May 23 – Michael the Black-Robed; Desiderius of Vienne

Michael “the Black-Robed” of St Sava Monastery (IX cent.) was born in Edessa, distributed his worldly goods to the poor, and wandered off to Jerusalem, then under “Mohammedan” (how often do they update these websites?) control. He settled into St. Sava’s Monastery, living a life so quiet that the hagiographers have nothing to say about it until a certain fateful day. On that day they sent him to Jerusalem to sell “goods,” presumably produced by the monks to earn their living. (Tapestries? Woven baskets? Tofu pemmican? Drat these sources!) At any rate the goods were well-made and fine, and pleased Empress Seida’s eunuch so much that he took Michael back to the palace, so he could present them in person.

The empress took a liking to Michael, if you get my drift, and attempted to lead him into sin[1]. When this didn’t work she got downright unhappy, and ordered him beaten with rods, then brought before the emperor on charges of being an enemy to Islam.

The emperor grilled him (metaphorically, although that’s not always the case), and implored him to convert to Islam. “Look,” Michael said, “let’s quit the pussyfooting around” (my interpolation). “Either let me go back to my monastery, or admit Jesus is Lord and get baptized, or just kill me so I can go to meet him.”

“Here, have a refreshing drink,” the emperor said, handing Michael a cup laced with poison. “Don’t mind if I do,” said Michael, drinking the draught and coming to no harm at all. Now it was the emperor’s turn to be unhappy, and he ordered Michael beheaded. The monks from St. Sava’s came and collected the body, and Daniel, igumen* of the Kievan Caves, saw the holy martyr’s relics on a visit to Jerusalem some 300 years later.

But why, I hear you cry, is he called “black-robed”? I wish I could tell you.

Desiderius of Vienne (d. ca. 608) was born in Autun, France, and if that’s the worst thing you can say about somebody, they’ve led a good life. He was educated and bishopified in Vienne (which is not Vienna, in case you were confused—I was). He called to task both the clergy and the royalty, who had become “lax,” for values of “lax” you don’t share with the grandkids. Of the clergy’s reaction, I have no reports, but the royalty were not amused. Queen Brunhildis (or Brunehaut), whom he accused (no doubt accurately) of incest and other things, sought revenge by writing to the pope (Gregory the Great, Sep 3) that Desiderius had been teaching pagan works to the priests (he was lecturing on Latin grammar from classical works). Gregory wrote the bishop telling him to knock it off, and also asking him to put up Augustine (who would soon be called “of Canterbury”) (May 27) on his way through town.

Desiderius was temporarily banished (the timing here is confusing—did he not put up Augustine? did some further letter come from the pope?), but when Gregory finally wised up to Brunhidis’ lies, Desiderius was restored, and began immediately to call people onto the rug for what they did under the duvet, including Brunhildis’ grandson, King Thierry (II, for those keeping score) of Burgundy. In a fit of projection, Thierry accused Desiderius of an improper relationship (with a lady named Justa), and once again the bishop was exiled. He returned having apparently not learned his lesson, for he once again rebuked Thierry for his shouldn’t-ottas. He was taken into custody by a contingent of soldiers, three of whom took it upon themselves to relieve him of his life (via either strangling or stoning). The place this took place is now called St.-Didier-de-Charalaine. His relics have managed to remain in Vienne, which is admirable—you know how peripatetic some relics can be. His prayers are invoked against fever. I wish I could add, “and against teachers of Latin grammar.”

[1] “Which sin?” you ask? If you have to ask. . . .