July 8 – Procopius of Scythopolis; Withburga

Procopius of Scythopolis (d. 303) was (per his contemporary Eusebius) the first martyr in Caesarea. Unfortunately for historians, but wonderfully for us, there are many versions of his story. In the most pedestrian (Eusebius’, so likely the most accurate), he was born in Jerusalem and moved to Scythopolis, where he was a reader, a Syriac interpreter, and an exorcist (on successive days, perhaps). He was sent to Caesarea, where he ran afoul of the government (a fairly easy thing for Christians to do back then, as we have seen). Enjoined to sacrifice to the gods, and then to the god-emperors (no, not of Dune), he responded with a pithy quote from Homer (viz., “It is not good to have several masters; let there be one master, and one king”), which so enraged the judge that he was immediately beheaded (Proco, not the judge).

In one of the more interesting versions, when his Christian dad died, his pagan mum sent him to Diocletian, who sent him to Alexandria to be Duke. Along the way he had a Road-to-Damascus experience, and turned aside to Scythopolis (that toddlin’ town) to preach the gospel. His mother finked on him, though, and he was sent to Caesarea to stand trial. In prison our Lord appeared to him again, giving him the name Procopius (“progress”) to replace his birth name, Neanias (“young one”).

He was invited to worship the idols, but destroyed them by his prayers. Between this and his steadfastidity, many bystanders were brought to faith in Christ, all earning decapitation thereby. Nearly every source wants me to mention “twelve women of senatorial rank,”   so I have. Even Procopius’ mum confessed Christ and got in the decapitation queue. After Procopius’ death, pious Christians came, gathered his parts, and buried them reverently.

Withburga (d. 743) was sister to Sexburga (Jul 6) and Audrey (Jun 23), and thus a daughter of King Anna of East Anglia. (Maybe. Bede*, our go-to guy for that era, doesn’t mention her, but maybe she was out of town when he was counting noses.) Her main feast is on March 17, but some other saint hogged that day, so we’re discussing her on the feast of the translation of her relics. She nunned in Holkham until her dad died, whereupon she moved to nearby Dereham and founded a monastery and a church. During its construction, her food budget ran so short she had nothing but dry bread to give the workers. She prayed to the blessed Virgin, who told her to send a contingent of nuns to such-and-such a well. There they found two milkable does. “Milk from does does the trick!” they exclaimed (or should have). The does were there every morning until they were no longer needed. The local overseer took a dislike to Withburga (we will not make any “You want fries withburga?” jokes, so don’t get your hopes up) and sent his dogs to chase the does, but that ended when he was thrown from his horse and broke his neck. There is to this day, I kid you not, a sign commemorating his neck-breakage event in East Dereham.

Withburga died before the construction was finished, and was buried in the abbey cemetery. She was dug up fifty-five years later and moved into the church (by then complete). Pilgrims began to seek her tomb, which aroused the avarice of the abbot of Ely, who, hoping to cash in on the pilgrim trade, sent some armed men to Dereham. These arranged a party for the locals, got them drunk, and stole the body while they were sleeping it off. When the locals came to and realized what had happened, they took off in hot pursuit, and a fierce battle ensued, but it was to no avail. Withburga was re-interred in Ely. She was moved twice more after that, and in 1106, her body was found to be incorrupt, and her limbs supple.

Back in Dereham, a spring (“Withburga’s Spring”) sprang up in the violated tomb, so it continued to be a pilgrimage destination. Take that, Ely.