Not much is know in detail about St. Spiridion, a native of Cyprus who lived in the early fourth century. Certainly he was a married man (still frequently the case at that time among Catholic bishops); his means of support was raising sheep and, while he was not a learned man, he was gifted with courage, devotion and common sense.
One story has come down to us from his lay days that is a little fabulous but does reflect his character.
One night a gang of thieves invaded Spiridion’s property to steal some of his sheep. Before they could seize the sheep, however, they were themselves seized by some invisible power, so that they could neither grab the animals nor take flight. Spiridion found them thus immobilized the next morning. He said a prayer and their unseen bonds immediately fell away. The saint did nothing to punish these robbers. Indeed, feeling a little sorry that they had wasted a whole night, he gave them a ram to take with them!
After some years, the people of Tremithus chose this decent sheep-raiser as their bishop. They doubtless knew that he was a simple man and no genius. Tremithus was a small and impoverished diocese, but Bishop Spiridion saw to it that his little flock of Christians was well provided for spiritually. Recompense for his own support didn’t worry him. He just continued to raise sheep for his livelihood.
In the year 303, the Roman co-emperor Galerius urged Emperor Diocletian to declare open war on Christians. Luckily, Spiridion did not become a martyr during this wholesale persecution. He was arrested, however; they put out one of his eyes, hamstrung his left leg and sent him off to do hard labor in the mines. Eventually he was set free, perhaps because the persecution was halted.
Some have said that Bishop Spiridion took in the first ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in Asia Minor in 325. This does not seem to be correct. However, a delightful legend arose out of his supposed attendance.
En route to the council, he is said to have encountered several other bishops bound for Nicaea. Because the Bishop of Tremithus was such a simple soul, these sophisticated bishops were afraid that he might make a mess of things in the council chamber. To prevent his reaching there, they told their servants to cut off the heads of the mules of the saint and his companion, a deacon. When Spiridion arose before dawn the next day, ready to set out, he saw the dead animals. At once he ordered his deacon to reattach the severed heads. When this was done, the animals promptly returned to life. Unfortunately, as the sun rose, it became evident that the deacon had put the brown head of his own mule on the bishop’s white mule, and vice versa. It didn’t seem to trouble the mules, so Spiridion was not worried. The two churchmen rode off at a good clip on their two-toned steeds.
If St. Spiridion was not well educated in many matters, he was at least deeply acquainted with the scriptures, which he held in the greatest reverence. Once in a gathering of bishops, St. Triphyllius of Ledra, preaching on Christ’s healing the paralytic, quoted the scripture passage, “Take up thy bed and walk,” a little more elegantly (he thought): “Take up thy couch and walk.” Spiridion asked him, pointedly, whether the word Our Lord himself had used was not good enough.
Our saint had shown similar good judgment many years before. As a layman, he and his family had a custom at the beginning of the Lenten fast, of eating no food at all for the first few days. Early one Lent, a tired, hungry traveler stopped by and asked for hospitality. Spiridion’s family, fasting, had no bread to offer. The bishop did have some salt pork, however, and he ordered this to be cooked and served to the guest. The guest declined to eat it. “I am a Christian,” he said, “and I am unwilling to break Lent.” “So am I,” said the shepherd. “Come, I’ll eat with you.”
It was a good point. Church rules are to be interpreted reasonably. Fasting is pleasing to God, but charity to neighbor pleases him still more.
–Father Robert F. McNamara