Saint Alexius “The Man of God”, also known as “Alexius from Rome” or “Alexius of Edessa” is one of the mysterious saints of the Church. He can be put together with some other saints, called “fools for Christ’s sake”, being one of the first saints having a controversial life, maybe even scandalous not only for a contemporary reader, but also in his century. The classic vita of this saint is to be found in Legenda Aurea of Jacob de Voragine, Bishop of Genova, and according to it, he may lived in Rome and Edessa and later back in Rome, in his father’s house, during the reign of the western Emperor Honorius (395-423) son of Theodosius the Great and during the prelacy of the Saint Pope Innocent I (401-417). First I will make a résumé of his life, as it is read today in the Orthodox Synaxarion of the Saints (almost the same story like in the Legenda Aurea), being the most complete text, and after that I will analyze the authenticity of such an interesting, scandalizing and maybe incredible story of a Saint.
The life of the saint
The Synaxarion begins the story placing it during the righteous Emperors Arcadius of the East (395-408) And Honorius of the West (395-423), in the house of a rich nobleman called Euphemianus, who had 3000 servants, but was unhappy because his wife Aglaida couldn’t have any children. Even being righteous and merciful to the poor, pilgrims, strangers and sick, he remained a long time without children, but after some times of prayer, God gave them a miraculous child. He proved to learn very early all the teaching of his time, but being still very young, he had a hidden ascetic life: he worn under his clothes a rough coat.
Being at the age of marriage, he was somehow “married” by his parents with a young noble girl. The synaxarion omits to say something about his willing to be married; maybe in that time it was a custom not to marry by love, such as is usually today. After the marriage in the Church of St. Bonifatius (important, because in this very church he will be buried) and the usual ceremonies, Alexius and his wife were alone in the nuptial room. Alexius gave to his wife his golden ring and the belt he had, and told her: “Keep them and may God be with us until his gift will make something new”. Then he left the house, took a boat and left Rome to Eastern Province, establishing himself in Edessa. Here he spent all his money and started a life as a vagabond on the streets, finally being himself a beggar at the entrance of the churches in the city. In the meantime, his father sent many servants to find him and some of them came even in Edessa, but they didn’t recognize him. Instead, they gave him alms such as to a regular poor. His mother and his wife started to wear black clothes and to mourn his unexpected leaving.
Alexius stayed near the Church of the Virgin in Edessa about 17 years, and after that the protopresbyter of the church had a vision, in which God discovered his saint, calling him “Man of God”. Being praised for his holy life, Alexius left in the night the town, with the intention to go in Cillicia, in the town of St. Paul. But there was a storm on the sea, and the ship arrived in Rome (which is too far away for any credibility). Being in this situation, Alexius saw his trip as a sign from God and decided to go into the very house of his father. Nobody recognized him, neither the father, nor the mother or even one of the servants, but he became a hut near the house of them and they gave him every day food such as to a usual beggar.
During the nights Alexius was always in prayer and many days took nothing from the food sent to him by his father. Instead, the servants mocked him, sometimes he was beaten, or even they thrown on him the rests of the food, but he beard everything without any protest. Every Sunday he went to the Church, took the Holy Communion, and gave further to the poor the food he used to receive. Maybe sadistically to our times, he lived even near the window of his wife and watched her how he was still mourning for him, but he didn’t say nothing, only that the love for God is bigger than the love for the mother, wife or father.
After another 17 years he took a piece of paper and wrote his life, and with this in his hands he died, knowing before that his end will come. In the letter he noted some small secrets known only by his father, mother or wife, in order to be recognized that he is the very Alexius, their son and husband. Finally, he begged them for forgiving, but he thought that he made the good thing, because his choice was a calling from God.
In that day the Pope Innocent was celebrating the Holy Mass at the Church of the Apostles and had a vision, in which God asked him to search the saint “man of God”: in the house of Euphemianus. The pope together with the Emperor himself and the Court went to the house of the nobleman and finally they found Alexius dead in his hut, having tight into his hand the letter. Only after a prayer they could have taken the letter and read it in front of the people. The shocking news that he was the very son of Euphemianus was very terrible for both his father and his mother, but also for his wife. All of them didn’t know if they must be happy for his holiness or sad, maybe nervous because such of a behavior. The story ends so that the saint is carried on a bed by the very Emperor and Pope, who couldn’t go because of the big crowd. Even throwing them money, the people didn’t want to make place to the cortege. In the end, after many stories about miraculous healings, the Saint was buried in the Church of St. Boniface.
The synaxarion notes that Alexius died on 17th March of the 5919th year after the Creation, that is 411 A.D.
Between story and fact
There are some special remarks about such a strange saint. First of all, there must be said that this kind of behavior is specially a eastern Syrian type. The first “classical” fool for Christ’s sake is St. Symeon from Emessa, his life being recorded by Leontius, bishop of Neapolis (Cyprus) at the beginning of the 7th century. But even before, the ascetical writings note some special cases of saints who ran from the honor of the men, such as the sister Isidora who pretended to be fool and who was mocked by the other nuns. Being discovered to be saint, she left in the night and nobody found her ever after, as Palladius wrote in his Historia Lausiaca. Some other saints such as Ammonas from Sketis (Egypt, 4th century) laughed continuously until his visitors left him, in order not to be bothered anymore (Apophthegmata Patrum, Ammonas 9). In this context, a life such the one of Alexius is not completely new.
The new researches about Alexius the Man of God state that the saint was first venerated in the East and only later in Rome. The Latin versions of his life are relatively late and no real historical proof associate him with the Pope Innocent I or Emperor Honorius.
A quite similar story, written in the same Syrian environment, speak about a saint calling him the "Man of God" from Edessa, without indicating his real name. It relates that he lived in Edessa during the episcopate of Bishop Rabula (412-435) as a poor beggar, and solicited alms at the church door. These he gave further to the rest of the poor, after reserving barely enough for the absolute necessities of life. He died in the hospital and was buried in the common grave of the poor. Before his death, however, he revealed to one of the church servants that he was the only son of distinguished Roman parents. After the Saint's death, the servant told this to the Bishop. Thereupon the grave was opened, but only his pauper's rags were now found therein. The inexistence of his relics is almost a common rule for the saints fools for Christ, such as Symeon of Emesa (6th century), Andrew of Constantinople (10th century) or even the mysterious Isidora, whose life is finally remained unknown.
The legend about Alexius appears about in the same manner in a hymn (canon) of the Greek hymnographer Josephus (d. 883). There is possible the Greek author of the later biography known the events related in the life of St. John Calybata, a young Roman patrician, concerning whom a similar story is told. Anyway the West Christianity gives no early information about the name Alexius in any martyrologium before the end of the 10th century. He first appears in connection with St. Boniface as the protector saint of a church on the Aventine Hill at Rome. On the site occupied today by the church of Sant' Alessio there was at one time a “diakonia”, a monastical establishment for the care of the poor of the Roman Church. There is almost sure that in this context, the cult of St. Alexius was brought in Rome by an exiled Greek metropolitan, Sergius of Damascus, who came here in 972, at the invitation of Pope Benedict VII, and transformed the Church of St. Boniface into an establishment for the poor.
At the beginning of the 11th century Alexius became a very popular saint in Rome and there are a lot of frescoes with him in the churches of the whole West. Today it is believed that the church of Alexius was elevated in the place of the Euphemianus’ house, even the supposed rests of the stairs where Alexius used to sit, are visible today. The most popular Roman version of his life appears, as I have already told, in Legenda Aurea (composed about 1260 AD).
There is also to be mentioned that the tale of St Alexius has some visible parallels with the Parable of The Prodigal Son, from the Luke’s Gospel, but interestingly, it is almost identical with a tale supposed to be told by Buddha himself, in 4th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
The Veneration of the Saint
According to a Russian extended version of the saint’s life, the relics were uncovered until the year 1216, being kept in the Church of St. Boniface. Later, some parts of his relics, containing the skull of St. Alexius are to be mentioned that they were given by the Byzantine emperor Emanuel Paleologos in 1398 to the Great Lavra monastery in Mount Athos. A big pilgrimage in honor of him happened in 2005, when the reliquary left Greece for the first time and travelled to Moscow, being placed at the Novospasskiy monastery for public veneration.
The feast of St. Alexius is observed on the 17th of July, in the West. In the Roman Catholic Church he is still recognized as a saint, but his feast was removed from the Calendar of Saints in 1969, and the reason given for that was the legendary character of the written life of the saint. The Catholic Encyclopedia regards also his story as more legendary than real.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church St Alexius is venerated on 17 March and his cult is very popular until today, especially in the Slavic countries. Among the many bearers of his name are 5 Byzantine Emperors, 4 Emperors of Trebizond and a Russian one, and also many monks, laymen, bishops or patriarchs. There are also churches built in his names and special services as the Akathist (similar to the catholic Rosarium) was composed to honor his name.
Hymn (troparion of the Saint)
“You budded from a famous and glorious root, you blossomed from a royal and illustrious city, O supremely wise Alexis; You disdained everything on earth as corruptible and fleeting, and you hastened to Christ the Master. Always entreat Him to save our souls!”