St. Andrew enters a riddle contest with the devil

Pocket Bard’s notes: I love the idea of a riddle contest between a saint and the devil. I think the riddles themselves are quite clever, and even the second one is understandable enough if you take a moment to read it carefully. And you can almost hear the “Boo-yeah! Gotcha!” when St. Andrew answers the last riddle. I generally cut the lead-up to this story kind of short, because otherwise it just takes too long, but otherwise it’s good-to-go as-is. Even the ending is one of those rare Golden Legend endings that’s useable without changing.

Update: It turns out there’s a very similar story (that’s much shorter) in Volume II of The Golden Legend about St. Bartholomew.


St. Andrew enters a riddle contest with the devil
The Golden Legend, Volume I, trans. William Granger Ryan, p.18-20

A certain truly devout bishop venerated Saint Andrew above all other saints and began whatever he was about to do with the invocation, “To the honor of God and Saint Andrew.” This aroused the devil’s envy, and he turned all his cunning to the task of deceiving the bishop. So he took the form of a marvelously beautiful woman, who came to the bishop’s palace and said that she wanted to confess to him. The bishop sent word that she should apply to his own confessor, to whom he gave the necessary faculties, but she refused on the ground that the bishop himself was the only one to whom she could reveal the secrets of her conscience. In the end he allowed her to be brought before him, and she said: “I pray you, my lord, have pity on me, young as I am as you can see, tenderly nurtured and of royal blood. I have come here, alone and in the garb of a pilgrim. My father, a mighty king, wanted to give me in marriage to a great prince, but I told him that I held the marriage bed in horror because I had vowed perpetual virginity to Christ, and could never consent to carnal commerce. With the choice of either yielding to his will or suffering dire punishment, I got away secretly, preferring to live in exile rather than break faith with my spouse. The fame of your sanctity had come to my ears, and I have sought refuge under the wings of your protection, hoping to find a place with you where I might enjoy the secret silence of holy contemplation, avoid the pitfalls of life, and escape from the disorders of the noisy world.”

The bishop, admiring her noble origin and her physical beauty as well as her fervor and eloquence, answered her kindly: “Be reassured, my child, and have no fear. He for whose love you have given up everything, yourself, your kin, and all your possessions, will heap graces upon you in this life and the fullness of glory in the next. I, as his servant, offer you all that is mine. Please choose wherever you wish to dwell; and today I invite you to dine with me.” “O my father,” she replied, “do not ask this of me. It might stir up some suspicion that would damage your good name.” “Not at all!” said the bishop. “There will be others present, we shall not be alone. There cannot be the slightest suspicion that there is anything amiss.”

So the bishop, the woman, and the rest of the company went to the table, the woman seated facing the prelate and the others to either side. The bishop could not take his eyes from her face nor contain his admiration for her beauty; and, the eye being fixed, the inner man was wounded. The ancient enemy, aware of this, drove his dart deep into the bishop’s heart, at the same time making the alluring face more and more beautiful. The bishop was on the verge of consenting to the thought of proposing a wicket act to the woman at the first opportunity, when suddenly a pilgrim came pounding on the door and loudly demanded admittance. As no one opened to the stranger and the noise from outside increased, the bishop asked the woman whether she would mind if the pilgrim was allowed to come in. She replied: “We shall propose a very difficult question to him. If he can give a satisfactory answer, let him in. If not, let him be driven away as an ignorant person, unworthy to be in the presence of a bishop!”

The plan appealed to all present, and they looked around to see who might be wise enough to propound the question. Then the bishop said to the woman: “No one of us, my lady, is so well able to do this as you are. You surpass us all in wisdom and eloquence, so you shall propose the question.” So the woman said: “Ask him to name the most wonderful thing that God has made in a small form.” The question was relayed to the stranger, who answered the messenger: “It is the variety and excellence of the human face: for among so many human beings, from the beginning of the world to its end, no two could be discovered whose faces resembled each other in every respect, or ever will be; yet in each face, small as it may be, God places the seat of all the senses of the body.” This solution pleased the company, and they said: “This is a true and excellent answer.” Then the woman said: “Let us propose a second and harder problem, so that we may better gauge his knowledge: ask him at what point earth is higher than the heavens.” The stranger replied: “It is in the empyrean heaven, for there the body of Christ resides; and the body of Christ is higher than any heaven, yet it was formed of our flesh, and our flesh was made of earth. Therefore at that point earth is higher than the heavens.” Hearing this, the company applauded the stranger’s wisdom, but the woman spoke again: “We shall give him one more question, this one far more difficult, more obscure, harder to solve than any other could be. This will let us plumb the depth of his knowledge. If he has the answer, he is indeed worthy to sit at the bishop’s table. Ask him therefore how far it is from earth to heaven.” The pilgrim’s reply to the messenger was: “Go back to the one who sent you to me and put that question carefully to him. He knows the answer better than I do and can answer it better, because he traversed the distance when he fell from heaven into the abyss. I never fell from heaven and so never measured the distance. He is not a woman but the devil, who took on a woman’s likeness.” The messenger, frightened by what he had heard, hurried to report it to those inside. They sat stunned and bewildered by the message, but the ancient enemy vanished from their midst.

The bishop, coming to himself, bitterly reproached himself and with tears prayed for pardon for his fault. He sent the porter to bring the pilgrim into the house, but the stranger was nowhere to be found. Then he called the people together, explained to them  everything that had happened, and asked them to fast and pray that God might deign to reveal the identity of the stranger who had saved him from so great a danger. That very night it was revealed to the bishop that it was Saint Andrew himself who, to save him, had come dressed as a pilgrim. Thereafter the bishop was more than ever devout in his veneration of the holy apostle.

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