Recently, I commissioned an icon of my Confirmation saint, Zoe of Pamphylia. As she is a lesser-known saint and lived in the second century, there aren’t many depictions of her. I was confirmed in 2002. For almost twenty years, I’ve been growing closer to this saint whose face I couldn’t even picture, let alone wear on a medal or hang in my home. I decided it was time to change that. Now, on her feast day, May 2, (coincidentally the day I received my First Communion), I can finally gaze upon the face of my friend.
The way I found St. Zoe or, more properly, how she found me, is a cacophony of seemingly unrelated pieces of life coming together. When I say that she is a godsend in my life, I mean it in the truest sense of the word. There is no other explanation for us coming together other than God asking her to go to me and she, as she did in life, did what He asked.
I was confirmed during my junior year of high school, which was the norm in my dioceses. I had recently really gotten into the faith and involved with our parish youth group and was “on fire” for the faith. So Confirmation was a big deal to me and I took it very seriously. The part I was perhaps most excited for was choosing a saint to be my patron. Part of that excitement stemmed from a tradition in my Italian family which was to take on your Confirmation name as part of your legal name or at least as part of your formal name. For the only time in my life, I would get to name myself. I set up three rules to help me choose a Confirmation saint.
- The saint had to be obscure, someone very few others would know about so that I could have a patron all to myself. I didn’t want to share with a bunch of people!
- The saint’s name had to start with “S” or “Z”. This was mostly a vanity rule. I already had two middle names and my initials (minus my last name) spelled Tia. The addition of an “s” or “z” would make it look possessive, Tia’s or Tia’z and there are a lot of fun things I could do with that, like getting a vanity license plate that said “TIAZ PET”. Yes, I was sixteen and stupid. Still, I followed this rule.
- The saint had to be meaningful to me, we had to click.
With these rules limiting me, it was only a matter of time before I would’ve stumbled upon St. Zoe on my own, but there were a couple factors that propelled me to her sooner.
The first was that I had been obsessed with the band Hanson and had been for four years at that point. Their posters were plastered all over my bedroom walls, I taped all of their TV appearances on VHS, and I knew all of their and their siblings’ names and birthdates. I was in seventh grade in 1997-1998, right when their fame exploded. It also happened to be the year the seventh Hanson sibling was born and she was named Zoe.
The second was that the summer before my Confirmation, I went to a Steubenville youth conference. One of the speakers mentioned that Zoe meant “God’s life” in Greek and that really struck me. I wanted to be full of God’s life! I did find out, years later, that the more precise meaning of Zoe in Greek is “life without characterization” or “the bigger picture” or that part of life that is eternal. Of course, this all points to the Christian understanding of eternal life and the soul. The other Greek word for life, bios, refers to the specifics of the natural life. Either way, Zoe is what I wanted to be full of; for me, Zoe defined being fully alive and I desperately wanted to be fully alive.
Faith formation for Confirmation started and these experiences were in the back of my mind. As soon as saints were brought up, the first thing I did an Internet search for was to see if there was a saint Zoe. There are actually two! And neither are well-known. So far, Zoe checked my first two requirements. That left the last requirement: Did we click?
The first of the saints Zoe that I looked into is St. Zoe of Rome. She was a noblewoman in Rome in the third century and married to a high court official. For an unknown reason, she was unable to speak for many years. Then St. Sebastian (yes, that one) made the Sign of the Cross over her and she was immediately able to speak. What she spoke was the glories of God and asked for baptism right there. Her husband also joined her in being baptized. This Zoe also had a great devotion to St. Peter and was praying at his tomb when she was arrested for being a Christian. She was hung from a tree by her hair over a pit of fire and died from smoke inhalation. Her body was then thrown in the River Tiber. Even typing out this story now, I don’t feel particularly moved or attracted to her. That’s okay, she was not meant to be my patron.
Then I read about St. Zoe of Pamphylia. This Zoe and her husband and two sons (who are all also saints) were slaves of a particularly cruel pagan couple, Catallus and Tetradia, in the second century. Exsuperius, her husband, worked farther from the home in the fields and he and Zoe were often separated because of this. Zoe’s job was to tend to their masters’ dogs and make sure they didn’t bite anyone. She worked close to a roadway and would often meet people as poor as or poorer than her. She would give these people portions of her own meager rations, to alleviate some of their suffering, and she would, instead, go without.
When the pagan master had their first son, they wanted to celebrate by sacrificing to their gods. They then ordered Zoe and her family to sacrifice and celebrate with them. Being Christians, Zoe and her family refused to eat the food sacrificed to the pagan gods. Having had enough of his slaves’ disobedience and Christian faith, Catallus ordered all of them to be tortured and then burned in a fiery furnace so hot it would also melt their bones.
Zoe’s sons were tortured first and she and Exsuperius were made to watch. The details here vary but the version I read in high school said that Zoe almost gave up at the sight of this torture but her sons called out to her and their father to keep the faith. Then Exsuperius was tortured and finally Zoe before they were all thrown in the fiery furnace. All four did die in the furnace but their bodies were miraculously preserved! It is said that a church was dedicated to Zoe in Constantinople and there her relics are preserved in the Clermont Cathedral.
There were a couple things that immediately stood out to me about Zoe of Pamphylia. First was that she shared the very little she had with those who had even less. Her generosity stood out to me as something I wanted to model. Second was that, in the version of her story I read, her faith wavered but was bolstered and cemented by the faith of her children. We often hear of children’s faith being bolstered by their parents’ or of what a deep impact parents have on their children but we don’t as often hear of parents who took a cue from their children. To me, the idea of a mother being profoundly impacted by and learning from her children was novel. Zoe’s humility and willingness to listen and not just assume she knew better immediately grabbed my attention. She was so real to me, she was a real person who struggled and wavered and who, ultimately, let go of her insecurities to trust God fully. She did this in, through, and because of her family. That is someone I can look up to, someone I can learn from, someone I can be like, someone I could know.
Needless to say, of the two, I took St. Zoe of Pamphylia as my Confirmation saint. I had to write to my bishop and tell him why I was choosing a particular saint for my patron. In a rare move, he wrote back to tell me that he had never heard of my saint before, not in the hundreds of Confirmations and Baptisms he had presided over. He wished me many blessings in my relationship with St. Zoe and thanked me for bringing someone new to his attention.
Almost twenty years later, St. Zoe of Pamphylia and I have become good friends. She has been with me through the loss of my beloved mother and when I became a mother myself. She has stood beside me and commiserated when I was going through doubts and when I was searching for answers and truth. She’s been with me during my moments of immense joy and she’s been with me in the very ordinary moments, the ones I barely register. I use her name prominently as part of my own now and, as of 2012, her name is legally part of my own. I’ve still only met a few other people who knew of St. Zoe of Pamphylia before I told them about her. Even if she does become mega popular (which I now hope she does!) I know that St. Zoe will still be my special patron, that we will always have a special bond and relationship. We have Hanson, a slightly misinformed youth conference speaker, and an arbitrary set of rules to thank for bringing us together and each day, I thank God who orchestrated it all.
I never did get that vanity license plate, though.