[celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on December 25]
by an anonymous author [Rosweyde suggests Ruffinus]
During his seventh consulship the Emperor Commodus [180-192] sent that distinguished man Philip to Egypt as prefect of Alexandria, with supreme authority over all the local administrations throughout the whole of Egypt. He arrived in Alexandria from Rome with his wife Claudia, his two sons, Avitus and Sergius, and his daughter Eugenia. He fulfilled the duties of his prefecture with exemplary Roman thoroughness, and brought the benefit of Roman law to the whole province of Egypt. He imposed a complete ban on all those who followed strange magical rites, forbade the Jews to advertise their presence publicly, and ordered all the Christians out of Alexandria. He himself was more of a student of the philosophers than a worshipper of idols, but he set up all the Roman ceremonies and observed them religiously, not because he believed in them but merely to maintain tradition.
He gave his daughter Eugenia a thorough education in the liberal arts, and having taught her to be fluent in Greek as well as Latin, he then allowed her to study philosophy. She had a very sharp intelligence, and a memory so gifted that she had only to hear or read anything once in order to grasp the meaning of it and permanently retain it. She was a beautiful girl with a shapely figure, but even more beautiful in her mental capacity, and sweeter still in her love of chastity.
When she was fifteen years old her hand in marriage was sought by Aquilus, the son of Aquilus the consul. Her father asked her if she would be willing to be married to this young man of such a distinguished family, and her reply was that a husband should be chosen on his personal qualities, not on his family.
"It would be him that I was marrying," she said, "not his parents."
Persevering in a path of chastity, she had turned down several suitors, when the teachings of the blessed apostle Paul came into her possession, and although of pagan parents she began from then on to live as a Christian in sprit.
Now since all the Christians had been ordered out of Alexandria, she told her parents she would like to see all their country estates beyond the city limits. Permission was granted and she was soon visiting one of their villas where she was able to hear a group of Christians singing the psalm 'All the gods of the nations are demons, but our God made the heavens' (Psalms 96.5). To hear this made her sigh and weep, and she confided in her two slaves, eunuchs called Protus and Hyacinth.
"I know that you are just as well educated as I am," she said, "and we have studied together the deeds of humanity both good and evil. We have conscientiously worked our way through the syllogisms of the philosophers, put together with such misguided effort. We have studied the arguments of Aristotle and the ideas of Plato, the principles of Epicurus and the counsels of Socrates and the Stoics, but if you could sum it all up as comprising everything the poets have written, everything the orators have proclaimed, and everything the philosophers have thought, it is all counted to be as nothing by this phrase that we have just heard being sung by these dancing [tripudiantes, a word implying a solemn ritualistic activity. I know of no other place in the Vitae where the liturgy is portrayed as including dancing, but Philo, an Alexandrian Jew writing in the first century, describes Jewish ascetic male communities who 'danced and sang throughout the night'.] Christians, 'All the gods of the nations are demons, but our God made the heavens. Praise and beauty are before him, holiness and majesty belong to his sovereign power' (Psalms 96. 5-6)".
She said the scriptures should be consulted. They read the Apostle and were delighted with the Prophets. They found that they agreed with one another in faith, and with burning desire decided the means by which they might penetrate into the mysteries of divine knowledge together.
"It is an unfair authority which I have over you as mistress," she said. "Wisdom makes me your sister. So then, be my brothers, as divine wisdom says we should, not as human considerations dictate. Let's go to the Christians together, and let's hurry, as I suggest. I hear that Helenus, who lives in that place where the praises of God are sung day and night, is what they call a bishop. [With her knowledge of Greek she would be familiar with the Greek word episcopos, meaning 'overseer', and also presbyter meaning 'elder'] Whenever we go near them we can hear them singing. But this bishop is said to be fully occupied with various matters to do with the church, and has put a presbyter called Theodore in charge of those who give themselves up to the praise of God. He is credited with many miracles, his prayers give sight to the blind, demons are put to flight and the sick are healed. In their wisdom, however, they don't allow any women into the visitors' area of this congregation, so bearing this in mind I think I should cut my hair off, [sc. '…and wear men's clothing'] and decide to go out tomorrow night and perhaps the way to them will be shown to us. You two could walk alongside a basterna, [a small horse-drawn carriage] from which you could let me out while the other slaves are going on in front. We could let the basterna go on empty, and then all three of us could go on, dressed in household livery, and so walk to where the men of God are."
They thought this was a good idea, and the following night they put their plan into action.
Christ bestows such grace upon those who believe in him! For it so happened that the bishop Helenus was going to this monastery at the same time as they were. Now it is the custom in Egypt that when bishops visit monasteries they are accompanied by a whole army of people singing psalms, so along with Helenus, bishop of Heliopolis, came about ten thousand people singing the psalm 'The way of the righteous is made plain, and a path is prepared for the holy' (Proverbs 2.8). Eugenia turned to her companions.
"Just think of the meaning of what they are singing," she said, "and you will see that their rhythmic psalm applies directly to us! Earlier God's dealings with us led us into an agreement about his word, and we heard that all the gods of the nations are demons but our God made the heavens. And now, see, a path is laid out for us to follow, by means of which we are promised the gift of being able to move away from the cult of idols and come to the worship of Christ. Look, there are a thousand people coming towards us, singing with one voice, 'The way of the righteous is made plain, and a path is prepared for the holy'. Let's find out where this crowd is going to, and whether it is going to the same place as we are. Let's join this singing crowd, so that we shall be admitted as new arrivals, and so we may learn a bit more."
They joined in with the singers, and asked who it was that was leading them, the only one riding a little donkey in their midst, with people in front of him and behind. They were told that this was indeed bishop Helenus, a Christian from his infancy, who even while growing up as a child in the monastery had advanced so far in the virtues of holiness that when asked to go and fetch fire from a neighbour he carried some burning coals in a fold of his clothing without them doing any harm. [It was a not uncommon practice for children to be entrusted to the care of monks]
"Then again," the tale continued, "a certain magician came among us who tried by the force of his arguments to mislead the people of God. He said the bishop was a deceiver, and that he himself had been sent by Christ as a teacher. He was very cunning and made use of the divine Scriptures to lead the people astray. In the end the whole congregation came to this man, our father, whom you can see among us and said:
"'Zareas tells us that he is the one who has been sent by Christ. Set a time when you will either acknowledge him as your equal or else prove to us that he is telling lies, if you can.'
"So a day and a place were decided on in the city of Heliopolis. Zareas came with his magic spells, bishop Helenus came with his prayers.
"'Now we shall see whose spirit is of God,' said Helenus. He turned to Zareas and they began a contest of words, but Zareas was so subtle that he was unable to beat him in any rational argument. He turned to the people and asked for a moment's silence.
"'In this contest,' he then said, 'we should keep to the teaching of St Paul, where he says to his disciple Timothy, "Do not go in for verbal arguments. They are good for nothing except to confuse those who hear them" (2 Timothy 2.14). So lest you should think we are bringing forward this text in fear rather than with due caution, let a fire be lit here in our midst, and let each of us walk into the flames, and let the one who is not burned be accepted as the one whom Christ has sent.'
"This was agreeable to everyone, and a large fire was immediately started.
"'Go into the fire, then,' the blessed Helenus said to Zareas.
"'No, it was your idea,' replied Zareas. 'You go first.'
"The most blessed father Helenus signed himself with the cross, and walked into the roaring flames, where he stood for about half an hour with neither his clothes or a hair of his head coming to any harm. Then he asked Zareas to go in. Zareas exhibited a marked reluctance and tried to run away. But the people caught him and threw him in anyway, where surrounded by the flames he began to burn. The holy Helenus went in and pulled him out, half burned but still alive, and the people drove him out in disgrace from their territory.[A similar story is told about Copres in Book II, Chapter IX. And there is more about the life of Helenus in Book VIII.Chapter LIX]
"This is the man you see before you, and daily, wherever he goes, the people crowd round him praising God."
Eugenia sighed deeply and fell at the feet of the person who had told her all that.
"Please," she said, "introduce me to this man along with my two brothers here. We want to turn from idols to Christ. And because we all came to this conclusion together, and because we are brothers, we would also like to ask him to make sure that we are never parted from each other."
"Well, be patient for a while," was the reply, "until he goes in to the monastery where he will rest for a while. When an opportunity offers I will tell him all that you have told me."
As they got nearer to the monastery, people came out to meet their father, singing a psalm to God, 'O God we have known your mercy in the midst of your temple' (Psalms 48.9). And as the bishop and the people went in, so did Eugenia and her companions Hyacinth and Protus. No one knew them except the person with whom they had been talking.
Once the morning praises [A literal translation of matutinis laudibus. There does not seem to be any formal distinction here between what we would now call the offices of Matins and Lauds] had been completed, the bishop rested for a while before giving instructions that things should be got ready for the sixth hour, when he would celebrate the divine mysteries. The ninth hour would provide an opportunity for the fast to be broken. As the bishop was resting he had a vision in which he was taken before the image of a woman to whom he should offer sacrifice.
"Then in my dream," he told us afterwards, "I asked permission of those who led me there to speak to this goddess of theirs. Permission was granted and I said to her, 'You ought to realise that you are merely a creature of God, and come down from your pedestal and forbid anyone to worship you.' She listened, came down and came up to me, saying, 'I will not let you go until you have reunited me with the creator and foundation of my being.'"
As the bishop was turning these things over in his mind, he was approached by Eutropius, the man with whom Eugenia had been speaking.
"There are three slaves here, brothers," he said, "who have together decided that they want to turn from the worship of images and be numbered among the servants of Christ in this monastery. They have begged me, implored me with tears, that I should bring them to the notice of your blessedness."
"I give you thanks, good Jesus," said the blessed Helenus, "that you have given me prior warning of this."
He ordered them to be brought before him, took Eugenia's hand and offered up a prayer. He then took them aside and with a very serious look on his face asked them the reason for these things being said about them, and that he needed to know where they were coming from.
"We are Roman citizens," replied Eugenia. "This brother of mine is called Protus, the other one is Hyacinth, and my name is Eugenius."
"You are well called Eugenius," [lit. 'of noble birth'] said the blessed Helenus, "for you are acting manfully, and your heart will be strengthened by your faith in Christ. So Eugenius is a good name for you. But you should know that by the holy Spirit I have already seen you and me in a vision, but you were in the body of a Eugenia. I have been told why you are here, though it was not given to me to know about these friends of yours. However, the Lord has deigned to reveal to me that you have prepared a most pleasing dwelling place for him in your body, for you have kept the prize of virginity and rejected the false blandishments of this present world. But you should know also that you will have a great deal to suffer because of your chastity, but he will never desert you, for you have given yourself to him completely."
He then turned to Protus and Hyacinth.
"You may be slaves," he said, "but you have boldly laid hold upon the dignity of freedmen, and you will continue to do so. So let me keep silent, hear what Christ the Lord says to you: 'Amen, Amen I say to you, I no longer call you slaves but friends' (John 15.15). Wherefore I call you blessed, for you have opened your hearts to the holy Spirit and wholeheartedly consented to the commandments of our Saviour. And you will enjoy the glory of all those who come to him."
The blessed Helenus said all this quite openly, informed by none other than God himself. He said that she should remain in male clothing, and that they would all be kept with him until such time as they had been instructed about the holy rite of Baptism and made members of the monastery.
Now let us return to what happened after Protus and Hyacinth went off with Eugenia in their charge. Led by the slaves, the horses brought the basterna back empty to Eugenia's mother. It was noticed while still some way off and everyone in the household went out to meet it with great joy. But when they found it empty their joy was turned to weeping, and there was a great outcry throughout the whole city. Who could have imagined that the daughter of the prefect could have gone missing? There was enormous distress, floods of tears, everyone mourned in a state of unbelief. Parents mourned a daughter, brothers a sister, slaves a mistress. A gloom descended upon all, and unending mental tribulation. A search was decreed throughout the whole province, auspices were taken and oracles consulted. The demons also were entreated with sacrifices and other disgusting superstitious practices to reveal where Eugenia was. They all indicated only that gods from heaven had carried her off.
Her father came to believe that this was true, and in order to get what comfort he could in the midst of his grief, he decreed that a feast day should be kept. He consecrated her to be numbered among the gods, and caused a golden image to be made of her, to be venerated with no less honour than that given to the other gods. Her mother Claudia, and her brothers Avitus and Sergius were, however, inconsolable; they found their grief unbearable.
Meanwhile the blessed Eugenia, manly in spirit as well as in clothing, remained in that monastery of men. She made such great progress in divine knowledge that at the end of two years she had committed to memory all the Scriptures of the Lord. She displayed such an aura of peace that everyone declared her to be numbered among the Angels. Who could discover that she was a woman, since the power of Christ and her immaculate virginity were protecting her in a way that was marvellous among men? No one was before her in coming to prayer, she became all things to all (1 Corinthinans 9.22), she consoled the sad, rejoiced with the happy, calmed the angry, put the proud to shame by her example, and rejoiced in being like a sheep rescued from the power of the wolf. She was blessed with so much grace that whenever she talked with anyone who was feeling depressed, grief was banished and well-being restored. Her companions, Hyacinth and Protus, stayed close to her, and followed her example in all things.
In the third year of her conversion, the abbot of the monastery passed to the Lord, and it seemed right to everybody that they should choose the blessed Eugenia as their abbot. Eugenia was alarmed that they had chosen a woman to be superior over men, contrary to all the rules, fearing in particular that they would take advantage of her and pay her no respect.
"Let us pay attention to the Gospel in this situation," she said, "for Christ should be listened to above all whenever Christians embark upon any course of action. Let us see what he demands in this election you have made, so that I can conform myself both to your wishes and his commandments."
She opened up the Gospels and began to read.
"'Jesus said to his disciples, "You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and exercise authority over them. But among you it shall not be like that. He who would be first among you let him be as the last, and he who would be master, let him be as your servant"' (Matthew 20. 25-27). So then I have decided to submit to your wishes and accept the leadership, and also obey the commands of the Lord. Finally I rely on your continued charity."
They all very happily approved of what she said. More than anyone else she took upon herself the monastic tasks which were usually assigned to the lowliest members. She fetched water, cut firewood, kept everything clean. She chose one of the smaller rooms in the gatehouse for herself, not wishing to appear more important than the gatekeeper himself. She took great care over the brothers' food, and kept very strictly to the orderly recitation of the psalms and maintained the regular observance of the third, sixth and ninth hours, vespers, night office and matins. She would have considered herself a failure in God's sight if any portion of the hours in praise of God were missed out. Her work in all this became so acceptable in the sight of God that she was able to expel demons from those possessed and open the eyes of the blind. I intend to deal with many of these deeds one by one, so let us hurry on for as much as we have time for.
There was a woman from Alexandria called Melanthia, the most notable of all the other matrons, who heard of Eugenia's reputation and came to her because of a quartan ague from which she had suffered for more than a year. The blessed Eugenia anointed her with oil and immediately the disturbance in her gall bladder disappeared. Completely restored to health, she walked to an estate of hers near the monastery. and ordered three silver bowls to be filled with silver coins and sent to the blessed Eugenia in thanksgiving for her cure. Eugenia sent them back.
"We have enough and more than enough of this world's goods here. So, my dear Melanthia, I urge and implore you to be a mother to the poor and share this out among those who are much more in need."
Melanthia was annoyed when she got this message. She went to Eugenia and begged her to change her mind and promised to give her even more. Having spent quite a long time with the blessed Eugenia without realising that she was a woman, she began to get quite enamoured of this person whom she thought to be a very elegant young man. She decided that he was just a creature of earth anyway, attributing her cure to his magic arts, not to his sanctity. She became infatuated with him, and decided that he was just angling for more money. She offered him more and more, but for all her persistence, everything she sent to Eugenia was simply sent back with grateful thanks. She determined on an even more destructive path and, pretending to be ill, asked Eugenia to visit her. She tried to impose herself upon Eugenia, who was sitting at her bedside.
"My breast is bursting with insatiable love for you. The only possible remedy for this condition is for me to make you the master of all I possess. Why torment yourself with your stupid, useless sexual abstinence? Look, I can offer you enormous wealth, tons of gold, and plenty of silver, and a large and varied household. I can be very generous. I have no children, I have been widowed for the last year. Take their place. Be master not only of all my possessions but of me, too."
Eugenia heard her out and replied, "The blackness [Melanthes (Greek) = dark-coloured]of your name bears witness to your wickedness. You are making yourself into a dwelling place for the devil. Melanthia, you unsavoury deceiver, leave the servants of God alone. We have our own battles to fight. Let your wealth belong to someone like yourself. We prefer to be beggars with Christ. Banish all your lustful desires. This insanity has taken you over and is endangering your own salvation. You are possessed by a dragon pouring out poison, but your poison has no effect on us, for we call on the name of Christ and find the mercy of the Lord."
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