February 8 – Theodore Stratelates and Cuthman of Steyning

Icon of Theodore Stratelates from the Church of Saint Paraskeva, Adam, Greece. Before 20th century.Theodore Stratelates (d. 319) of Euchaita (in Asia Minor) slew a fierce serpent that lived on a pinnacle and liked to eat passers-by. (I want to ask, How many passers-by does your average pinnacle get? Okay I won’t ask.) He was subsequently made a military commander (stratelates), although he preached the Gospel to the pagans in his off hours. About that time Emperor Licinius demanded that all his military officials sacrifice to the gods. He even lent his own set to Theodore (Pantheon-in-a-Box™ or some other brand), that he might demonstrate his devotion. Theodore chopped them up and distributed the bits (precious metals, you understand) to the poor. The next morning the emperor’s adjutant caught a poor man wearing a chunk of one of these idols. Theodore was then subjected to “refined torture” so gruesome that his disciple Varus could hardly keep his stomach whilst writing it all down (I’m not making that up). Finally, Theodore was crucified.

The next morning he was seated at the foot of his own cross, alive, and totally healed. “Here we go again,” he thought (I assume) as they grabbed him and hauled him off to the emperor. The Christians wanted to rescue him, but he waved them off, citing the example of Christ. Many were healed by touching his robe as he passed by. “Take my body back to Euchaita,” he told Varus just before his decapitation, making him the first saint in this book who actually requested that his relics be moved. (Which they were later that year.)

Statue of Cuthman of Steyning (photo shows head) by Penny Reece, outside the Church of Saint Andrew and Saint Cuthman. 1999 or thereabouts.Cuthman(n) of Steyning (IX cent. or c. 681–VIII cent.) was born in Devon or Cornwall or Chidham (in West Sussex). He was a shepherd, and the Acta Sanctorum tells of his leaving his sheep one day to scrabble for vittles, drawing an imaginary circle around his flock with his staff, and returning to find them obediently standing within the circle, for which reason he is a patron of shepherds, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and creating an unnecessary run-on sentence, although neither of those is particularly unusual for this book.

Finding the shepherding in Devon or Cornwall or Chidham insufficiently remunerative to support himself and his ailing mother, Cuthmann placed his mother and all their belongings into a wheelbarrow, tied a rope to the handles to fling across his neck, and set off “toward the rising sun.” He trudged all the way from Devon (or etc.) until the rope broke, near the River Adur (in West Sussex). There, he felt, God meant for him to stay.

Our saint then proceeded to build a hut for his mother and himself, and then a church. The mother drops out of the story at this point but I hope we may assume she gets better in the relatively healthy air of West Sussex. Either that or she died on the spot.

He dug the foundation, carried the stones (with the help of two oxen, whose names we don’t know (isn’t that the way?)), etc., while the locals watched (they did, it must be admitted, provide the oxen). At one point two youths abscond with the beasts, and refuse to return them. Cuthmann said, “The work must go on,” and yoked the youths and made them stand in (well, pull in) for the oxen. My sources do not say if they returned them after that.

According to the Acta, as the church neared completion Cuthmann had difficulty with a roof-beam, and a friendly stranger turned up and offered impeccable carpenteric advice. “Who are you?” Cuthmann not unreasonably asked. “I am he in whose name you are building this church,” said the visitor. I want to say the visitor then vanished instantly, or even better with a puff of incense smoke, but my sources frustratingly refuse to back me there. But you must admit, he was a carpenter.

The church being completed, Cuthmann preached the gospel, stirred up the locals, and died. The church and vicinity show up in William the Bastard’s charters as “St. Cuthman’s Port” and “St. Cuthman’s Parish,” but eventualy the saint’s relics were removed to Normandy, the church was rededicated to St. Andrew, and the town was renamed Steyning. Our saint was for centuries remembered by few, one striking exception being the figure of a man with a wheelbarrow adorning the flag of Steyning (pronounced “stenning”). In 1938 a play called “The Boy with the Cart” brought the memories flooding back, and a 2007 petition resulted in the church being rededicated to “St. Andrew and St. Cuthmann.”