Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume XI: November. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Stephen the Younger, Martyr
From his authentic Acts, carefully compiled forty-two years after his death by Stephen of Constantinople: also from Cedrenus and Theophanes. See Ceillier, t. 18, p. 521, and Jos. Assemani in Calend. Univ. t. 5, p. 389.
ST. STEPHEN, surnamed the Younger, or of St. Auxentiuss Mount, one of the most renowned martyrs in the persecution of the Iconoclasts, was born at Constantinople in 714, and dedicated to God by his parents before he came into the world. They were rich in temporal possessions, but much richer in virtue; and took special care to see their son provided with proper masters, and grounded in pious sentiments from his infancy. Thus he was instructed in the perfect knowledge of the Catholic Faith, and his tender breast was fortified by the love and practice of the duties of religion; by which antidotes he was afterwards preserved from the poison of profane novelties. Leo the Isaurian, who was infamous for the sacrilegious plunder of many churches, and for several other crimes, as Theophanes relates, to the vices of impiety and tyranny, added that of heresy, being prevailed upon by the Jews whom he had persecuted a little before, to oppose the respect paid by the faithful to holy images. The tyrant endeavoured to establish his error by a cruel persecution, and the parents of our saint with many others left their country, that they might not be exposed to the danger of offending God by staying there. To dispose of their son in a way suitable to his pious inclinations, and their own views in his education, they placed him when he was fifteen years old in the monastery of St. Auxentius, not far from Chalcedon, and the abbot admitted him in the year following to the monastic habit and profession. Our saint entered into all the penitential exercises of the community with incredible ardour, and his first employment was to fetch in the daily provisions for the monastery. The death of his father, which happened some time after, obliged him to make a journey to Constantinople, where he sold his whole fortune, and distributed the price among the poor. He had two sisters; one of which was already a nun at Constantinople; the other he took with his mother into Bithynia, where he placed them in a monastery. Stephen made sacred studies and meditation on the holy scriptures, his principal employment, and the works of St. Chrysostom were his Commentary on the Divine Oracles. John the abbot dying, the saint, though but thirty years of age, was unanimously placed at the head of the monastery. This was only a number of small cells scattered up and down the mountain, one of the highest in that province; and the new abbot succeeded his predecessor in a very small cave on the summit, where he joined labour with prayer, copying books, and making nets; by which he gained his own subsistence, and increased the stock of his monastery for the relief of the poor. His only garment was a thin sheeps skin, and he wore an iron girdle round his loins. Great numbers renounced the world to serve God under his direction. And a young widow of great quality, who changed her name to that of Anne, became his spiritual daughter, and took the religious veil in a nunnery situate at the foot of his mountain. After some years Stephen, out of a love of closer retirement, and a severer course of life, resigned his abbacy to one Marinus, built himself a remote cell, much narrower than his cave, so that it was impossible for him to lie or stand up in it at his ease, and shut himself up in this sepulchre in the forty-second year of his age.
Constantine Copronymus carried on for twenty years the war which his father Leo had begun against holy images. In 754 he caused a pretended council of three hundred and thirty-eight Iconoclast bishops to meet at Constantinople, and to condemn the use of holy images as a remnant of idolatry,1 and in all parts of the empire persecuted the Catholics to compel them to subscribe to this decree. His malice was chiefly levelled against the monks, from whom he apprehended the most resolute opposition. Being sensible of the influence of the example of our saint, and the weight which the reputation of his sanctity gave to his actions, he was particularly solicitous to engage his subscription. Callistus, a patrician, was despatched to him on that errand, and used all the arts in his power to prevail with the saint to consent to the emperors desire: but he was obliged to return full of confusion at a miscarriage where he had promised himself certain success. Constantine, incensed at St. Stephens resolute answers, which the patrician reported to him, sent Callistus back with a party of soldiers with an order to drag him out of his cell. They found him so wasted with fasting, find his limbs so much weakened by the straitness of his cell, that they were obliged to carry him on their shoulders to the bottom of the mountain, and there they kept him under a strong guard. Witnesses were suborned to accuse the saint, and he was charged with having criminally conversed with the holy widow Anne. This lady protested he was innocent, and called him a holy man; and because she would not come into the emperors measures, she was severely whipped, and then confined to a monastery at Constantinople, where she died soon after of the hard usage she suffered.
The emperor, seeking a new occasion to put Stephen to death, persuaded one of his courtiers, called George Syncletus, to draw him into a snare. Constantine had forbidden the monasteries to receive any novice to the habit. George going to Mount St. Auxentius, fell on his knees to St. Stephen, and begged to receive the monastic habit. The saint knew him to belong to the court, because he was shaved, the emperor having forbidden any at his court to wear beards; but the more St. Stephen urged the emperors prohibition, the more earnestly the imposter pressed him to admit him to the habit, pretending that both his temporal safety from the persecutors, and his eternal salvation depended upon it. Soon after he had received the habit he ran with it to the court, and the next day the emperor produced him in that garb in the amphitheatre before the people, who were assembled by his order for that purpose. The emperor inflamed them by a violent invective against the saint and the monastic Order; then publicly tore his habit off his back, and the populace trampled upon it. The emperor immediately sent a body of armed men to St. Auxentiuss Mount, who dispersed all the monks, and burned down the monastery and church to the very foundation. They took St. Stephen from the place of his confinement there, and carried him to the sea-side, striking him with clubs, taking him by the throat, tearing his legs in the thorns, and treating him with injurious language. In the port of Chalcedon they put him on board of a small vessel, and carried him to a monastery at Chrysopolis, a small town not very far from Constantinople, where Callistus and several Iconoclast bishops, with a secretary of state, and another officer, came to visit and examine him. They treated him first with civility, and afterwards with extreme harshness. He boldly asked them how they could call that a general council which was not approved by the pope of Rome, without whose participation the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs was forbid by a canon. Neither had the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, or Jerusalem approved of that assembly. He, with the liberty of a martyr, defended the honour due to holy images, insomuch that Callistus, when they returned to Constantinople, said to the emperor: My lord, we are overcome: this man is very powerful in argument and learning; and despises death. The emperor, transported with rage, condemned the holy man to be carried into banishment into the island of Proconesus, in the Propontis. In that place he was joined by many of his monks, and his miracles increased the reputation of his sanctity, and multiplied the defenders of holy images. This circumstance mortified the tyrant, who, two years after, ordered him to be removed to a prison in Constantinople, and loaded with irons. Some days after the saint was carried before the emperor, who asked him whether he believed that men trampled on Christ by trampling on his image? God forbid, said the martyr. Then taking a piece of money in his hand, he asked what treatment he should deserve who should stamp upon that image of the emperor? The assembly cried out that he ought to be severely punished. Is it then, said the saint, so great a crime to insult the image of the emperor of the earth, and none to cast into the fire that of the King of heaven? Some days after this examination, the emperor commanded that he should be beheaded; but recalled the sentence before the martyr arrived at the place of execution, resolving to reserve him for a more cruel death; and, after some deliberation, sent an order that he should be scourged to death in prison. They who undertook this barbarous execution left the work imperfect. The tyrant, understanding that he was yet alive, cried out: Will no one rid me of this monk? Whereupon certain courtiers stirred up a mob of impious wretches, who, running to the jail, seized the martyr, dragged him through the streets of the city, with his feet tied with cords, and many struck him with stones and staves, till one despatched him by dashing out his brains with a club. The rest continued their insults on his dead body till his limbs were torn asunder, and his brains and bowels were left on the ground. Cedrenus places his martyrdom in the year 764, who seems to have been better informed than Theophanes, who mentions it in 757.
The martyrs, under their torments and the ignominy of a barbarous death, seem the most miserable of men to carnal eyes, but to those of faith nothing is more glorious, nothing more happy. What can be greater or more noble than for a man to love those who most unjustly hate and persecute him, and only to wish and pray for their temporal and eternal happiness? To bear the loss of all that the world can enjoy, and to suffer all pains rather than to depart in the least tittle from his duty to God? What marks do we show of this heroic fortitude, of this complete victory over our passions, of this steady adherence to God and the cause of virtue? This heroic disposition of true virtue would appear in smaller trials, such as we daily meet with, if we inherited the spirit of our holy faith. Let us take a review of our own hearts, and of our conduct, and examine whether this meekness, this humility, this charity, and this fortitude appear to be the spirit by which our souls are governed? If not, it behoves us without loss of time to neglect nothing for attaining that grace by which our affections will be moulded into this heavenly frame, the great fruit of our divine religion.