November 28 – Stephen the New; Symeon Metaphrastes

Stephen the New (ca. 715–767), (aka Stephen the Younger) was born after his parents had two daughters, despite their constant prayers for a son. They dedicated him to the Lord, and on his sixteenth birthday took him to Mt. St. Auxentius in Bithynia and apprenticed him to the hermit John. When John died, Stephen hermitted on, until he was surrounded by a monastery’s worth of seekers, and was obliged to found a monastery.

Now the emperor at the time was Leo the Isaurion, who was an iconoclast and a persecutor of monastics to boot. Iconoclasm was in its heyday, and soon most of the positions of power in and around Constantinople were filled with iconoclasts (with some packing material, mostly straw, around the edges). Leo was succeeded by Constantine Copronymous (which literally means, and I am not fooling although I am cleaning it up in case children are reading along, “poopy-name”), who was an even worse iconoclast. Stephen boldly decried iconoclasm, and in revenge the powers that be accused him of (NSFW) sexual improprieties with his mother. Nobody believed this, and Anna (his mum) denied it under waterboarding (or the eighth century equivalent), but eventually Stephen was arrested and brought to trial anyway.

At his trial, Stephen took a coin bearing an image of the emperor’s face and asked, “What would it signify if I spat on this coin, threw it to the ground, and stomped on it?” “It would signify that you were going to die soon and unpleasantly,” he was told. “If that is considered an affront to the emperor, how much more of an affront is it to our Lord and His mother when you trample their icons underfoot?” And with that he spat on the coin, threw it to the ground, and trampled it. Rather than die soon, however, he was exiled to various islands, on each of which he founded a monastery.

Finally he was dragged back (or wandered back freely) to the capital, still boldly decrying iconoclasm. He was thrown in jail, where he consoled and instructed exactly 342 iconodules (man, I love that word). The emperor sent (this must be important but nobody says why) twin brothers to slay him, but when they saw him shining with Uncreated Light, they thought better of it, and returned to the emperor, lying that they had done the deed. (They fall out of the story here and one hopes they got away.) The emperor sent a contingent of soldiers who dragged the saint through the streets and tossed him into a pit, dead. The next day a fiery cloud appeared over Mt. St. Auxentius, and a hail storm in the capital killed many people.

Stephen  is one of the saints depicted in the icon “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” and is, delightfully, the patron saint of numismatists.

Symeon Metaphrastes (d. 960), (“the compiler”) (aka Symeon the Logothete (roughly “Secretary of State”)), was (roughly) Secretary of State of the Byzantine Empire. To reward Symeon for his service in successful negotiations with Arab cretins (um, Cretan Arabs) (although I guess there’s no reason they couldn’t have been both), Emperor Constantine IV Porphyrogenitus (“born in the purple”) promised to give him anything he wanted. What Symeon wanted was to retire to a monastery, so in sorrow the emperor let him go. “Pray for me!” Connie cried as the blessed saint strode away. (cue: “Happy Trails to You.”)

Symeon spent the rest of his days collecting and translating lives of the saints (mio paisano!), compiling the vast majority of what we of the Orthodox/Byzantine Catholic persuasion call the Menologion. He also wrote prayers, one of which is included in the Byzantine “prayers before holy communion.” (The one starting “O only pure and incorruptible Lord.”) His feast day on Eastern calendars is November 9.