February 26 — Porphyry of Gaza

Porphyry of Gaza (ca. 346–420) (aka Porphyrius) at 25 left his cushy life in Thessaloniki to seek a monastic calling. He spent some time in Scetis*, Egypt, where he lived under the rule of Macarius the Great (Jan 15), and met the famous Bible translator Jerome (Sep 30). After a brief visit to the Holy Places, he settled down as a solitary hermit in a cave in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. All went well for about five years, when he developed some kind of leg condition (not one of the good ones), prompting him to make a trip to the city, which had a better assortment of doctors than the Jordanian wilderness, at least in those days.

At the foot of Golgotha he had a vision in which Christ, coming down from the Cross, told him, “Take care of this wood for me.” When he woke up there was no wood anywhere, but his legs were healed. At this point, a friend and disciple named Mark comes into the narrative out of thin air. He was sent to Thessaloniki to sell off Porphyry’s property, and when he returned, the two distributed the proceeds to the poor. Then Porphyry, feeling the entrepreneurial bug, took up shoemaking.

Time passed.

He was priested at 45 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and put in charge of the Wood of the True Cross™, fulfilling the vision he had had years before. When the bishop of Gaza died, the Metropolitan of Caesarea (John by name) appointed Porphyry. (One of my sources attaches this incident to his 45th year, rather than his priesting—you know how sources are.)

The goings in Gaza were grim, and the three little Christian churches there felt pretty put upon by their pagan neighbors, who had temples by the score, and idols in every last one. The Christians were being passed over for all the cushy government posts, and even had a higher tax rate than the pagans. To make matters worse, when our saint got to town, they were suffering a terrible drought. Well, to be honest, the pagans were suffering the drought too, and were vexed their gods weren’t answering their prayers. Porphyry called for a fast and served an all-night vigil, and whammo! instant clouds and rain, complete with lightning. Seeing this miracle, many pagans converted to Christianity. Did I say “many”? There’s no need to be vague. It was 127 men, 35 women, and 14 children. Exactly[1].

Still, things remained tough for the Christians. Porphyry sent Mark to Constantinople, but when that didn’t change anything, he and Metropolitan John caught the next regularly scheduled ferry to the capital. There they proposed a deal with the Empress Eudoxia, mother of many daughters: if she would prevail upon Emperor Arcadius to give them permission to destroy all the pagan temples in Gaza, they would prevail upon God to give her a son. She agreed, both sides came through, and soon the Empress was nursing an heir, and the two bishops were winging it back to Gaza with an edict and a bank check[2] (covering the cost of one new cathedral) in hand. Eight temples were destroyed, and on the site of the largest, a new church called the Eudoxiana (after you-know-who) was built.

In 415, Porphyry attended the Council of Diospolis, at which Pelagius, a British (or Bretagne) monk named after a famous heresy, was deemed to be in agreement with the teachings of the Church. Foolishly, Pelagius went on to write nasty things about Augustine, which caused his case to be re-examined, leading to his anathematization. (Which is fun to say—try it!)

Porphyry lived out his days in office, protecting his flock from “vexatious” pagans (whatever could they be unhappy about?), and died in peace.

[1] My sources didn’t give a cut-off age separating the groups. Yet another exercise left for the reader.
[2] Or “cheque”.