(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Potiamiani, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Potamiani of Alexandria
The ancient city of Alexandria is synonymous with St. Athanasios in terms of the saints of Christianity who have hailed from that city. However, although he was a tragic figure, because of the political maneuvering which saw him in and out of political favor, Athanasios was nevertheless recognized as one of the greatest figures in ecclesiastical history. He was even cited by the historian Edward Gibbon as the greatest figure of the Byzantine era in which he lived. In contrast to this, a saint came out of Alexandria sometime between the third and fourth centuries who was neither a paragon nor a pariah in the church or politics, but a mere slave in an affluent Alexandrian household.
The name of this saint was Potamiani who has come down to us as another of the Christian heroines who have attained the spiritual level of their better-known male counterparts. Her contribution to the Christian cause did not encompass the scope of an Origen or an Athanasios, but she gave her precious gift of life for the Savior with a willingness which made her as noble a servant of God as any churchman with a life’s devotion to Jesus Christ. If they also serve who only stand and wait (Milton), then this girl served with Christ in her heart for her own short lifetime.
Potamiani and her entire family were household slaves who looked without envy on their masters, but felt the inner peace and contentment that comes from full acceptance of the Lord. Enslaved when still a child, Potamiani was reared in the highest Christian traditions in a family whose sole hope lay in the promise of Jesus Christ for the eternal life of the spirit through Him. This hope made bearable the life of a slave whose temporal service to an earthly master was a brief prelude to the everlasting and glorious service of the spirit to the real Master.
The abiding faith in Jesus Christ came to Potamiani not only through a devout family, but by the cathechetical training of teachers who had been privileged to study under the great Christian scholar, Origen. No Christian of that day could hope for better religious learning thanthat from a student of Origen, much as St. Paul was indebted for his early religious training at the hands of the renowned Gamaliel.
So eager to serve the King of Kings was Potamiani that when she had attained maturity, she took a vow of chasity, privately becoming the bride of the Savior as though she were a nun. Denied formal training as a nun, she undertook to become one ex officio which, rather than placing her a pace behind, put her in the forefront of those who had the good fortune to serve in a nunnery. In secret, this sweet child of God pledged herself to the Savior to whom she devoted every spare moment in prayer and meditation.
Potamiani could scarcely have anticipated that a young man of the household would become smitten with her and prevail upon his family to allow her to become his bride. Since there was no objection to this lovely girl, the nuptials were announced and the bride would have become the free lady of the house had she accepted. When her family learned of her pledge to the Savior, they supported her refusal to go through with a marriage which could have brought freedom to all of them as promised by the prospective groom, anxious to secure her as a wife.
Potamiani’s refusal was nothing less than disobedience, an offense punishable by death if the master so chose. But the rejected suitor decided that if the girl were frightened out of her wits, she would forget her elusive Messiah. To that end, the girl was brought before a huge cauldron of boiling oil, the very sight of which was enough to bring any girl to her knees. But Potamiani wasn’t just any girl, and the closer she was placed to the scalding liquid, the more complacent she became, resigning herself to her fate.
The spurned swain, in a fit of rage, ordered that she be stripped naked and lowered slowly into this seething cauldron, but Potamiani appealed to the elders that she be allowed to die in dignity, fully clothed. If this wish were granted, she said, then they would perceive the power of the Lord Who would not let her suffer. Her last request could not be refused, and she was slowly lowered into the cauldron, her voice in praise of the Lord stilled only as she disappeared beneath the surface. She gave her life for Christ on June 7.