April 14 – Martin the Confessor; Bénézet the Bridge Builder

Martin the Confessor, Pope of Rome (d. 655) was no sooner papified when the monothelite[1] book The Pattern of Faith was published by Emperor Constans II. Connie and the Constantinopolitan Patriarch were of one mind on this (get it?), but Martin defied them, calling a council in the Lateran which condemned the heresy. There might have been some bickering about how ecumenical the council was, but its findings were affirmed by the Third Council of Constantinople, and everybody who’s anybody accepts that one as ecumenical.

The emperor sent an envoy to drag Martin to the capital to stand trial, but the envoy instead hired an assassin, who was struck blind. A second envoy imprisoned Martin on an Aegean island for a year, where he grew ill through hunger and maltreatment. At his trial he was accused of colluding with the Saracens and other absurd things, and was not even allowed to speak in his own defense. He softly said it would be kindest if they would just put him to death right there, but kindness was not on the docket. He was dragged through a crowd scene frighteningly reminiscent of Holy Friday, and thrown into prison.

When the Patriarch heard about these goings on, he repented of his part in them, and upon his pleading, Martin’s death sentence was commuted to exile to the Crimea. Given his broken health, however, it proved a short exile. He is considered a confessor in the eastern church, and a martyr (the last such pope) in the west.

Bénézet the Bridge-Builder (ca. 1163–1184) was a shepherd. One day, he stopped some children from taunting an old Jewish woman. She blessed him and told him the location of a secret treasure. Later, during a solar eclipse, a voice spoke from heaven saying, of all the improbable things, “Bénézet, go to Avignon and build a bridge. I’ll watch your sheep. Here, follow this angel.”

Sure enough an angel appeared and led him to Avignon. He explained his mission to the bishop, who suggested to the magistrate that his (Ben’s) hands and feet be chopped off. The magistrate pointed to a hundred-quintal stone (and they made quintals pretty heavy in those days), and said, “Use this one first! Hahahaha!” (Or “Héhéhéhé” or however they laughed in France back then.) The townfolk gathered to watch Bénézet make a fool of himself.

Bénézet blithely wandered over, grabbed the stone, and placed it in the stream. The crowd went wild! The blind could see, the deaf could hear, the crippled could walk, and the hunch-backed straightened up and heard their spines pop (that’s all in my source). In all, eighteen miracles occurred. The magistrate was struck with remorse (he could have been struck with worse), and coughed up 300 sous, the crowd volunteering 5,000 more. Added to the money from the old Jewish woman, it was enough, and before you could say something that takes seven years to say, the bridge was built. Sadly Bénézet passed away before it was completed, but a chapel was built on one end, and he was buried therein. The bridge was destroyed by floods some 500 years later, and only the chapel and four arches remain. But it lives on in song, for it is the bridge in the old French chanson:

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond.

Although my sources say it is now called the Pont St. Bénézet, as I am sure you’ll agree is only fitting.

[1]Readers will recall that monothelitism is the (heretical) belief that Christ had only one will, rather than two: a divine and a human. The latter is the belief of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.