July 28 – Irene of Chrysovalantou; Samson of Dol

Irene of Chrysovalantou (d. 912) was born to wealthy parents (a common theme) in Cappadocia (not as common), and was chosen to be the bride of Michael, son of Theodora the Restora (Feb 11) (quite unusual). Irene agreed, no doubt figuring there were worse things than being empress of the Byzantine (she wouldn’t have called it that) Empire.

Along the way, however, she stopped at Mt. Olympus to see (St.) Joannicius, who gave her not only a blessing but a prophecy: she would become a nun at the Chrysovalantou Monastery rather than an empress at the Great Palace (which lived up to its name—nobody who saw it referred to it as the “So-so Palace”). When she got to the capital, she was greeted warmly and told she had been replaced by some other girl. “Hope you don’t mind,” they said hesitantly. “Mind? Ha!” she replied. “Well, she might have tried to seem a little disappointed,” they said as she ran off to the monastery.

At Chrysovalantou she happily settled into a life of poverty (having freed her slaves and given away her samolian collection). When the abbess died, the sisters asked the Patriarch to choose their new leader. “You haven’t got an Irene, have you?” he said. “Oh yeah, her!” they cried, suddenly remembering the old abbess’ recent deathbed nomination. It proved to be a good choice, as Irene had the gift of knowing what a sister was thinking and doing, which (a) saved time, and (b) allowed her to give excellent (if unnerving) spiritual advice.

Near the end of her life she was brought apples by a sailor who had gotten them from a mysterious man, who had gotten them from the gardens of Paradise. For this reason it is customary in some places to bless apples on her feast day. She died at the age of 101 (or 103).

We end with a miracle. Irene was in the habit of praying all night in the courtyard, especially before great feasts. One night an insomniac nun saw the great saint praying, which she had expected, hovering a few feet off the ground, which she had not. She also noticed that two courtyardic cypress trees had bent their heads as if in homage to Irene. At the close of her prayer, Irene blessed the trees, and they stood back up again. Afraid she had seen a demonic vision, the nun came back the next night, and, finding the same scenario, tied handkerchiefs to the tops of the trees, reasoning that if they were still there the next day, what she saw was real. The next day all the nuns saw the handkerchiefs, and eventually the whole story came out. When Irene found out she had been found out, she charged the nuns not to speak of it until after her death. Before or after, clearly they spoke of it, since you just read it.

Samson of Dol (ca. 485–ca. 565), was raised in the abbey of Llanwit Major, Glamorgan (Wales), and (eventually) priested there by (St.) Illtyd. A pillar there that bears his name is thought to be one of the oldest inscribed Christian monuments in Britain. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt (by Illtyd’s ill-bred nephews), Samson removed to Ynys Byr (Caldley).

When the abbot, Pyr, died from falling into a well while drunk, Samson became abbot and teetotal (which both seem reasonable given the circumstances). After a time he returned to Wales, was bishopified, and toured Ireland and Cornwall as a missionary (in that or some other order). He wound up in Brittany, where he founded the monastery of Dol (not Dal, which is lentils) and got a bit tangled up in Merovingian politics. Toward the end of his life he made a journey memorialized in song by Breton bards (and in those parts you weren’t anybody until you were memorialized in song by Breton bards), taking with him seven monks, seven disciples, and seven escorts. His feast is kept in many places in England, due to his arm being granted to a tenth-century king of Wessex for a monastery.