December: St. Patapius, the reluctant celebrity

Saints with Funny Names


Editor’s Note: Each month, senior writer Susie Lloyd profiles Eastern-rite Catholic saints on This month in Saints with Funny Names learn about St. Patapius of Thebes.

It always happens. You go off to be by yourself and the kids find you. You just want to pray and savor the silence but it’s, “Can you help me? What do I do? Can you figure this out?” December’s saint with a funny name knows how it feels.

St. Patapius was born in Thebes, Egypt, in the rocking fourth century. Actually, Thebes, which had been the capital about a thousand years before, had dwindled to just a small village by then. It was still too noisy for Patapius. His noble Christian parents had given him the very best education in the sciences, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy. But they had also taught him the Scriptures and everything else paled in comparison. O vanity of vanities. He just wanted to go off and contemplate God, alone in silence.

What could be more hospitable to a life a prayer, fasting, and obscurity than the local Egyptian desert? There was nobody around for miles except a few friendly lizards. Alas, it wasn’t to last. Word soon got out that there was a holy man in the desert. (I blame the lizards.) People started dropping by. “Can you help me? What do I do? Can you figure this out?” Soon Patapius was famous – which was not at all what he wanted!

So he booked it out of there. Archaeologists have discovered a parchment sticky note attached to the cave door: “What part of ‘hermit’ do you not understand?” He left no forwarding address. He headed for Constantinople, which was then the largest, wealthiest city in Europe. There, instead of loose lipped lizards, he’d be surrounded by people. Lots of them. And chances were, most of them would bustle past him on the street without even looking at him as they went about their business. Patapius would be lost, blessedly lost, in the crowd.

“But he who humbles himself shall be exalted,” Patapius must have often read in the Scriptures. God knew that the people needed to be around a saint. Patapius, in escaping to the big city to do God’s will, had played right into his hands. The saint took a cell at the city wall at the Shrine of the Mother of God and restarted his hidden life as a simple monk. So he thought. God endowed him the gift of healing. He again became a people magnet. Among his many miracles was curing a woman of breast cancer.

Patapius lived until the age of 83, reluctantly famous for his holiness, wisdom, and healing. People preserved his relics and passed down stories from his life. When the Turks conquered Constantinople a thousand years later, Christians rescued the relics and brought them to a tiny cave chapel in Corinth. Unfortunately, people forgot they were there until, in 1904, an unusually tall priest decided to have the cave chapel enlarged. The night before he broke out the wall, he had a dream in which a monk told him to be careful, “I am on the other side.” The next day St. Patapius’ body was found incorrupt, with a wooden cross on his breast and an identifying parchment scroll (really). Soon there were miracles of healing at his tomb.

Patapius became famous yet again! And people were no less annoying to him than before. Since his body was on display for the veneration of the faithful, some made off with parts of it. Patapius then haunted their dreams telling them to please return his body parts and leave him in peace.

Which is what he wanted all along.

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Father,
for you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing you taught us to disregard the flesh for it passes away
but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, venerable Patápius, rejoices with the angels.

From the Divine Liturgy of Dec. 8, feast day of St. Patapius

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