November 9 – Theoctiste of Lesbos; Benen of Ireland

Theoctiste of Lesbos (ca. 828–ca. 882) was orphaned young, and sent to a monastery by relatives. She took to monasticism like a proverbial does to cliché, and memorized a good bit of the psalms, prayers, and services. One year she went to visit her sister, who was not raised in the monastery (wait—what?), for Pascha. But before you could say “Indeed He is risen,” they were captured by Arab pirate slave trader types and hauled off to their secret regrouping point on Poros, some 300 km WSW as the ship sails. There the pirates took their captives ashore to set asking prices on them.

Theoctiste somehow escaped their evil clutches (or Christian Dior handbags or whatever it was they carried), and ran away into the wilds of the wilderness. (Paros now has a fully panoply of amenities, but that is now and this was then.) In the woods she found an abandoned church and dwelt there, subsisting on sunflower seeds and prayers, of which she knew many, as previously established.

Some 35 years later, a group of hunters came ashore, and one (whose name was Simon) chanced upon the ruined church, went inside to pray, and saw in the dim light a human figure in the corner by the altar table. “Wait! Don’t come near!” it said. “I’m a naked woman and it wouldn’t be seemly.” So the hunter turned away and tossed his outer cloak to her over his shoulder. Once cloaked, she met him in the nave, and he saw that she was a gray-haired old woman (of about 53—a diet of sunflower seeds can prematurely age anyone, as studies have shown). She told him her story, and begged him to return with a particle of reserved sacrament.

A year later Simon indeed returned, bringing the precious Sacrament as requested. Theoctiste fell to the ground, said all the prayers before Liturgy that she remembered, and partook of the Body and Blood. The next day the hunter returned, saw that she had died, and buried her in a shallow grave nearby. But he impiously cut off her hand to take with him as a souvenir. Bad idea. A great storm came upon the ship, and when the morning dawned, they were right back where they started. Simon returned the hand to its owner, and as they sailed away, he told his shipmates her amazing story. Moved, they returned to the island to venerate the blessed saint, but when they opened the grave, it was empty.

Benen of Ireland (d. 467) (aka Beningus), son of an Irish chieftain, was baptized by (St.) Patrick (Mar 17) as a lad. Smitten by Patrick, Benen wanted to do some good thing for the great man, so when he saw insects creeping onto Patrick’s cloak as he lay sleeping, he (Benen) found some flowers with insect repellant-properties, and bestrew him (Patrick). Benen’s parents scolded him, but Patrick said, “Cut it out, you guys. He’s a good kid. Wait and see, he may do great things for Ireland one day.” As usual, he was right.

When Patrick returned to his chariot, Benen “rolled himself into a ball” (a trick he doubtless learned from the insects) and clung to Patrick’s feet. The bishop took Benen as a disciple, and when he was old enough, he accompanied Patrick from church to church, becoming his Reader and bearing the title “Patrick’s Psalm-singer.” He went on to succeed Patrick as Bishop of Ireland and evangelize Counties Clare, Kerry, and Connaught. He was known for his gentleness, charm, beautiful singing voice, and ability to roll himself into a ball.

We end with a tale. One day Patrick and eight disciples were going somewhere. They had to pass a band of bad guys, but Patrick said a word, and they became in appearance as a herd of deer. At the rear came a little fawn with a bundle on his back—it was Benen carrying his service books.