January 26 – Xenophon of Constantinople and Family; Paula of Rome

Icon of Xenophon and his family, 985Xenophon of Constantinople (V cent.), his wife Maria, and their sons Arcadius and John. Xenophon, a senator, sent his sons to law school in Beirut. Tragically their ship foundered at sea (can a ship founder anywhere else?), and they washed ashore miles apart. Each thought the other had perished, and each was nursed back to health in a monastery nearby. They settled in and became models of monastic piety, glad (one assumes) to have escaped law school a watery death.

Many years after the shipwreck, an itinerant monk looked up Xenophon and Maria (the phone book hadn’t been invented yet, so it took a while), and told them he had met a monk named Arcadius at the St. Savvas monastery in Jerusalem who seemed to have been the victim of a shipwreck. Could this be their son? (I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a good thing he didn’t meet John—there were probably tons of Johns swimming to shore every other week back then. So you see, having a distinctive name can be a great advantage sometimes.) The couple were cautiously overjoyed (mezzojoyed), and caught the next container cargo trireme to Palestine. Fortunately shipbuilding had come a long way in that short time, and they made it safely.

At just that moment a sudden inexplicable desire to visit the tomb of Christ filled all four family members, and they all headed thither[1]. John met a nobleman, however, who thought he was Arcadius, and sent him to find Arcadius, whom another nobleman had mistaken for John’s twin sister, although their identical-twin serving men were—oh wait, that’s Shakespeare. Sorry. In our story they all met at the tomb of Christ in a soggy burst of tears and joy which, according to my sources, I am not fooling, lasted many hours. Xenophon and Maria decided to give away all their possessions to the poor and become monastics themselves, and all four became saints, which is why I just wrote about them.

Engraving or Lithograph of Paula of Rome, date unknownPaula of Rome (374–404) was a pampered Roman noblewoman of a family that claimed to be descended from Agamemnon (a claim his real descendants denied, it must be said). She had a noble husband, five children, and enough eunuch slaves to carry her around the city on a litter. Suddenly, when she was 32, her husband died of unspecified causes NOS. Her children went through an amazing soap opera of marriages, deaths, apostasies and conversions, which I shan’t go into except to say one of her daughters, who did not become a saint, married a senator who did. Trust me, though, the rest of the family’s story is just as uplifting.

My sources say she then fell under the “influence” of St. Marcella “and her group”—Marcella and the Semi-Monastics, I believe—through whom she met Jerome of Vulgate fame (Sep 30). She and her euphoniously-named daughter Eustochium[2] went on to help him edit his famous Bible translation, having earlier learned Hebrew for something to do on those long Roman winter afternoons. Slanders arose that there was something going on between Jerome and Paula, which is uncharitably if obliquely alluded to in the Prologue of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale. (I’ll wait here while you English majors go look it up. Hint: place names.) One of their contemporaries said Paula might have become an even greater saint if only Jerome had let her go to a monastery instead of keeping her around editing and copying manuscripts. And her name doesn’t even appear on the title page. Men.

However that is, between them they founded two monasteries and, unlike every other human being on the planet, underwent “constant annoyances”[3]. She died of natural causes and is buried in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and is, naturally enough, the patron saint of widows.

[1] Of course it could have been placed in them by the Holy Spirit, so perhaps “inexplicable” is something of an overstatement.
[2] Did the kids taunt her at school? We’ll never know.
[3]As per the Catholic Encyclopedia.