On this day in 1919 a tank containing over 2 million gallons of molasses burst, causing a wave up to 15 feet high to sweep through the streets of Boston at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. Whoa. The next time someone tells you that you’re “slower than molasses in January,” smile knowingly.
Our eastern saint today is St. Paul of Thebes (d. ca. 341), commonly referred to as the first Christian hermit. The theory that the first hermit was named Herman has long been derided by respectable historians. Legend has it that after a fight with either his brother or his brother-in-law about his inheritance, he stormed off into the desert to become a monk, and remained so until the end of his days. Well, that about wraps it up — wait, let’s look at some of the wonderful stories that are told about this holy man.
Actually we don’t have a lot of stories, but we do know he was fed by a raven who brought him half a loaf of bread every day. I say “a raven,” but since he lived 113 years, we can’t be sure it wasn’t actually a bunch of different ravens who just looked a lot alike. Paul was more of an ascetic than an ornithologist. St. Anthony the Great, another early desert hermit, visited him, and on that day the raven brought a whole loaf, having apparently been told by a little bird that Paul was having company. Anthony came back a second time with a cloak, a present from St. Athanasius, only to find Paul dead and unburied. Thankfully just then two cool cats from Desert Lion Undertakers, Ltd., arrived, and after Anthony wrapped the body in the cloak, the lions dug the saint’s grave. The same firm helped St. Zosima bury Mary of Egypt nearly 200 years later, which just goes to show that a company with a really good business model can stay in operation a long time, even in the desert. St. Paul is also commemorated by the Catholic Church on this day.
One of the saints celebrated in the west today is St. Maximus of Nola (d. 250), the mentor of St. Felix of Nola, whom we met yesterday. Unfortunately yesterday’s column contained everything that is known about St. Maximus, and today’s column still has over 250 words to go, so we’re going to also look at St. Macarius the Great (ca. 300-391), one of the most famous and well-loved of the desert fathers.
Macarius started his monastic career with a false paternity suit, public beating and shaming, and alimony, all of which he endured with the patience of a — well, of a saint. Eventually his name was cleared, and when the town folk headed out to his cell to apologize and praise him for his saint-like patience, he saw them coming and lit out for the desert. His biographer says that he wanted to avoid being fussed over, due to his great humility. Once in the desert he met two monks who lived together alone on an island, and for some time after he was known to mention them to others in a, “Ha! You call me a monk? Now those guys were monks!” sort of way. He was very humble. Years later he was exiled to an island with another monk. We can only guess what he used as his example after that.
Macarius went on to become a well-loved abbot, and was a great source of wisdom and “words” — pithy, koan-like sayings that the desert fathers gave to their disciples to meditate on. Like St. Nino’s cross, after his death his body undertook a life (so to speak) of travel, being exhumed, moved, and reburied a number of times, each time to great fanfare, numerous miracles, and a really good excuse (ahem). Like St. Paul of Thebes, he is also commemorated by the other team — the Orthodox celebrate his feast day on January 19, and the Copts on April 4.
Boston Molasses Disaster (Wikipedia)
St. Maximus of Nola (Catholic.org)
Paul of Thebes (Wikipedia)
Paul of Thebes (OrthodoxWiki)
Mary of Egypt (OrthodoxWiki)
Anthony the Great (Wikipedia)
Macarius the Great (OrthodoxWiki)
Macarius of Egypt (Wikipedia)
Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (book on paper) (I love this book!)
Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.