February 4 – Cyril of New Lake; Theophilus the Penitent

Icon of Cyril of New Lake, before 20th centuryCyril of New Lake (d. 1532) had devout, but not so-devout-they-wanted-their-son-to-become-a-monk, parents, so at age 15 he ran away to the Monastery of the Pskov Caves. At first he couldn’t find them (their being underground and all), but he was helped by a mysterious elder. When he turned around to thank him, the elder had turned into an urban legend and vanished. Cyril shrugged and joined the monastery. His parents gave him up for dead, but years later they rejoiced to learn that he was alive and in Pskov, both of which are better than being dead. His mother immediately joined a monastery, and his father hurried to Pskov to see him. Cyril was reluctant, but the igumen* insisted, and the two were reconciled. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Dad joined the monastery.

Cyril yearned to live as a hermit, and after obtaining permission he left the monastery and wandered western Russia for 20 years, eating roots and berries and looking for a likely site. (Picky lad.) He spent his days walking and his nights praying, presumably getting a wicked case of sleep deprivation. Finally, after a couple of heavenly visions, he came upon a lake in which an island was shooting forth a pillar of fire. As I’m sure you’ll agree, nothing says “home” quite like an island shooting forth a pillar of fire, so he built himself a hut. Knowing the fate of hermits everywhere, he built another one for his inevitable followers. Sure enough, word of his saintly way of life spread abroad (how? bears?), and in no time he had a monastery. He became known for clairvoyance, wonderworking, and healing, and especially for restoring sight to the blind.

One night a pair of thieves came to the (eventual) monastery, intending to steal the bells. They wandered in circles until dawn, when they were apprehended and brought before the abbot. He lectured them about making an honest living, had them fed, and sent them on their way. At one divine service his assistant saw an unknown deacon serving with him at the altar. When the service ended, the deacon disappeared. Cyril told the assistant not to mention it while he (Cyril) lived. (What was that about?) Finally, knowing he was dying, he gathered his monks about him and preached at them until his voice gave out. (Haven’t we all sat through a sermon or two wishing that would happen.) After kissing the brothers and receiving communion, with his last breath he said, “Glory to God for all things!” Amen.

Illumination of Theophilus the Penitent from the Maastricht Book of Hours, circa 1300Theophilus the Penitent (d. ca. 538) was an archdeacon in Adana (currently trapped in southern Turkey) (the town is trapped, not the saint) who found himself elected bishop. He turned the post down out of humility, but when the new bishop relieved him of his archdiaconate, he swore revenge. (Then, as now, humility is capricious in her favors.) Letting his fingers do the walking, he found a local wizard who had Satan on speed dial, and soon was signing—in his own blood, mind—an agreement to renounce Jesus and Mary (the “and Mary” is an important point, as you would have seen faster if you hadn’t read this parenthetical) in return for the episcopal throne.

Within a couple of years, though, the thrill was gone. Being a bishop without a soul palled, and he repented and fasted for forty days. The Mother of God then appeared to him and gave him an earful. He begged for forgiveness, and she said she’d see what she could do. He fasted another thirty days, and she returned and pronounced absolution. Satan still had the contract, though, and a deal’s a deal. Thankfully, Theophilus awoke from sleep three days later with the contract lying on his chest. He took it to the rightful bishop and confessed what he had done, whereupon the bishop burned the document and Theophilus died, happy to be free. Our sources say this was the original “pact with the devil” story on which later ones (Goethe, Marlowe, etc.) were modeled.