March 5 — Mark the Ascetic; Piran

Mark the Ascetic (V cent.) was a disciple of John Chrysostom (Sep 13) (or not), and lived as a monk in the Egyptian desert for 90, 60, or some other number of years. He was not only a great ascetic but a spiritual writer, and at one time it was said of him (by “the Byzantines,” whomever exactly that means), “Sell everything you have and buy Mark.” (This should not be confused with “Sell everything you have and buy Marks,” which was obviated when the Euro was introduced.) He wrote on spiritual law, baptism, repentance, and so on, as well as against the Nestorian and Messalian heresies. The latter taught that every person has a personal demon that cannot be conquered even by baptism. I’ve certainly had days when it felt like that, and am comforted to know it’s not true. It is said that Mark once wept over a blind hyena whelp, and the whelp received its sight. The mother hyena brought him a sheepskin in thanks, but Mark forbade her to kill sheep belonging to poor people. We are not told whether he taught her how to tell rich people’s sheep from poor people’s sheep, however, so we don’t know how well she was able to keep his command.

Piran (V/VI cent.) was an Irish missionary very much wrapped up in the identity of Cornwell and the Cornish. Sadly little is still remembered about him, but what little there is, I will relate. He is possibly from the island of Cape Clear in County Cork, and some have thought he was the same person as Saint Ciarán, but my sources are nearly unanimous in opposition to this theory, so I’m not sure why they (or I) mention it.

His story starts with his being abducted by Irish pagans, tied to a millstone, and rolled down into the stormy sea. To their dismay (and his relief), the waters instantly became calm, and what is even better, his stone floated. He sailed across the Irish Sea and washed ashore at Perranzabuloe (“Piran in the Sand”), Cornwall. There he built his first oratory (chapel), which was ultimately abandoned in the tenth century when it became engulfed by the sand. It was excavated in 1910, but was reburied to “protect” it (from what? more sand?). Nearby is a standing stone known as St. Piran’s Cross, the oldest stone cross in Cornwall.

Piran worked as a missionary in Cornwall, and many were converted to the Christian faith due to his holiness and miracles. His name appears in many places, attesting to the great popularity of his cult (veneration) at one time. (He even has a mountain named after him in Alberta, Canada, and how many saints can say that?) He is called the patron saint of tin miners because he “rediscovered” the art of tin smelting, which had fallen into disuse in Cornwall due to—well, due to something or other. This came about on this wise: he had chosen a large black rock for his hearthstone, not realizing it contained tin ore. When it was heated, tin seeped through the rock, and formed a white cross atop the black stone. This is also the origin of St. Piran’s Flag, a white cross on a black field, known also as the Flag of Cornwall. (And quite fetching it is, as I’m sure you’ll agree if you see it.) St. Piran’s Day is the “national” holiday of Cornwall, and people wearing his flag flock to Perranporth to take part in various activities.

His relics (if it’s necessary to say this) have been moved many times. When his first oratory was buried, they were moved into the parish church, and from there parts of him traveled to many places and were installed in many reliquaries, although his head, it is said, remained there in Perranzabuloe. One of his arms ended up in Exeter Cathedral (which is not to say Exeter Cathedral is up in arms), although I was unable to determine why.