Monday, August 11, 2014

Saint of the Month: St. Alexander the Charcoal-Burner

St. Alexander the Charcoal-Burner

AKA: Alexander of Comana, Alessandro Carbonaio.
Feast Day: August 11th in the Western tradition; August 12th in the Eastern tradition.

Really Existed? Very possibly.
Timeframe: First half of the 3rd century. His martyrdom would have had to be within a year or two of 250.
Place: Northeastern Turkey.

Credentials: Recognized by tradition in Western and Eastern tradition.
Martyrdom: Execution by burning.

Patron Saint of: charcoal-burners.
Symbolism: In the image I see used repeatedly, he is a dirty laborer with a large pack being handed a miter by a bishop, while people are burned to death in the background.

Saint Alexander the Charcoal-Burner was appointed by Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (who is also called "Saint Gregory the Wonder-Worker," which sounds rather less occult to me) as bishop of Comana, in Pontus.  Most saint listings will leave it at that, as though we all had our historical geography honed to such a sharp point that we could say "ah, yes, Comana in Pontus, I believe that was an important center for overland trade between the Eastern Empire and Armenia."  We're talking about northeastern Turkey, probably not far from the modern town of Tokat.  If that seems like an unlikely place for a bishop to set up shop, keep in mind that before the Anatolian Pennisula was the heartland of Turkey, and before it was the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, is was the heartland of the Eastern Roman Empire, and one of the areas where Christianity was most successful in its first few centuries.  (Comana, which was big in Strabo's day but no longer exists, is probably most famous as the place where St. John Chrysostom died.)

Anyway.  There are no real records of St. Alexander, only a story in St. Gregory of Nyssa's account of the life of St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker.  That's a thin paper trail, and indeed even the basic notion that Alexander was bishop of the Comana described above is kinda conjectural, as there were other places called Comana around.  But we'll roll with it.

Here's the story: St. Gregory (the Wonder-Worker, not Gregory of Nyssa) was looking for someone to appoint as a bishop.  After many of the obvious candidates from among the town gentry had been considered and rejected, somebody suggested Alexander as a joke.  After all, he was just a lowly charcoal-burner.

This raises the question "What the hell is a charcoal-burner?"  Well, it seems it is someone whose trade is burning of wood into charcoal, which is a lightweight, hot-burning fuel and source of carbon.  Throughout history this was a tricky process that involved lots of knowledge and attention, hot work of course and very dirty, and in many places charcoal-burners apparently lived out on the margins of the community, out in the woods close to the raw material.

So that's why it was funny that Alexander the Charcoal-Burner was nominated as a bishop.  He was an especially dirty, sooty, laborer from the margins of society.  Him a bishop!  What a hoot!  But when St. Gregory talked to him, he recognized him as an intelligent and spiritual person, and appointed him bishop, and he did a terrific job.

That's a pretty good story.  It doesn't have a happy ending, and we're told that Alexander was burned to death during the reign of Decius, the Roman Emperor who was probably nastiest to Christians.  In terms of humanity, having Alexander or anyone else burned to death is of course appalling; in terms of a hagiography, having Alexander the Charcoal-Burner burned to death seems almost too tidy to be true.

Happy St. Alexander the Charcoal-Burner's Day!  Look for talent in unexpected places.

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