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Archive for the ‘Obscure Saint Blogging’ Category

Lidwina was born in Holland in 1380, the daughter of a nobleman and a peasant woman. At an early age she’d already  decided to join a convent and lead a holy life, which like I keep saying on this blog, wasn’t such a terrible choice when your options are a) spend all day praying or b) spend all day feeding some man your parents chose for you while having and raising his children. Medieval marriage: not a picnic.

When she was 15, Lidwina went ice skating with friends, as you do in Holland, but fell on some rough ice and sustained a broken rib and some sort of internal damage. Her wound became gangrenous, and over the course of years the gangrene spread over her entire body.

Things get increasingly disgusting from there. Her entire body putrefied, but she didn’t die. She had fevers, she vomited blood and it poured from all her orifices. She stopped eating gradually, first only eating a bite of apple a day, then a little bit of bread and wine each week, and eventually she was only eating communion brought to her by the priests, some of whom were convinced she was possessed by a demon. Her hagiographies report that parts of her skin fell off, entire bones fell off, and parts of her intestines fell out. Instead of getting rid of those things like normal people, her parents kept her shed body parts in a vase, where they allegedly gave off a “sweet odor,” leading me to wonder if the rest of medieval Holland was even more awful than we thought.

In researching this one, I found way more stories about female saints miraculously nursing others than you would think exist, and Lidwina is one of them. A widow who cared for her since she was bed-bound, Catherine, had a vision of Lidwina’s breasts filling with milk. Shortly thereafter, Lidwina had a vision of the Virgin Mary and a host of other holy women surrounding her bed, opening their tunics and lactating into the sky. As expected, the next time Catherine came over to change her sheets, Lidwina rubbed her breast, it filled with milk, she fed Catherine, and religion is officially weirder than fetish porn.

Another scrap that appears a few times in the literature is the rumor that Lidwina was impregnated by the local priest. Specifically, the sources state that four soldiers “abused” her with this rumor, taunting her that her body was bloated because she’d been impregnated by the priest. This priest was the same priest who refused her communion more than once, and once tried to give her an unblessed wafer, but of course she had saintly superpowers of communion detection and spit it out. Later on in her life she “saw his heart,” rightly accused him of adultery, and of course he repented. Since the priest was kind of a dick (what kind of priest wouldn’t give communion to a clearly devout, clearly sick woman?), I have to wonder whether the adultery thing was really divinely-inspired knowledge, or more first-hand knowledge that the guy was a rapist.

Before she died at age 53, Lidwina slowly became paralyzed, though she never got up from her bed again after the ice skating accident. When she died, the only thing she could move were her left hand and her head, and the descriptions of her illness have led some medical types to speculate that she may have had Multiple Sclerosis. If so, she would be the first recorded person with the disease.

St. Lidwina is officially the patron saint of ice skating, and unofficially the patron saint of MS. Please keep all of your internal organs internal for her saint day, April 14.

St. Lidwina on Wikipedia

St. Lidwina of Schiedam on the Catholic Encyclopedia

Holy Feast and Holy Fast, by Caroline Walker Bynum

The Lives of the Primitive Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints by Alban Butler

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Technically, Columbia of Rieti is not a saint. Technically she gets the title “Blessed,” which is one rung below sainthood on the Catholic Ladder of Holiness. The process of beatification is simultaneously quite thorough and totally haphazard, as best as I can tell, and anyway her technically non-beatified status doesn’t make her any less interesting. Onward!

Columba was born Angelella Guardagnoli in 1467 to parents in Rieti, Italy who were poor but still gave money to the church because how else are they supposed to get those nice hats, hm? When she was baptised a dove flew into the baptismal font, so she was nicknamed Columba. She was educated by the Dominican nuns whose laundry she mended and made, and while still a teenager she had a vision of Christ on a throne, surrounded by angels. When you start having visions of Jesus there’s usually only one way for your life to go if you’re a young lady in Renaissance Italy, and that is straight into the convent. Unfortunately her parents had other plans (have you noticed that the parents of these virgin, female saints ALWAYS have other plans? Was no parent ever like, oh, okay honey, sure you can be a nun! Follow your dream!) and betrothed her to a young man. As was done at the time, and thankfully no more, she cut off her hair and sent it to him which was a clear signal that she had no hair and thus meant to become a nun.

At ninteen she became a Dominican Tertiary, and sometime before that she became anorexic. There’s a long long tradition among the more mystical parts of Catholicism of lots of fasting, or subsisting only on the communion wafer, or eating severely limited diets, and throwing up everything that gets forced down. It goes along with other physical self-punishment in lots of cases. Columba’s fasting, or anorexia, or whatever you want to call it went along with visions in which her spirit toured the holy land, like an early Birthright Israel for non-Jews.

Anyway, Columba was barely eating if she was eating at all, and then one day she wanted to throw her family a feast. She did, and then disappeared, leaving only her vestments behind in her chamber folded in the shape of the cross. There was no way out of her chamber or the city gates, but she left somehow.

It’s after she wanders away–with no real idea where she’s going–that the weird stuff happens. At an inn she’s mistaken for a noble girl who was seduced and then left by a priest, Chiaretta of Naples, whose father had a pretty good reward for her return. The innkeeper says he’s got a wife and daughters, and then shows up with some drinking buddies and demands the reward. Columba explains she’s not the noble runaway, and things get ugly when they try to rape her. However, after they rip her clothes off they’re shocked to discover lashmarks, blisters from a hair shirts, iron bands around her neck, waist and breasts, and that she was incredibly thin. Two men run off and the innkeeper drops to his knees and prays for forgiveness.

She ends up going to Perugia, and on the way her travelling group, all women, keeps being beset by people who want nothing more to rape Columba, whose holiness keeps getting her out of it: once a man who sticks his hand up her skirt feels a “pang in his heart,” once she stops at a roadside chapel and they can’t find her. Take home lesson:  if you don’t want to get raped, be holier! An unspecified amount, naturally, and mind that this is of course all your responsibility since we can’t expect men to stop raping or anything.

Once in Perugia, Columba joins another convent and keeps not eating. Due to this whole “not eating” thing, lots of church higher-ups thought she may be in league with Satan, and no less than Lucrezia Borgia accused her of witchcraft, but Pope Alexander VI (also a Borgia) asked her advice once in a while.

As usual, there are conflicting reports on her death. Some sources say that when the plague struck Perugia, she became ill in place of the townspeople, saving them and dying herself at 34. Other sources say she starved herself to death, and honestly, given a history of self-starvation vs. a miraculous report of plague-gathering, I know which one I’m going to believe.

Her feast day is May 20, though maybe you shouldn’t feast so much as look longingly at some food while thinking about getting closer to God.

Holy Anorexia on Google Books

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This post is about penance. Well, sort of, though that would imply that this is somehow punishment rather than something awesome. Last week at the local pub quiz, there was FINALLY a question about a saint–who is the patron saint of firefighters and chimney sweeps? Well, dear reader, I had absolutely no idea. Naturally this led to a bit of existential crisis (if I can’t even get a pub quiz question about a saint right WHAT AM I DOING?), but I got over it and looked up good old Saint Florian.

Unfortunately, it’s also appropriate because Los Angeles is on fire (again) right now*, and we could probably use all the help we can get.

Florian von Lorch lived around 300 CE, and all it seems like we really know about him is that he was fairly high-ranking in the Roman Army stationed in Noricum, which is now more or less where Austria is. I did find a source that went on and on about how he was part of the valiant firefighting unit in Noricum, but nothing else I can find backs that up much, though it’s some interesting stuff about how firefighting worked in Rome, which is that people had to pay firefighters to put out fires, and it turns out you can get a LOT of money out of people whose houses are burning down. It’s a libertarian’s wet hot dream.

Firefighter or no, Florian lived during the big Diocletianic Persecution, along with some other obscure saints, and was thus (wait for it) persecuted for being a Christian. What followed was pretty standard: first they were just going to set him on fire and be done with it, but he got excited about that idea (telling them he’d fly to heaven on the smoke), so they opted for the more labor-intensive flogging and spiking and ripping out his shoulder blades with hooks instead. Finally they tied a heavy stone around his neck and threw him into the river Enns.

Miraculously in one piece, his body floated up onto a rock downstream, and an eagle watched over it until a peasant woman named Valeria could have a vision and come get the body. Afraid of being persecuted herself, she covered it with twigs, leaves and braches and pretended that she was building a fence for her garden. While taking him to where her vision said he should be buried, her animals tired so God made them a spring, and they carried on. Finally he was buried where he’d asked, though he was moved into the abbey at the town nearby, and later still they sent some of his relics to Poland, because when it’s the middle ages and you want a king to be your friend, you send him some bits of your dead saint.

A whole bunch of healing miracles are attributed to him (including one case of crushed genitals), but the thing he’s known for isn’t really clear. He’s supposed to have extinguished an entire burning village by pouring a single pitcher of water on it, but I can’t find whether that happened before or after he died. How about I just go with my gut instinct, which is, “Story invented a few hundred years later and posthumously ascribed to the living Florian.” There, done. In fact that sentence will do anyone lots of good in the area of Obscure Saint Studies.

Florian is the saint of firefighters, chimney sweepers, Poland, and beer brewers, so you should buy a Polish firefighter a drink on May 4 and then use him to sweep the chimney.

Translations!

*Thanks for asking, but no, the Illegiterati are not in any danger. Lots of other people are, though.

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I owe this episode of Obscure Saint Blogging to Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a podcast I’ve been listening to on my runs lately and enjoying the crap out of. As a half-assed classicist, my understanding of Roman history goes something like: lots of detail, names and dates up through about 69 CE; something about Trajan and Hadrian; organized Christian persecutions; Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, Diocletian splits the empire into four; Constantine loves Jesus and moves the capital to Constantinople; lots of stuff; Rome gets sacked in 410CE and then it happens about every ten years until the last Western emperor just gives up in 476CE; more stuff, Constantinople falls in 1453CE. Nuanced, yes? Suffice it to say, there are some gaps in my knowledge.

Irene of Athens, born in 752CE, was the only woman emperor the Byzantine Empire had. She was chosen for the future emperor Leo IV, possibly in a bride show as apparently she was a total hottie, and had a son, Constantine VI.

Irene’s story is partly the story of the iconoclastic movement, which is a big hairy, complicated deal but this is a blog so I’ll keep it simple. Christianity has a really weird relationship with pictures of people they consider holy, coming mostly out of Judaism like it did, and of course the second commandment says no making pictures of God. Now, Christians generally pick and choose which parts of the Old Testament they feel like following–no other gods? Got it. No bacon cheeseburgers? Yeah, about that…

Additionally, the neighboring Arabs had just gotten religion in the form of Islam, which has similar views to Judaism about when you make pictures of God (never), and they started knocking on the door in the mid-seventh century, taking Egypt and the Levant from the Byzantines, and probably having an influence on the Christian theological discussions of the day.

As a result of these two things, the Byzantines got into a big fight over whether it was okay to make and venerate icons, which, to be fair, are always pictures of Jesus or a saint, and one asks for the saint’s intercession with God on one’s behalf, not directly to the saint. This useful Orthodox Information page likens icon veneration to how Americans treat our flag (with important differences, but if praying to an American flag ever cures anyone of leprosy, I would really like to know about it). Shades of gray. Those against the icons were the iconoclasts; those in favor were the iconodules.

Leo IV’s father, Constantine V, was a fervent iconoclast who was reported to have crapped in the baptismal font at the Hagia Sophia during his coronation. Since history’s written by the winners, and the iconoclasts didn’t win (spoiler!) I am guessing that didn’t really happen, but it’s a good story. He convened a council of bishops to declare icon veneration heretical, then forced monks and nuns to marry since monasteries were notorious locations of icon veneration. Bishops got lynched in the streets, and by the time he died he was against all relics and prayers to saints. Two hundred years after he died, he was dug up again and thrown into the sea, just to make he didn’t forget he wasn’t welcome.

Leo IV, who became emperor when Constantine V died in 775 CE, didn’t care so much about who people did with icons at first. According to legend, the iconoclast Leo found two icons in Irene’s possession, and afterwards cut off all sexual relations with her, which really must have been a huge loss because he sounds like a fun dude. Possibly in reaction to this, he slowly got more intense about the iconoclasm, but then died before long, leaving his four-year-old son Constantine VI (Byzantium suffered from a severe shortage of first names) nominal emperor.

When you’re four and the emperor, mama really rules the empire, and that’s just what Irene did. She reinstated icon veneration, much to the delight of most people, and then fucked the empire seven ways from Sunday. The Arabs attacked. The Franks attacked. Everyone hated her for one reason or another, including her kid who was nearly an adult. He tried to overthrow her twice, nearly succeeded the second time and she had him thrown in jail. Then, in an act shocking even to the Byzantine empire, she had him blinded so brutally that he died from his wounds several days later.

After this slight whoopsie, she went ahead and declared herself Emperor (not Empress), and everyone freaked the hell out. No one really liked her to begin with, and since there was no man on the throne the Pope in the west decided the Byzantine empire didn’t have a ruler and just crowned one himself, so Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor. Yeah, I didn’t know an empire that ruled for a thousand years was based on sexism, either. Shockingly this deepened the rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, although it was rumored that Irene accepted a marriage offer from Charlemagne in order to fix all her problems. Before that could happen, though, one final big conspiracy unseated her and she was exiled to the island of Lesbos and someone else put on the throne. She died a year later, after ruling as sole Emperor for five years.

Much to my dismay, the podcast was wrong and Irene’s not actually a saint in the Orthodox church, but lots of Western sources think she was. She did reinstate icon veneration, which the Eastern Orthodox church is really into. On the other hand, she was a terrible emperor and had her only child blinded in a particularly gruesome manner. You win some, you lose some. Since she doesn’t actually have a saint day, you can ask a picture for a favor and then do something truly awful any time you damn well please.

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It turns out that I take obscure saint requests. It hadn’t occurred to me until someone asked, and I thought, sure! I’ll just google it and turn something up and it’s fantastic for when I can’t decide on a saint myself.

Famous last words, everybody.

Today we’re plunging into the non-story of one Saint Graoust, about whom we know the following: in the town of Le Langon, the diocese of Fontenay Le Comte, in the Vendee region of France, there is a shrine to this guy with a plaque explaining that he was in the parish records from 1564, converted a bunch of heathens, and was canonized because he raised a child from the dead. The current shrine was built in 1875. And that is it. I can’t find a single other thing with the name “Graoust” on it anywhere.

Luckily, I have a theory!

St. Grwst was a Welsh saint, as if you couldn’t tell,  in the fourth century C.E. He was from Armorica and was the patron saint of Llanwrst and several other places with far too few vowels. Now, not to talk myself up but finding out that info at all took me several trips to the research library at the Big Fancy University where I work, some quality time with Google translator, and all that after I’d frustratedly trolled through collections of saint names looking for something that was vaguely like “Graoust.”

For totally inexplicable reasons, Grwst’s alias was Rhystyd, Welsh for Restitutus, which is the name of the first bishop of London. I have to be clear: having the same name is the only thing that even remotely links the Welsh guy to the British one, but I’m taking it and running.

St. Restitutus barely has anything on him either. “Restitutus” in Latin means “revived,” so maybe he raised someone from the dead. Anyway, the main thing that’s known about him is that he attended the Council of Arles in 314 and denounced heresies like you’re supposed to.

Arles is in France. I’m not an expert on ancient travel routes, but the Vendee could be on the way from Wales to Arles if you were in the mood. And I don’t know a lot about Old French or Old Welsh, but I imagine that “Graoust” and “Grwst” sounded pretty similar.

That’s pretty much the best I can solve this mystery. Hope I helped.

If anyone else would like some of my “help,” let me know and I’ll get back to you eventually.

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thats Nostra Senora to you

that's Nuestra Señora to you

The Virgin, obviously, is neither obscure nor technically a saint, but she’s pretty much my favorite Catholic thing ever. Partly because she’s so pretty, partly because she’s all over everything in Los Angeles, but mostly because her saint day–today–is my birthday. I didn’t even know that until I moved to L.A. and got carded buying booze, but now I’ve had no less than three cashiers tell me about it

Her story really starts in 1523, when the Spanish finally conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Yeah, I always forget that the Aztecs were around so late, too–in my mind I’ve got them classified as “ancient,” so I think they went away around 476CE or thereabouts. Not true.

Being fervent Catholics, the Spanish started right away with the converting. Among the first to convert was Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, who had possibly the sweetest last name ever. This was 1524; his wife died in 1529, and then one day in 1531, he took a little walk across a hill to get to mass.

On top of Tepyac hill the Virgin Mary was waiting for him, dressed like an Aztec princess and speaking Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, and according to Wikipedia still spoken by about 1.5 million people in mostly rural areas. The English words “chili,” “coyote” and “avocado” all come from Nahuatl, which I find strangely exciting.

Anyway, Mary had a fairly simple request: tell the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, that she wanted a church to be built on the hill for her. Okay, said Juan Diego, and he went to the bishop with the request. Other Juan was skeptical, and asked that Juan D. bring him back a sign. In an exciting game of divine Telephone, Juan D. relayed this to Mary, who told him she would give a sign the next day.

Meanwhile, Juan D’s uncle had become gravely ill, and on the morning of December 12, he decided that he would go find a priest to administer the Last Rites rather than wait around on a hilltop for some floaty lady. As he went around the hill, however, to his surprise, the Virgin showed up. She told him that his uncle would be fine, and that he should climb Tepeyac hill and pick the flowers there.

That was totally crazy, of course, because we all know flowers don’t bloom in December, but nonetheless there were some lovely Castilian roses waiting up there for him. He picks the roses, stashes them in his tilma (a clock-like outergarment), and brings them back down to the Lady. She rearranges them, tells him not to peek until he gets to the bishop’s, and sends him on his way.

When Juan D. gets to Other Juan’s house and opens the tilma, the flowers are gone but there’s a picture of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the tilma. Church gets built, Juan D. is its caretaker, eight million native Mexicans convert to Catholicism in the next seven years. These days, Guadalupe is as much a symbol of Mexico as she is a religious figure–both Miguel Hildago and Emilio Zapata flew flags with the Virgin on them.

Guadalupe probably served more than anything else as a bridge between the native Aztec religions and the newer and, uh, more forceful Catholicism. The same way that they yoinked Easter for Jesus’ resurrection or Saturnalia / the winter solstice for his birth, they Christianized either Tonantzin, Coatlicue, or both, and built a church on what may have been an Aztec worship site.

There’s also some question about why she wanted to be called Guadalupe. Most Marian apparitions are named after the places they occur, like Fatima and Lourdes. Guadalupe obviously isn’t Nahuatl since there are letters besides x, t and l–it’s somewhere in Spain, which has a less famous vision of Mary. From Sancta.org:

Some believe that Our Lady used the Aztec Nahuatl word of coatlaxopeuh which is pronounced “quatlasupe” and sounds remarkably like the Spanish word Guadalupe. Coa meaning serpent, tla being the noun ending which can be interpreted as “the“, while xopeuh means to crush or stamp out. So Our Lady must have called herself the one “who crushes the serpent.”

I can get behind sharing a birthday with the modern version of a goddess who wore human hearts as a necklace and crushed serpents in her spare time. As saint days go, I think mine kicks ass.

I’m off to go spend my birthday at Mission San Juan Capistrano, a lovely place where I hear there has never been any oppression, ever.

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Hubert–who I keep wanting to called Humbert Humbert–was born in Aquitaine around 656 CE. His grandfather had been the king of Toulouse (this was back when basically every holler and hamlet had a king), and his father was duke of Aquitaine. We don’t know who his mother was because women didn’t matter.

As a “youth” he went off to the court of Theuderic III in Paris, was well-received, and “gave himself entirely up to the pomp and vanities of this world,” as the Catholic Encyclopedia so generously puts it. He married a young lady named Floribanne, but above all else he loved hunting and spent nearly all his time doing it.

One Good Friday, when everyone else was headed to a fun day in church, Hubert decided to go hunting. He was pursuing a large stag when it turned, and Hubert saw a crucifix between its antlers. Like Bambi: the evangelical version, he heard a voice say, “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” He asked what he should do, and the voice told him to seek out Lambert, the bishop of Maastricht.

I like to think he killed and ate the Jesus Deer anyway. Maybe it even counted as communion.

Hubert went to Maastricht and sought out Lambert. He avoided the “douchebags in the name of Christ” tag by waiting for his wife to die before fully committing himself to the priesthood, giving away all his possessions to the poor. As you do.

In 708 CE, Hubert made the pilgrimage to Rome, but while he was gone Lambert was assassinated back in Maastricht. Luckily the Pope at the time had a vision of the death, and also a vision telling him to appoint Hubert Bishop of Maastricht. Convenient.

He spent the rest of his life trying very hard to win the martyr’s crown–ie, trying to get himself killed in battle–and converting the remaining pagans in the region. He had a vision of his own death in 727 or 728, as well as the foresight to be reciting the Our Father when it happened. I hear that wins you big points with the dude upstairs.

Now he’s the patron saint of hunters, even the ones who shoot moose from planes and can’t form coherent sentences, and his seal is also on a bottle of Jagermeister. Jagerbomb for Jesus every November 3rd.

Wikipedia

Catholic Encyclopedia

Patron Saints Index

Hubert, Patron Saint of Hunters

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