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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

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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This Was Your Life is a pretty standard Chick tract, but also the most popular worldwide. It’s been translated into over 100 languages, and not just the text–other translations are actually illustrated differently as well, so presumably you can relate no matter your skin color (as long as you’re a dude). A really fun game is to look at the translation page, click a language you don’t know anything about, and then figure out where it’s spoken according to the vaguely racist drawings. Enjoy!

In the comic, there is a guy. This guy dies, goes to the Pearly Gates, and gets to review his entire life. In a shocking twist, he has not lived according to the principles that Jack Chick thinks are laid out in the Bible—complete with out-of-context Bible quotes!—and he gets sent to Hell in the end.

This one might be more poorly written than most; the best panel is when he sees a “hot” woman on the street, and the best he can do is, “ummm hey.” He’s like the awkward gentleman in Wondermark. He goes to church and mocks the pastor to his face, which makes no sense. Why go if you’re only going to mock it? Nobody answer that.

The other best part is the montage of sin, especially this one:

Is a whoremonger the same as a pimp? A fishmonger sells fish. A cheesemonger sells cheese. It only follows that a whoremonger sells whores. This guy, however, seems to just be looking… somewhat lecherous. Probably just barely lecherous enough for a glare; I don’t think that look would warrant even flipping him off.

“But where,” you are asking, “is the redemption part? It’s a Chick Tract. We know there is a redemption part.”

I’m glad you asked. Because in This Was Your Life, the redemption part is fucking revolutionary: they break the fourth wall. Yeah, they went there. There’s a cartoon of you, the reader—by the way, you’re a middle aged man, surprise!—and you repent. You accept Jesus Christ and all that noise, and there’s a “good works” montage to complement the earlier “sin” montage. There’s nothing to do with whores, though Chick would like to remind you that giving to your local church is a VIRTUE, and they’re not even Catholic. On the last page you have a heart attack, I think, mentally yelling, “Take my hand, Jesus, I’m coming home!” in a clear homage to 30 Rock. Apparently the Grim Reaper is also a biblical truth, since he’s in that panel with you.

And then you get into heaven. Good job!

The main thing about this Chick tract is that the main character—the dude at the beginning—is not the one who receives the redemption. Usually that’s the case, because the sinner/Mormon/Catholic/Jew/atheist/woman realizes the error of his or her ways, repents, and is saved. We at least assume that they get into heaven, as the tracts make abundantly clear that heaven is the main point of Christianity. Of course the only way to get into Heaven is to accept Jesus and repent for that time you looked extra evil as a baby:

This Was Your Life is a pretty standard Chick tract: do vague, normal bad stuff and go to hell; do vague, bad stuff and then love Jesus, go to heaven. It’ll be a good measuring stick to measure other insanity against.

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It’s finally time for me start something that was supposed to be a main attraction when we started the blog: religious tract reviews. You know all those folded sheet of paper with a cross on the front that you kinda step over on your way to the corner mart for your morning Sin Coffee? I love those. I collect those, I will cross streets to pick them up off a dirty bus bunch, I risk long discussions with people wearing misspelled sandwich boards just to obtain one more, and I occasionally cross streets, risk discussions, and then don’t even take the pamphlet because I already have that one.

So, you know, I’ve got a couple stashed away. They’re mostly Christian, because that’s what tends to be around, though I have a few from Jews for Jesus, some Mormon stuff, and a Scientologist graph of something from back when I lived next to the Dianetics Center. I’ve also got a Qu’ran and an entire book of introduction to the Qu’ran, but people, I am not reviewing the Qu’ran for this blog. Same goes for the splinter group Buddhist books I got a few years ago from the train station in DC.

In order to start this party off with a bang, I went to the gold standard of crazy pamphlet lit: the Chick tract. Jack T. Chick was born in 1924, and is an Independent Baptist, which isn’t a specific church but basically means that regular Baptists weren’t conservative enough. He’s also a dispensational premillenialist, and in case you’re not up on your proper End Times lingo, just know that Jesus’ second coming is incredibly confusing and the subject of much debate requiring graphs, tables and illustrations, and this guy has a definite opinion on it.

Jack Chick hasn’t given an interview since 1975, and has never released a photo of himself, though there are other photos that claim to be of him. He’s like the Thomas Pynchon of the Christian Comics world. According to his Wikipedia page, he got the idea of spreading the word through comics from Communist China.

The first review in a sporadic, untimely series is going up tomorrow. Try to contain yourselves until then.

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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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Today in the anti-infidel edition of Weekend Obscure Saint Blogging, we’ve got a crusading saint. The Crusades are one of those things I’m always meaning to learn more about–partly, because when I heard about them for the first time (as a kid, from the Disney version of Robin Hood) I thought they sounded great. Then I grew up and actually learned something about them, and realized that not only did they excuse mass killings, they were kind of dumb.

Anyway, Adjutor. There aren’t a ton of sources about him online, which is the way I like it–the better to speculate wildly. He was born in Vernon, in the Normandy region of France, around 1070 CE and educated by a bishop since he was some sort of nobility.

In 1095, he decided it was a good idea to take 200 men and truck off to the Crusades, which were happening over in Turkey, after the Byzantine Emperor had asked the Pope for some help with the Muslims. Near Antioch, his 200 troops were surrounded by a force of 1,500 infidels and faced certain death. Applying a solution common to the saints discussed here, he prayed to St. Madeleine (the French name for Mary Magdalene), who sent a huge storm that scared the enemies off, and then Adjutor’s men charged, killing more than 1,000.

He fought for seventeen more years without incident that I can find. One webpage I found says he was fighting the Moors in Spain, not in Turkey, which would also kind of make sense. I mean, Spain’s a lot closer, and they were also in the throes of Christianizing or kicking out the non-Christian people. I’ll never know, though.

Eventually Adjutor was thrown in Muslim jail and bound with chains. His peacefulness and piety annoyed the jailers, so they put more chains on him and threw him in a deeper dungeon. There he prayed to Madeleine again, this time offering her some of his land in France for her convent if she helped him out. She showed up along with St. Bernard, and the two of them airlifted him, chains and all, back to Vernon overnight. Like UPS, but holier.

Back in Normandy he settled down into a holy life, giving Madeleine the land he’s promised and hanging out with bishops. Since his land was right on the Seine, he took it upon himself to fix some rapids that occurred naturally in the river: he and Bishop Hugues set out in a tiny boat, and while the bishop prayed he threw holy water and his chains into the river, which miraculously calmed.

One webpage I found did say he turned back the flames at the Siege of Vernon by prayer, destroying the enemy, but that same webpage says he died 1131, and Wikipedia says the Siege of Vernon by Louis VII happened in 1153. So that would be super miraculous.

St. Adjutor is the patron saint of dockworkers, yachting, swimmers, and generally anyone who does stuff on boats. Go sailing without a life vest on April 30th; you’ll be fine!

Our Lady Collegiate Church of Vernon

Lives and Legends of the English Bishops and Kings

St. Adjutor’s Life Realities (flimsily translated from French)

St. Adjutor’s Miracles

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