an excerpt from Saint Paulinus's life of Saint Felix, as put into prose by Venerable Bede in the 8th century AD, telling the story of how Felix was rescued from capture by the quick thinking of an industrious arachnid:
But the persecution was not yet over. Felix was again sought for, the enemy came to his house, and again essayed to seize him and deliver him over to death. He was by chance away from home, standing in the market-place with his friends, and teaching to the surrounding people, as was his wont, the word of God. His adversaries, hearing that he was there, rushed thither with drawn swords, but when they came to the place, either his countenance or their hearts were changed by a sudden act of Divine Providence, and they no longer knew him, though up to that day they had known him well. They therefore asked the priest himself where Felix was: the prudent man perceived that it was the work of God, and replied, smiling, "I do not know the man you are looking for." And in this he spoke the truth, for nobody does know himself.
Upon this the persecutors turned their attention elsewhere, and asked those whom they met, where Felix was. One of them, by chance, ignorant of their motives, and thinking they were out of their wits, began to reprove them for their folly in not knowing the man they had been talking to, and at the same time pointed out to them where he was gone. Fired to madness they rushed after Felix, who, warned of their coming by the multitude of citizens that preceded, and by the clamors of the people who were confounded at the enemy’s approach, withdrew to a secret place, which had no other defense than a fragment of a half ruined wall.
No sooner, however, had the man of God entered that place, than he was protected by a work of the Divine hand: for a mound of rubbish suddenly arose and closed in the place, and a spider, by Divine warning, immediately hung its floating web on the abandoned spot. The adversaries approached and halted in awe, saying among themselves, "Is it not foolish for us to look for anyone in this place? It is quite clear that no one has been here before ourselves, for if any one had entered, these spider’s webs could not have remained whole, for even the smallest flies will sometimes break through them. The man who told us he was here must have done so deceitfully, to delay us longer from finding him. Let us return, and refrain from searching this place, the very appearance of which shows that no one has been here before us."
Interior of the paleochristian basilica of St. Felix at Cimitile,
Nola, Italy (near Naples).
Thus foiled, they retraced their steps in anger, and fired with rage against him who had by his deceit led them to the place, to witness the wisdom of our pious Creator and Protector. Surely, the highest walls sometimes betray a beleaguered city, as well as defend it: for Christ protected his humble servant from detection and imprisonment at the hands of his armed enemies by a frail spider’s web: as the venerable father Paulinus says truly on this subject,—"Where Christ is with us, a spider’s web our wall shall be; where Christ is not, our wall a spider’s web shall be."here or here.
The evening was approaching when his enemies departed; and Felix, when they were gone, withdrew to a safer place of refuge, rejoicing in the Divine protection, and singing within himself,―“Though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil, for Thou art with me.” When day dawned, he withdrew to a more retired place among the buildings of the city, where for six whole months he lived apart from men, relying on the protection of the Divine presence, according to the words of the Psalmist―“His countenance was hidden from the fear Miraculous food and water.of men;” and Providence fed him during this long space of time in a manner wonderful and unknown to men.
For a delightful modern retelling of the above story, perfect for young children ages 4-9, see Saint Felix and the Spider by Dessi Jackson and Lydia Grace Kadar-Kallen. Nicely illustrated, the book features a brief biography of Saint Felix after the story. My own children loved it. Highly recommended!