August 4 – The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; Jean-Marie Vianney

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (III cent. but read on) (aka the Seven Holy Youths of Ephesus) were a group of rich friends who had enlisted in the army together and ran up against Decius’ tiresome “everybody must sacrifice to the gods” policy. Naturally, they declared their faith in Christ. They were stripped of their epaulettes, but Decius decided to let them live in hopes they would come to their senses. “Yeah right,” they muttered, shuffling off to live in a cave on Mount Ochlon, which as near as I can tell only exists in this story (although there is an Ochlon Valley in Herefordshire). They regularly sent their youngest member (Iamblicus) into town to buy bread. One day he ran back saying, “Decius is back!” They considered turning themselves in, but it was too late (it was already after five). Decius had learned of their cave, and had the mouth sealed with stones. Two of the masons were Christians, though, and they planted a time capsule inside containing a plaque telling the whole story. What the youths were doing while all this was going on, we are not told.

Two hundred years later, the landlord found the rock wall and had it torn down out of curiosity, or some shepherds tore it down to use the cave for their sheep. The youths awoke, and, as their clothes were as good as new (and this was before Scotchgard), they didn’t realize they had Rip van Winkled away two centuries. Once again they sent Iamblicus into town, but when he tried to cash a 200-year-old coin, the authorities nabbed him and took him to the magistrate-cum-Bishop. His tale made no sense to them, so he led them to the cave. The sleepers came out, and everyone rejoiced, taking their story to be a living parable of the bodily resurrection of the dead, which was apparently a matter of some dispute in that place at that time.

Emperor Theodosius II saw all this on the news (or equivalent) and came to see the youths, who greeted him cordially, then laid down and died. He wanted to build them jeweled coffins, but they appeared to him on Saint-o-Vision and said, “Just let us lie in the cave.” So he did. (Their bones were rediscovered in the twelfth century.) Their story was so widely told that a (somewhat mangled) version of it is even recorded in the Qur’an. In that version they were also buried with a dog, who kept watch near the mouth of the cave, which Muslim scholars locate in western China. Clearly this story has legs. Long legs.

Jean-Marie Vianney (1786–1869) was mistakenly drafted in to the army despite his seminarian exemption, but got left behind when his unit mobilized. Twice. He was trying to catch them up when a stranger led him to a sylvan colony of deserters. Unimpressed, John turned himself in, but the mayor said, “You’re already dead meat, you might as well hang out here.” So he did. He did have a close brush with fate once—he was hiding in a haystack and the gendarmes poked it with their swords.

In 1810 Napoleon declared an amnesty for deserters, so John went back to seminary. Being an indifferent scholar (“Latinus, Schmatinus,” as he never said), he flunked out. Nevertheless he was very holy, so he was ordained and assigned to the parish of Ars-en-Dombes (population 203, sa-lute!), where he served for forty-one years. Through his patience and love and the grace of the Holy Spirit, he transformed the spiritually torpid town into a hive of the godly. “Our pastor is a saint; we’d better do what he says,” they said (I make this not up). Jealous fellow-priests denounced him to the bishop, saying, “He’s crazy.” The bishop replied, “If that’s crazy, I wish you all were crazy.” (I make this not up either.) John was also a wonderworker, and prayed food into being for a local orphanage on more than one occasion. He died peacefully, and was in 1929 declared the “principal patron of parish priests.”