St Irene the Great Martyr (May 5th)
The story of St. Irene is so extreme her life takes on mythic superstar status. By some accounts she was born in Persia; by others she was born in Thessalonika or even further higher in Macedonia in the 2nd century or the 4th century. There are several differing accounts of her life and the many tortures she endured so that her escapades make her a legend among saints. And as with many other heroes and legends, her struggles and labors are multiplied and magnified to appear mythic.
In fact, her story has elements that make it seem like it comes out of a book of Greek mythology. She was born to wealthy pagan parents who named her after the faithful wife of Homer’s epics, Penelope. Her father, wanting to “protect” her from the wiles of the world as she was exceedingly beautiful and gifted, had her imprisoned in a high tower with lavish comforts and a retinue of ladies-in-waiting. (Sure, like that tactic worked in all the other myths and fairytales). The only person from the outside world allowed to come in was an old tutor who taught her classics. During a critical point in her development, she had a vision or actually saw a succession of birds come through the one window of her tower. First, a dove entered carrying an olive branch; next an eagle flew in carrying a crown of woven flowers and lastly a crow entered carrying a serpent. When she asked her teacher what it all meant, he interpreted them as signs. The first for her conversion and cultivation of mind; the second for the many triumphs she would gain and lastly, the crow with serpent represented the pain and martyrdom she would receive.
After this the princess in the ivory tower was visited by an angel who renamed her “Eirini” or “peace.” Some accounts say she was converted to Christianity via her tutor; others say she was instructed into the faith by an angel himself who prophesied that she would save hundreds of thousands of souls.
When her father found out that she was not Daddy’s little girl anymore as she had disobeyed his commands and gone against her family’s faith (not to mention the fact that she had gone on a rampaged and smashed a few of the family’s very valuable marble statues of the gods), he ordered that she be tied and trampled by horses. At least this got her out of the tower and into the light of die even if for a really bad reason. Once the horses were released, BAM! Instead of trampling on Irene attacked her father who was killed instead. She prayed for him and he was brought back to life. On the spot in one shot, three thousand people who had witnessed the miracle became believers. Her father then repented for his mistreatment of his daughter, abdicated his throne and chose to live in the tower he had imprisoned her in.
The new king, King Sedekias, did not really take a liking to Irene’s new-found faith either. Like her father before him, he forced her to worship the old pagan gods. When she refused, he threw her in a ditch crawling with poisonous snakes. That angel again protected her against all harm and when she emerged 14 days later without a bruise or bite, he put her through another series of tortures. She survived them all causing another eight to ten thousand people to convert on the spot.
Now a third king came into power, Sabor, who had usurped Sedekias’ throne. She met the rebel army outside the city and with her prayers she defeated the tyrant. The earth split into two swallowing ten thousand soldiers. BAM! All at once another 40,000 converts.
This was the pattern; she would go preaching, performing miracles and converting thousands in her wake. Her fame brought her to the attention of the King of the Persians, Saborios, the very emperor himself. He decided he and the kingdom had had enough. He had her beheaded and buried. Now you’d think that would put an end to her career. But yet again, that angel came to her rescue and resurrected her.
Not ready to end her winning streak against a row of powerful kings and tyrants who tried to curb her zeal by a variety of tortures, Irene went against yet another. This time when she entered the city and presented herself to the king as a Christian holding an olive branch in her hand, her presence was enough to convert him without all the mess that continual torture required. From then on her power to convert became invincible. In her wake hundreds of thousands of people converted to Christianity.
In fact, so great was the power of St Irene that the only way she could be eliminated was if she would do it herself. She getting swept up in a cloud and transported to Epheseus, she met up with her old teacher. She instructed him to find a new tomb and to roll a huge stone to cover the entrance once she entered. She instructed him not to remove the stone until four days had passed. When he did this, he found, as you would expect if you know the ending of another greater story, that she was gone. What can you say? Some saints are saints and others are super saints.