Amy Steedman – Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian

[Saint Cosmas and Damian icon]
It is difficult sometimes to learn a great deal about the saints who lived a very long time ago. So few people knew how to read or write in those old days, and the only way they had of remembering and handing on what was interesting was to tell it to their children; then these little ones, when they were grown up, would repeat it again to other little children, and so the stories were not forgotten.

But sometimes one thing would be left out and sometimes another, or different people would add wonderful stories of their own, which would become part of the true story. And so, when at last these histories come to us, we find we have lost a great deal, and perhaps not gained very much.

The two saints, to whose story we are going to listen to-day, are of this long-ago time, and the history of their lives has almost faded from men’s memories. But whoever happens to go to Florence, that city of flowers, where the old Medici family has left its mark on every corner, will see the portraits of our two saints wherever they go. For the old painters loved to tell the saint-stories in their own beautiful way, and to-day the little dark-eyed Italian children can read them without books, for they are told more plainly and far more beautifully than in any written story.

Cosmo and Damian were brothers, and were born in Arabia three hundred years after Christ. When they were quite little boys their father died, and they were left alone with their mother. She was a Christian, and taught her boys, as soon as they were old enough to understand, that though they had no earthly father, God was their Father in heaven. She told them that the great King of Heaven and Earth called them His children, and he who could do a mean or cruel act, or stain his honour by an untruthful word, was not worthy to be called a King’s son. And because they were noble she taught them that they must do noble deeds, bravely defend and protect the weak, and help those who could not help themselves.

So the boys grew up straight and strong in mind and body. Their bitterest punishment was to feel that they had done anything unworthy of their King, and although they often made mistakes and did wrong thoughtlessly, they never went far astray since God’s honour was their own.

Their mother was rich, for their father had had great possessions, but there were so many poor and suffering people around their home that it was almost impossible to help them all. So the boys learned early to deny themselves in many ways, and often gave up their own dinner to the starving poor. In that land there was a great deal of sickness and suffering, and this was a great trouble to Cosmo and Damian. They could not bear to see people in pain, and be unable to help them. They often thought about this, and at last determined to learn all about medicine, and become doctors, so that they might at least soften suffering when they could not cure it.

After years of patient study they learned to be very clever doctors, and their kind hearts and gentle hands soothed and comforted those who were in pain, even when skill could do nothing for them.

They visited rich and poor alike, and would take no money for their services, for they said it was payment enough to know they had been able to make the world’s suffering a little less.

And it was not only people they cared for, but God’s dumb creatures too. If any animal was in pain, they would treat it as gently and carefully as if it had been a human being. Indeed, they were perhaps even more pitiful towards animals, for they said:

“People who can speak and complain of their ills are greatly to be pitied, but these dumb creatures, made by our King, can only suffer in silence, and surely their suffering will be required at our hands.”

It ever seemed strange to these great men that boys who would scorn to ill-treat a younger child, or take mean advantage of a weak one, would still think nothing of staining their honour by ill-treating an animal, infinitely weaker and smaller, and less able to protect itself. It was one of the few things that raised the wrath of these gentle doctor saints.

Now it happened that a poor woman who had been ill for many years heard of the fame of the two young doctors, and sent to implore them to come to help her. She believed that though her illness seemed incurable these good men might heal her.

Cosmo and Damian were touched by her faith, and they went at once, and did for her all that their skill could devise, and, moreover, prayed that God would bless their efforts.

To the wonder of all, the woman began to grow better, and very soon was completely cured. In her great gratitude she offered all that she had in payment to the two doctors, but they told her that they could take nothing. Then she humbly offered them a little bag in which were three eggs, praying them not to go away from her quite empty-handed. But Cosmo turned and walked away and would not so much as even look at what she offered, for it was a very strict rule with the brothers that they should accept no payment or reward of any kind. Then the woman caught at a fold of Damian’s cloak as he also turned to go and begged him, for the love of Christ, to take her little gift.

When Damian heard the name of his Master, he paused, and then took the present and courteously thanked the poor woman.

But when Cosmo saw what Damian had done he was very wrathful, and that night he refused to sleep with him, and said that henceforth they would be no longer brothers.

But in the stillness of the night God came to Cosmo and said:

“My son, wherefore art thou so wrathful with thy brother?”

“Because he hath taken reward for our services,” said Cosmo, “and Thou knowest, Lord, that we receive no payment but from Thee.”

“But was it not in My name that he took the offering?” asked the voice. “Because that poor woman gave it for love of Me, thy brother did well to accept it.”

Then Cosmo awoke in great joy and hurried to the bedside of his brother, and there begged his forgiveness for having misjudged him so sorely. And so they were happy together once more, and ate the eggs right merrily.

In those days there were many pilgrims passing through Arabia, and because the journey was hard and most of them were poor, they often fell ill and came under the care of Cosmo and Damian. One night a poor man was brought in, fainting and fever-stricken. He lay on the bed with his thin, grey face pinched and worn with suffering, and the kind doctors feared that he would die.

All night they sat by his bedside doing everything that their skill could plan to ease his pain, and they only smiled when the poor man said in his faint, low voice:

“Why do you take all this trouble for a poor pilgrim, who has nothing wherewith to repay you?”

“We would not take thy payment if thou hadst all the riches in the world,” answered the doctors, “for we receive payment only from our King.”

Then when the first pale light of dawn began to steal through the little window, and the doctors anxiously watched the still form lying there, they started with surprise. For the face seemed to change in an instant, and instead of the bed of suffering they saw a cloud of glory; out of the midst of which Christ’s face, infinitely tender, looked upon them; and His hands touched their heads in blessing as He said:

“All the riches of the world are indeed mine though I seemed but a poor pilgrim. I was sick and ye visited me, and surely shall ye receive payment from your King.”

Then Cosmo and Damian knelt in worship and thanked their Lord that they had been counted worthy to minister to His need.

But soon the fame of Cosmo and Damian began to be spread abroad, and the wicked Proconsul of Arabia heard about their good deeds. As soon as he knew they were Christians, and helped the poor and suffering, he was filled with rage, and sent and ordered that the two brothers should be cast alive into the sea.

Immediately Cosmo and Damian were seized and led up to the steep cliffs, and the guards bound them hand and foot. Not a complaint escaped their lips, not a sign of fear, as the soldiers raised them on high and flung them over into the cruel sea, far below. But as the crowd above watched to see them sink, a great fear and amazement seized the soldiers, for from the calm blue sea they beheld the brothers rise slowly and walk towards the shore, led by an angel who guided them with loving care until they were safe on land.

In a greater rage than ever, the Proconsul ordered that a great fire should be made and that the brothers should be cast into the midst of it and burnt to death.

But though the fire roared and blazed before Cosmo and Damian were cast in; as soon as it touched them it died down and nothing could make it burn again. It seemed as if God’s good gifts refused to injure His servants.

After that they were bound to two crosses and the soldiers were ordered to stone them. But the stones did no harm to those two patient figures, but instead fell backwards and injured the men who threw them.

Then every one cried out that they were enchanters, and it was ordered that to make sure of their death they should be beheaded.

So the work of the two saint doctors was finished on earth, but for many years afterwards those who were ill would pray to these saints for their protection.

There is a legend which tells how a poor man in Rome had a leg which the doctors feared would cause his death. So he prayed to Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian and asked them to help him in his need. And that night when he was asleep, he saw the doctor saints standing at his bedside in their red robes and caps trimmed with fur. One held a knife and the other a pot of ointment.

“What shall we do to replace this leg when we have cut it off?” asked Saint Cosmo.

“A black man has just died and been buried near here,” answered Saint Damian. “He no longer needs his legs, so let us take one of them and put it on instead.”

So they cut off the bad leg and fetched the leg of the black man, and with the ointment joined it on to the living man.

And when he awoke he believed he must have dreamt about the visit of the saints, but when he looked at his leg, behold! it was black and perfectly sound and well. Then they sent and searched for the black body, and on it they found a white leg. So the man knew that the doctor saints had heard his prayers, and had come to cure him.

That is one of the wonderful stories which have grown up round the names of Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian.

While we cannot tell if these things really happened, this we do surely know to be true, that these two brothers, who lived in an age when men were cruel and selfish, spent their whole lives in trying to help those who suffered pain, and then went bravely to death in the service of their King. And though we know but little about them, they have left us an example of patient kindliness and helpfulness; and they teach us that as servants of their King we also are bound in honour to protect the weak and help those who suffer, whether they are people like ourselves or God’s dumb creatures.