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Posts Tagged ‘saints’

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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Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Way before a dude named Prince was making Purple Rain, there was a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt, named Apollonia.

Nothing, apparently, is known of her life, besides the fact that she was a Christian virgin who lived in Alexandria. Some sources say she was an older lady, but other sources say that’s a mistranslation, and what the letter it’s from actually says is that she was a deaconess. Either way, she was doing her thing in 248 or 249 CE, right after Rome’s first millenial celebration (it was founded in 753 BCE), and during one of the most intense persecutions.

The Emperor Decius, who ruled for all of two years (which was an admirable stretch at the time), decided that Christians were a big threat to the empire because a) they had weird customs, b) they weren’t worshiping the proper gods, and c) they were more loyal to the Christian god than the Emperor. Seeing an opportunity to unite the rest of the Roman people by joining together to beat up the Christians, they all got rounded up and told to convert or die. That’s the point I tried (and failed) to make last week: this is how most organized religious persecutions go, more or less.

A whole lot converted. You don’t hear about this much, because instead of getting sainthood they got to live out their lives, but it’s true. Here and here are some certificates saying former Christians had sacrificed to the Roman gods. Many went back to the church a little later asking to rejoin, which caused a big fuss, but that’s for another day.

That’s the deal they offered Apollonia. She refused, so they beat her, and either punched her and knocked out her teeth, or extracted her teeth as a torture method. When she wasn’t deterred, the mob (remember, it was a family activity) made a fire and told her to change her mind or she’d be burned alive. By pretending to consider, she got the crowd to unhand her, and then jumped in the fire herself.

You may think that this counts as suicide, which is totally a sin. St. Augustine, early father of the church, says it wasn’t, though. Clearly, as a holy person, she was told by the holy spirit to jump in the fire. Since she was just obeying God, it wasn’t suicide, so she was a martyr and therefore holy. It’s a little circuitous.

Apollonia became a saint, and Decius dealt with a huge smallpox pandemic (5,000 people PER DAY died in the city of Rome) right before being the first Roman Emperor to die in battle with barbarians.

Unsettlingly, Apollonia is the patron saint of dentistry, usually pictured with a tooth and sometimes pliers. She has relics all over the place, but her head is in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is totally near where I lived when I did a semester in Rome, and I went there a couple of times because I was just as crazy then.

Her saint day is February 9, but I recommend the nitrous oxide.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Wikipedia

Butler’s Lives of the Saints

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Since I’m at my parents’ house right now, in lovely Spotsylvania, Virginia where I grew up, I thought I’d do a Southern-type saint. There’s no patron saint of the Civil War that I can find. I did, however, see someone call the Civil War the “War of Southern Liberation” for the first time in my short life. I’ve heard it called the War of Northern Aggression–yes, for real–but this one is new.

I eventually settled on St. Vincent de Paul. I’m not sure he’s quite obscure, since he’s a bigger deal than any other saint I’ve talked about here, but I’d never heard of him so it counts. He’s the patron saint of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, which is the airport I fly into and was the capital of the Confederacy.

And then, dear readers, I wrote an entire post about this man. And then WordPress ate it.

Since I am a little bit lazy, and also since it’s two days late, here are the highlights.

Born 1581 in France. Became a priest; preached in Toulouse; went to Marseilles for some reason. Went back to Toulouse via the sea but on the way was captured by Turkish pirates who sold him in Tunis. Bought by a fisherman who sold him to an old Muslim who’d spent fifty years looking for the philosopher’s stone. Aged Muslim died and his nephew got Vincent. The nephew was a former Christian with three wives, one of whom convinced him to return to the faith.

He did, and escaped with Vincent back to France, leaving his wives behind. I considered an “assholes in the name of God” tag.

Vincent did a bunch of charitable good stuff and I commented that it’s nice for a saint to be canonized for helping the poor instead of guarding her virginity at all costs or whatever. He founded the Lazarists and Sisters of Charity amongst others and does secret missions between the Vatican and Henry IV of France.

I puzzled over why he’s the patron saint of Richmond, and considered that late in his life, he became the spiritual advisor and advocate for the galley slaves of Paris, whose lives sucked really bad. He also used donations from his church in Paris to buy Northern African slaves’ freedom, to the tune of 12,000 people.

I looked him up in the Dictionary of Miracles, and his was a miraculous ability to hold his tongue. Don’t say anything if you can’t say something nice September 27.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Wikipedia

Butler’s Lives of the Saints

Christian History Institute

Eternal Word Television Network (note: probably suspect)

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Patron saint of procrastinators, and one who generally hurries things along.

The story of Expeditus is extraordinarily confused, and ends with the Catholic church basically admitting that this guy never lived. He starts showing up in martyrologies–big lists of martyrs–in the eighteenth century in Italy, well before 1781. Unfortunately what the martyrology said was that he was a martyr who died in Turkey a Long Time Ago.  He’s represented in pictures as a young Roman soldier, though.

Add to that, his entry in the martyr list was probably some sort of scribal mistake. It’s been suggested that he was confused with St. Elpidius.

Then, in 1781 as the story goes, a group of nuns in Paris received a big box with the word “Spedito”–“Expeditus” in Latin–with the statue and relics of a saint in it. In a hilarious misunderstanding, the nuns thought that “Expeditus” was the name of the martyr within (rather than a shipping instruction), and started praying to him.

Since their prayers were answered super quickly and efficiently, he was made the patron saint of Getting Shit Done; this is more or less the Scientific Method of the Catholic church. Perhaps next week’s saint will be an example of the research process in the Catholic church. Hint: it involves visions, but no footnotes.

In any case, the cult of St. Expeditus survives until today. Wired claims him as the patron saint of hackers. He’s particularly revered in New Orleans, where a slightly different version of the same story was told: same idea, but with the relics and state being shipped to a church in New Orleans amongst a batch of other Church paraphenalia; since the state wasn’t labeled they decided “Expedite,” written on the outside, was his name.

Even better, he’s the patron saint of the Replubic of Molossia, a micronation in Nevadan desert (with a “colony” in the Mojave, near Twentynine Palms. Having been there, I am not at all surprised).

Finally, on the French island of Réunion (near Madagascar), there are red shrines devoted to the saint all over the place, as well as beheaded statues of the guy. This is what happens when you don’t answer prayers fast enough, Mister Speedy!

In the picture up top, he’s holding a cross with the word “hodie” (Latin for “today”) and stepping on a crow saying “cras” (tomorrow). Maybe this should go above my desk.

His feast day is April 19th, but you can wait until the 20th.

Catholic Online

Wikipedia

Something else useful

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