April 12 – Isaac of Spoleto; Sabas the Goth

Isaac of Spoleto (d. 550), aka Isaac the Syrian, should not be confused with the far famouser Isaac of Syria. Our Isaac emigrated from Syria to Spoleto, where he was given permission to remain in the church (building). There he prayed for two and a half days before being struck by one of the wardens, who called him a hypocrite. Immediately an evil spirit entered the warden. He cried for help, Isaac exorcised him, and before you could say “I’m not really a hypocrite I just like to pray,” people were lined up around the block seeking Isaac’s blessing, offering to build him a monastery, handing him brochures for double-pane windows, and so on. Overwhelmed, he headed out into the sticks to live as a hermit, with the usual results—disciples materialized, a lavra* was formed, and he became a model abbot.

And that’s about all we know about him biography-wise-speaking, but we have lots of great stories. I give you three.

One evening, Isaac instructed his monks to leave their shovels in the garden, and put extra glop in the breakfast pot. While they slept, thieves snuck in to steal from the garden, but upon seeing the shovels they squealed with delight and worked all night digging. In the morning, Isaac thanked them for their work, fed them, and told them to come back any time and take whatever produce they needed. Heh.

Another time, beggars dressed in rags begged for money for new clothes. Isaac sent a monk to a certain tree in the woods, and he came back with beautiful new clothing for the beggars. Which, of course, was the beggars’ own. Heh, heh.

Yet another time, a man sent his servant with two baskets of meat (or beehives) for the monks, but he hid one and only brought one to the lavra. “Thank you,” Isaac said. “But let me warn you: some poisonous snakes have crawled into the other basket (or beehive). You could get bit.” He might well have added, “Here, take this shovel.”

Gregory the Great, who wrote these things, said Isaac’s sense of humor ran toward “extreme joviality.”

Sabas the Goth (334–372) was zealous unto annoying. When the Christians in his town were commanded to eat meat sacrificed to idols, some of their pagan relatives conspired to swap out the guilty meat with innocent meat, so the Christians could eat it with a clear conscience. “No true Christian would do such a thing!” Sabas said, wringing his hands and/or pointing his finger. He was so obnoxious they kicked him out of town, but soon everybody cooled down and welcomed back. A year later, the officials came around asking, “Have you any Christians?” The pagans were going to say they’d all gone away, but Sabas made such a fuss, they instaed said, “Just one.” The officials took one look at Sabas and decided to go persecute somewhere else.

The next year, Sabas was staying with a priest named Sansala. The officials raided the house, bound Sansala, and dragged him out of the narrative. Sabas himself, naked, was bound and dragged through the briars, and also whipped and whapped. When day came, he pointed out that despite his rough treatment, he had no wounds or marks. (We are not told he said “nyah nyah nyah.”) His captors tied him to a makeshift rack. When they stopped for the night, a peasant woman untied him, and he helped her fix breakfast for everybody (hopefully with at least an apron on). The officials were told to kill him, but as they dragged him off, one of them said, “Nobody’s going to know if we let him go.”

“Whoa, what are you saying?” Sabas said. “I’m all set to wear the martyr’s crown and you’re getting cold feet? Get on with it.” So they tossed him in the river and held him under with a log until they were sure he was good and dead. His body was found by local Christians and shipped to Cappadocia, along with the story you just read.