October 1 – Romanos the Melodist; Thérèse of Lisieux

Romanos the Melodist (ca. 490–ca. 556) was born in Emesa (modern Homs, Syria) or Damascus (modern Damascus). He was baptized as a boy and moved to Beirut (ancient Berytus), where he was deaconified, then to Constantinople (all shipping lanes led to Constantinople in those days), where he got a job as sacristan at Hagia Sophia.

Romanos was—let us say—sub-Pavarotic vocally. One Christmas Eve, he was in the great church chanting. Horribly. Before he was halfway through they replaced him with somebody who knew where tune buckets hid their handles. The other minor clergy ridiculed him, and he was devastated. He curled up in the corner and fell asleep, whereupon the Mother of God appeared to him, handing him a scroll and commanding him to eat it. “But it’s a strict fast!” he cried. (Kidding.) He ate it, and felt hymnographic power surging through him.

When he awoke the next morning he went back to the church and asked to be allowed to sing. He stood in the midst of the church on the Feast of the Nativity and sang—ex tempore, mind—the first-ever kontakion, “Today the Virgin Gives Birth.” Everyone was amazed, and the other deacons had to eat their hats. (Not as tasty as scrolls, if Ezekiel is any judge.) Nowadays only the first ikos of a kontakion (“kontakion” means “scroll spindle”) is sung in the services; the real deal is up to 19 ikoi long. Romanos went on to write over a thousand of them, of which 80 still survive.

Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897) was, she admitted, “far from being a perfect little girl.” Her mother, a successful business owner, died when she was four years old, and she was devastated, changing from a spunky monkey to a weepy sheepy. At eight she attended a Benedictine day school, where despite struggling with writing and arithmetic, she was a model student. Young and tender-hearted, she was the target of frequent bullying, although her father’s constant love and the companionship of her sister Pauline and cousin Marie helped her through. That and the chocolate (just kidding). When Pauline joined a Carmelite convent, however, Thérèse was once again devastated.

A tremor she had developed was cured one day when she saw a statue of the Blessed Virgin smile at her, but when at the prompting of her sister Marie she told this to the Carmelite nuns, they accused her of lying, and she was . . . devastated. In 1886 she had a “complete conversion” when she learned with a shock that it was her father who left the gifts from the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. Something inside her clicked, and she lost the moping sorrow and self-pity that had followed her since her mother’s death. A year later her application to Carmelitedom was again rejected (on account of of her youth), but was she devastated? No, by golly, she was NOT!

A year later still she went on a pilgrimage to Rome with her father and sister Céline, and was struck by the subsaintliness of the priests they met. She felt called to pray for the subperfect (earlier her prayers had caused a notorious murderer to have a guillotine-side repentance). Upon her return she was finally Carmelitified. She hoped to become a saint, but humbly realized that great works were not required, and she could serve God in a “little way.” She wrote many poems, letters, and prayers; her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is considered a classic. She died after a painful bout with tuberculosis, and is the patron saint of, among others, Belgian and Spanish air crews.