April 19 – Agathangelos of Esphigmenou; Alphege of Canterbury

Agathangelos of Esphigmenou (d. 1819), born Athanasios and baptized poor (or vice versa), joined the Turkish merchant marines to make a living. The Turks were keen to convert him to Islam, and when all else failed he was lured by a judge and his master into a cemetery and held at knife-point. Reasoning that he could convert on the outside but not on the inside, he acquiesced, and suffered himself to be circumcised (the key word here being “suffered”). Eventually he got away and headed for Athos, going from monastery to monastery until he found one (Esphigmenou) that would take him. He was very sincere in his repentence and devout in his actions, but he still felt guilty. He was beginning to consider martyrdom when he got a face full of smoke, causing him to sit down and weep. “Some martyr I’d make if I can’t even stand a face full of smoke!” he reasoned, and, feeling wretched, fell asleep. In a dream or vision the Theotokos promised him he could become a martyr if that’s what he really wanted. He related all this to his spiritual father, and was soon studying for martyrdom under Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V, who was just down the rock at Iveron.

Agatha then returned to Esphigmenou, was locked in a tower, and made 5,500 prostrations a day. After eight days he was tonsured a monk, wrapped a 25-pound chain around himself, and upped his prostrations to 11,000 a day. Not much later, the abbot in a vision saw St. Nicholas tell Agathangelos, “Get on with it.” His fellow monks, in tears, put him on a boat to Smyrna, where he sought out his old master, publicly proclaimed his Christianity, pulled out a cross and an icon of the Resurrection, and began to insult Islam. He was consequently reprimanded, threatened, abjured, flattered, enticed, threatened, and imprisoned, in roughly that order but with some repetition and retrograde motion. He was beheaded the next day and buried in Smyrna, although bits of him (skull, right (or left) hand, right leg (or left foot), and one rib) were later unearthed and sent to Esphigmenou.

Alphege of Canterbury (ca. 954–1012), or of Winchester, was also known as Elphege, Aelfeah, and Godwine (Godwine?). Noble by birth, Alphege defied his mother’s wishes and became a hermit in Bath (stop that snickering). Eventually they made him bishop of Winchester, albeit without securing his permission first[1]. He served in that post for 22 years, and worked unceasingly to eradicate poverty in his diocese, while himself living in great austerity.

When Olaf, King of Norway, started harassing the southern coast, King Ethelred sent Alphege to sue for peace, and it worked. Olaf, already baptized, even agreed to be confirmed at Alphege’s hand before sailing back to Norway and leaving England alone. After a bit, Alphege was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and when the Danes picked up where the Norwegians had left off, the city was destroyed and he was taken captive.

When an inconvenient epidemic arose, he healed many of the enemy through prayer and blessed bread. Eventually the Danes offered to release him if the English could raise 3,000 gold crowns (the coins, not the hats), but Alphege refused to allow the money to be collected. He was therefore led to the scaffold, where the Danes, in a drunken stupor, hurled abuse and rocks. Thorkell the Tall, a Dane of some stature, tried to save him, but to no avail. When Alphege swooned and it became clear that he was suffering greatly, a Christian Dane named Thrum headed him with an axe to put him out of his suffering. His bones were interred in Greenwich, but moved to a shrine in Canterbury after the Danish king, Canute, got an earful from his pious wife about the way their countrymen had treated the archbishop.

[1]As is not unusual in these stories.