This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31 -- Feast of Saints Petronilla and Hermias the Martyr

Three: it's how long you ought to suffer for your faith before you can be released and receive your eternal reward. The length of those three units may vary, but three is (as we learned on Schoolhouse Rock) a magic number.

Petronilla was said to be the daughter of Saint Peter. Later, others said that simple-minded readers took a fairly common name (it means the little daughter of Petronius) and grafted it on to the only Peter they knew and cared to know. Others want to split the difference and say she was his spiritual daughter. Any of that works for me, but I am not buying the notion that she was so beautiful he locked her away in a tower. That was Danae. Or Rapunzel, maybe. But St. Peter was a poor fisherman trying to organize a religious community in the banlieues of Rome. He didn't have any towers to lock beautiful girls in, even if he had wanted to.

To get back to THREE, Petronilla caught the eye of a well-connected polytheist named Flaccus. One source lists him as a pagan king, but that doesn't make a lot of sense in first century Rome. Hell, not even the emperors were using the word king, so random swells certainly wouldn't have. Let's say he was a senator. He took a fancy, but she of course declined, trying to explain that she was the spiritual bride of a carpenter who died before she was born. That was always a tough idea to sell, so she got gaffled up for some vigorous persuasion. One version of the story follows the usual course -- piercing, burning, ripping, shredding, flaying and finally beheading. Another version says she launched a hunger strike that lasted three days.

Hermias the Martyr of Comana, also celebrated on May 31, was rightly accused of Christianity in the third century. It may have been the reign of Marcus Aurelius or of Antoninus Pius -- could have been either since they both took it to the Christians. He confessed but wouldn't renounce his faith, so they broke his jaw, tore the flesh from his face, pierced his eyes, and all sorts of other mean, nasty, ugly things (to quote Arlo Guthrie). After three days of torture, he was beheaded.

Christ suffered three hours on the Cross. Of course, he had a solid twenty-four hours (or so) of abuse running up to that, but the three hours are symbolic. If you find yourself embellishing the life of a martyr, consider making the duration of the tribulation three units (hours, days, weeks, months, years).

Monday, May 30, 2011

May 30 -- Feast of St. Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc)

The story of Saint Jeanne is variously interpreted and retold. Bernard Shaw used the story to comment on many things from superstition and political exploitation to collective and individual culpability. If you don't have the patience to read his play about her, the 1957 film starring Jean Seberg (b&w photo) is worth watching, even if it bombed at the box office. Luc Besson's interpretation starring Milla Jovovich (color photo) is unnecessarily brutal in some scenes and seems to dismiss Jeanne as a schizophrenic, but John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman put in great performances.
In fairness, Jovovich is good in many scenes too.

In re-evaluating Saint Jeanne's story, I am troubled by a certain double standard. Jeanne believed that she heard voices, including the voice of Catherine of Alexandria, a saint for whom there's no good historical evidence. On the basis of these voices, she raised an army and fought against the English invaders in France. She was captured in battle and eventually tried for witchcraft by the English. Their reasoning: if this woman had not been a witch, how could she (female, peasant, inexperienced in battle, illiterate) ever have prevailed against English forces. The English and the Church officials in their dominions in France have been mocked and condemned for their superstition, bigotry, and injustice. Fair enough, I suppose, except that Joan herself shared these same superstitions and similar bigotry. The role of the supernatural was accepted on all sides. Joan believed that God took France's side in the war, and that she was specially favored to do His will. The English believed the same thing, except they substituted Satan for God in the equation. Not to get all Manichean about it, but aren't they pretty much arguing about the side rather than the coin?

It is a happy coincidence, by the way, that the feast of St. Joan, the patron of soldiers, and particularly of WACs and WAVES, falls on Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

May 29 -- Feast of a pair of Saints named Theodosia

Acknowledgment of the artwork should probably precede anything else, since it is contemporary and reproduced without permission. Hopefully, the artist is grateful for the link to her own site and work. The pictures is from this website, displaying the artwork of , and an explanation of her intent is also found there. Although the woman may bear a vague resemblance to the Wicked Stepmother Queen in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, the figure represented is actually St. Theodosia of Constantinople. Since she's featured in the pictures, let us discuss her before the St. Theodosia of Tyre, even though the Tyrian was a few centuries earlier.

St. T. of Constantinople lived in a convent in that city, capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, during the reign of Emperor Leo the Isaurian. We've talked about Leo and his rabid iconoclasm earlier. Leo sent troops to remove all the icons from the convent as well as a famous and popular image of Christ over the Chalke Gate, the main ceremonial entrance to the Byzantine palace.

Here's a fun new word to know: iconodule. An iconodule is the opposite of an iconoclast, i.e. someone who favors the use of icons as tools of religious worship. I lean toward the iconodulistic side of the debate, as long as one is clear that the icon is not a god, but rather a visual cue to prompt the worshipper. But that's me. Others take a harder line on the Second Commandment. But I should get back to the Theodosiae.

T of C was an iconodule of great courage. As a soldier climbed a ladder to take down the Chalke Gate icon, she shook his ladder. He fell off and died. She was arrested, taken to the palace, and executed by a ram's horn (driven through her neck).

The story of Saint Theodosia of Tyre (T of T) is a less extraordinary, though contemplating the details should make you think. It occurs to me that if I wanted my daughter to have a long, happy life, I wouldn't name her Theodosia. T of T was busted as a Christian in AD 308, the last great persecution before Constantine made Christianity legal. T of T refused to make an offering to the polytheistic idols and so "her sides and breasts were mercilessly scraped even to the inward parts and bones." She didn't have a lot to say as this was happening, which the writers attribute to her great courage. The governor, a Roman named Urban, gave her another opportunity to apostatize, thereby saving what was left of herself. Instead she mocked him. Whatever tortures followed have not been described, but they were said to be worse. Then her body was dumped in the ocean.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 28 -- Feast of Blessed Margaret Plantagenet Pole

Margaret was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, and the granddaughter of the Earl of Warwick. George was a player in the last phase of the War of the Roses, when his family (the Yorks) not only vied with the Lancasters for control of the throne, but also plotted against each other. Although George's plotting earned him an execution, his connection to the family made sure it was at least private. The legend says he was was drowned in a double-hogshead of wine., which certainly seems like a waste of good wine, but I suppose nothing is too good for family.

Margaret had the misfortune to be the cousin and ward of King Henry VIII, the first king from the House of Tudor. His reign was sanctioned by both Lancasters and Yorks. You'd think life would be pretty good as the ward of such a powerful monarch. Life should have been even better as the governess of his first daughter, Mary.

The problem, of course, is that he was not very amenable to criticism, or even the tacit suggestion of disapproval. He desperately needed audible and frequent affirmation. His decision to divorce Mary's mother in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which ultimately led to the schism between the Churches of Rome and England, was not favored by Cousin Margaret. Even though she had been named Countess of Salisbury, she was exiled from court. Her son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, wrote critically of Henry's decision and brought condemnation on his family. Henry ordered the execution of two other Pole Brothers. Margaret herself was imprisoned in the Tower for two years. Then, when a rebellion actually did break out, she was beheaded, just to be sure that any treason she may have been harboring in her heart did not manifest itself in the world.

It's bad enough to want to split the Church of your country just so you can get a divorce. Beheading your own cousin on top of it was just way over the top. You'll note that in the picture above she's praying while rats scurry all around her cell.

Friday, May 27, 2011

May 27 -- Feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Here's the skinny on Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

1. He's the Apostle to England (to the Anglo-Saxons)

2. He is not the Fourth Century Augustine, the big dog of stolen pears fame, but he's a big dog in his own right.

3. The Archbishops of Canterbury are all said to sit on the throne of Saint Augustine, just as the Pope sits on St. Peter's Chair. Some may find that derivative, but I think it is a charming homage.

4. In the picture, he is baptizing King Ethelred.

5. He was as reluctant to evangelize England as Pope Gregory the Great was eager to have England evangelized. Being of equal but opposing minds, they might have canceled out if one wasn't the Pope. All other things being equal, Popes win.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26 -- St. Philip Neri

May 18 was the feast of St. Felix of Cantalice, whose very good friend and colleague in street preaching was St. Philip Neri. St. Felix was sometimes a Clown for Christ, sporting a goofy haircut or aping around the streets to get attention before launching into serious preaching. Philip too enjoyed joking, using humor to teach lessons of faith and humility. In the picture at right, he is holding a small dog that he stole from one of the cardinals. When wealthy aristocrats turned to him for guidance, he made them take the dog for a walk before helping them so they could learn some humility.

Speaking of cardinals, Philip was offered a red cap, but declined. Turning down a bishopric seems pretty common, almost an obligatory sign of humility that was more often than not followed by insistence that one take the job. Turning down a cardinalship, however, is the real deal. They don't ask again, and you walk away from all the power and privilege that the Church has to offer.

Philip came to the priesthood at the relatively late age of thirty-five, having received a vision of a burning globe that enlarged his heart when he swallowed it. [Insert middle-age crisis / heartburn joke here.] He had a mind to preach in India, but another vision told him that Rome needed him more. The Eternal City had already become the cesspool of corruption that was to disgust Martin Luther so; Philip's preaching earned him the designation "Apostle of Rome," an ironic name since Rome of all places should not have needed evangelization. (Yeah, I made that word up.)

Philip is the patron of the US Army Special Forces. According to a website explaining the St. Philip Neri Award Program, "St. Philip Neri was selected as the Patron Saint of Special Forces because he embodied the traits of the ideal Special Forces Soldier, Selfless, Superb Teacher, and Inspirational Leader."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25 -- Feast of Saint Bede the Venerable

So he really was canonized; I never knew that. I figured the process had never been completed because I had only heard him called The Venerable Bede. I don't know why folks leave the "Saint" off his name, but I think I like him better as the Venerable Bede. He's a particularly human saint for me, one I might relate.

He didn't perform miracles, nor were any attributed to his relics (that I know of). He didn't suffer for his faith, unless living quietly as a scholar and a monk since age seven is suffering. Lots of us hedonists might say it is, but for his part, he said, "I have taken delight always either to study, to teach, or to write."

His Ecclesiastical History of the Church of England is our only source of contemporary historical writing for the eighth century. I have not read other ecclesiastical histories from that era, but I understand that they are mostly lists. Bede's, however, is an engaging account of how Christianity and the diverse peoples of Britain influenced each other as England coalesced into a nation.

Scholar. Teacher. Writer. What more does a saint need to be?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24 -- Feast of Saint David of Scotland

THE Saint David is David of Wales (March 1). Nonetheless, if you know any Scottish Davids, wish them a Happy St. David's Day. He was, after all, the greatest king of Scotland.

Nothing especially miraculous is attributed to David in most of the available short biographies. I suspect his life was too public and too well documented for any unsubstantiated claims to be put forward. But he was an able administrator who elevated the standing of his nation to a European leader, even if it slipped back into England's shadow after his death.

David was educated at the Anglo-Norman court of Henry I. He was deeply and inevitably enmeshed in English politics, holding an earldom in England and marrying the daughter of a fellow English earl. Henry I backed David against Malcolm (son of David's brother Alexander), placing him in debt to the English king. After Henry's death, as war for the English throne erupted, he sought Scotland's advantage (and his own) by grabbing Northumberland while fighting for Henry's daughter, the Empress Mathilda. By the time of the compromise that brought Henry II to the throne, David's territory extended well into present-day England.

David reorganized the Scottish legal, political, and ecclesiastical institutions. He established many new bishoprics, strengthened ties with the Vatican, and worked to get Scotland out of the oversight of Canterbury. I suppose this interest in strengthening the Church qualifies him for sainthood, though it looks like plain nationalism to me. Perhaps his personal piety, especially at the time of his death, is most saintly.

They say that his attendants advised him to rest after Viaticum (receiving Communion as part of the last rites). He answered, "Allow me rather to think about the things of God, so that my soul may be strengthened... when I stand before God's judgment-seat, none of you shall answer for me, none of you protect me or deliver me from his hand." That alone is worth meditating on.

Oh, if you're wondering about the English north, David's acquisitions didn't last long. His son predeceased him so his grandson, Malcolm IV, succeeded him on the throne. The insatiably imperialistic Henry II quickly chased the Scots from English territory and began work on controlling Scotland itself. Henry II was one greedy SOB; ain't no one calling him a saint.

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23 -- Feast of Saint Alexander Nevski

Alexander was the King of Novgorod and protector of Russia. He dealt with invasions from the Tartars, the Lithuanians, the Swedes, and the Teutonic knights. Everyone from the west got their backsides booted, but the Tartars were diplomatically redirected. Thus, he was a wise king as well as brave and formidable. As he attributed his victories to his visions of Saints Boris and Gleb, he was also recognized as pious. He retired to monastic life shortly before his death in 1263.

As you can see from the graphic, Sergei Eisenstein made a film about him. Sergei Prokofiev wrote the score. Peter the Great named him protector of his new capital St. Petersburg, and the Soviets capitalized (can Communists capitalize?) on his popularity. During World War II, they welcomed an armored cav division named for him and financed by the Russian Orthodox Church. They also restored the Order of Alexander for military valor, though of course he was not called St. Alexander.

His nationalist reputation even extended to ecclesiastical matters. The Pope sent legates to his court to offer religious instruction. Alexander told them, "We know the law of God very well and will take no lessons from you." I guess that's why he's only a saint in the East.

I probably should have left this until November, which is when the Eastern Church celebrates him. He was, after all, Orthodox, but the opportunity to have two film posters in a row was irresistible.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22 -- Feast of St. Rita of Cascia

Saint Rita is a patron of hopeless causes. Her specialty is hopeless marriages.

The legends about her life make it clear that she was destined from birth to suffer for her faith and eventually be recognized for her holiness. While a newborn, lying in her crib, a swarm of bees gathered over her. They did not harm her, but one by one, they flew down, entered her mouth, and then flew away. No one understood until well after her death, when Pope Urban VIII beatified her. His family coat of arms (Barberini) had three bees on it. See?

Well, the next part is plausible to anyone who has even cursorily looked at the roles of women in western culture. (Why pick on the west? Women were commodified just about everywhere.) At twelve, Rita's parents announced she would be married to a wealthy gentleman named Paulo Ferdinando. She had been asking to be allowed to join a convent, but the parents thought that marrying an older man with a reputation for violence and womanizing would be a better choice. Off she went to fill her teenage years with domestic violence and the shame and frustration of his frequent infidelity.

Here's the lost cause / bad marriage part. She tirelessly prayed that he would be saved, enjoining him to work for his own salvation as much as she worked for it. In the end, she prevailed. He repented, reformed, and together they were raising two sons.

Of course, he had sown a lot of bad seeds and some had sprouted and were still bearing fruit. He was murdered for his previous misdeeds. At the time, revenge killing (La Vendetta) was legal in Italy, but Rita knew it was not acceptable to God. Her teenage sons declared their intentions to get even when they could. Rita prayed that they would not get a chance. Within a year, they were both dead of dysentery. Careful what you pray for.

She decided to enter an Augustinian convent. At the time she determined to do it, the gates were locked for the night. Saints John the Baptist, Augustine, and Nicholas of Tolentino transported her over the convent walls, depositing her safely inside. In the morning, the sisters questioned her, and upon learning of her miraculous entrance, welcomed her among them.

She prayed that she might share some in the suffering of Christ. A wound, consistent with a thorn being pushed into her skin, opened on her forehead. It did not heal for the rest of her life. Speaking of which, she lived to be about seventy-five years old, and as she was dying, a sister asked if there were anything she wanted. She requested a rose and a fig from the garden. It was January, but with Rita, one didn't take chances. The sister went to the garden, where she found a single rose in full bloom and a single, fully ripened fig hanging from the tree.

There's a statue of St. Rita in St. Leonard's Church in the North End of Boston, but as there is also a three-hour movie of her life, the film poster gets the nod as today's graphic.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21 -- Feast of St. Collen

A Christian radio broadcaster named Harold Camping predicted that the Rapture would occur today. Apparently it is 6:00 PM in some parts of the world already and no one is ascending to heaven. On yet another day when a man tried and failed to predict the will of God, I think it is fitting to focus on a saint whose stories are almost certainly bunk.

Collen was a seventh century Welsh monk, and like anyone who was anyone back in those days, he was connected to Camelot. I think it was his grandfather who had a seat at the Round Table.

Collen was summoned by the Pope to duel against a Saracen named Bras. Bras had thrown down a challenge: all the adherents to the loser's faith would convert to the winner's faith. Strangely, Collen's behavior is less than chivalric at one point in the duel. His hand is wounded but he rejects Bras' advice to submit. Okay so far, but Bras offers him a magic ointment for instant healing. Collen accepts, heals his hand, and then tosses the ointment in the river so that neither will have access to it for the rest of the duel. First, he takes magic in a fight for faith, and then throws away someone else's property after the guy helped him.

In any event, he bests Bras, who submits and accepts baptism on the spot. As a reward, the Pope gives him a withered lily which will bloom magnificently in the presence of those who doubt the truth of the Virgin Birth.

He returned to Britain, served as an abbot, but withdrew to live as a hermit because he found the wickedness and weakness of others to be hard to bear. Even as a hermit, his temper was short. One day he overheard a couple of locals talking about Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic god of the Underworld and King of the Fairies. He berated them for believing in such demons, and they in turn warned him that he'd regret the denial. The warning was apt, of course, and may have helped him in the following encounter.

A dazzlingly appointed messenger from the King of the Fairies showed up to invite Collen to a feast. He declined. The messenger insisted. He declined again. The third invitation was reluctantly accepted, but Collen brought a flask of holy water. The courier led him to a castle he had never seen before. He was welcomed by Nudd himself, who ushered him into a sumptuous feast. Collen sat, made some small talk, and then brought the conversation around to the fate of those who have not accepted the One True God. He sprinkled the holy water around and the whole thing disappeared except for one angry, squawking bird which flapped away.

Collen moved even further away from people, but word still reached him of a flesh-eating giantess. He took up a sword and went to the mountain pass she guarded. They fought, and in the fight, he chopped off her right arm. She picked it up with her left hand and began beating Collen with it. He chopped off her left arm. She started shouting for Arthur, King of the Giants, to rescue (or at least avenge) her, but he chopped off her head before the giant was summoned.

I don't like to make sport of other people's faith. It doesn't sit well. But the Gospel is pretty clear that the Lord is not tipping his hand about the Second Coming, so everybody just has to live faithful lives until he shows up. For Mr. Camping to presume that he can sneak a peak at the Lord's timetable, he deserves to look as silly as the folks who wrote the life of St. Collen if they intended anything other than a good yarn.

Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20 -- Feast of Saint Ethelbert of East Anglia

At right is the shrine of St. Ethelbert, King of East Anglia. It looks to me like the sort of think you could drop a coin in to get your fortune told, or maybe to win a small toy. That's not a reflection of Ethelred, who was a serious fellow, but rather on the decorator who thought that a carnival stand would be the best way to house his bones.

Ethelbert was, as I said, a serious fellow, and they do not always fare well as kings. He had a lifelong limp, so he grew up without that jocular hunter-warrior attitude that help Richard the Lion-hearted and Henry VIII. More of a Claudius, if I can mix thrones.

He wanted to dedicate his life to God, but reluctantly became king because his country needed him. If he had not inherited from his father, the nobles would have fought for control of the country.

He wanted to remain celibate but his country needed him to produce an heir. Reluctantly, he agreed to Alfrida, daughter of King Offa of Mercia. Probably sucked for her too, planning to be married off to a guy who wants to be a monk, but it didn't come to pass. There were omens against it (earthquake and eclipse, among others), but he went to Mercia anyway.

Perhaps his intended mother-in-law didn't approve. Maybe King Offa didn't. It's hard to say, but Offa had a mechanic named Grimbert behead poor Ethelbert and dump his body in a trash heap.

Here come the miracles. 1) A divine ray shone down on the trash heap until the body was recovered so it could be brought back to East Anglia for proper veneration.

2) En route, his head rolled off the cart and bumped into a blind guy sitting by the road. The blind guy was healed, of course.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19 -- Feast of St. Alcuin of York

Alcuin was an eighth century deacon who served as minister of education under Charlemagne. In addition to establishing schools and scriptoria, thereby preserving the works of the classical writers (both pagan and Christian, God bless him) for modern readers, he was an advocate of the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, rather than just the Father. This was the point on which the schism between the Eastern and Roman churches split, though Charlemagne's assertion of the title Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope's assertion of primacy had much to do with it, too.

But here's the thing I want you to know. He is also credited with the invention of cursive writing. Cursive's had a good run of it -- twelve centuries or so -- but i-Phones seem to be supplanting the Palmer method.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18 -- Feast of Saint Felix of Cantalice

Saint Felix was a sixteenth century Italian shepherd, more pious than his occupation would suggest. He spent his free time in prayer, but never learned to read very well, so the Capuchin brothers were reluctant to take him in when he declared his interest in becoming a monk. This interest had been sparked by a friend reading a book about the Desert Fathers to him. Felix really wanted to be a hermit, but he feared he would cave in to temptation.

Two things are fortunate for the Capuchins. First, they agreed to take him in. Second, they appointed him a questor, i.e. an official beggar for food. The brothers in the monastery only ate the donated food that the questors could gather from the rest of the city, so it was important to have the right men doing the job. Felix, nicknamed Deo Gratias (Thanks Be to God) because that's how he greeted everyone. He took special joy in teaching little kids; he even composed canticles to instruct them in the basics of the Faith. His simple songs were so popular that people would invite him in to sing when he came to the door to beg for food.

People began to believe that he could see their sins within them. He became a powerful street preacher, urging people to avoid sin and temptation. His reputation as a holy man grew to the point where Church big shots began consulting him. He developed a close personal friendship with Philip Neri (also destined for sainthood) and Charles Borromeo (yet another future saint) consulted him when drafting the constitution of the Oblates of Saint Ambrose.

Most depictions of him show him holding a little baby, often with Mary the Blessed Virgin looking on. It depicts a time when he received a vision from Mary in which she allowed him to hold the Christ child, which would be a high honor indeed. (I felt pretty special when my niece let me hold her kid.)

His funeral caused such a ruckus that people were injured trying to crowd into the chapel to see him. In fact, they had to knock out part of the wall to make an egress so that the crowd could circulate through more safely. He was popularly proclaimed a saint upon his death. However, he was also formally recognized as a saint by the Vatican over the following couple of centuries.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17 -- Feast of Blessed Ivan Ziatyk

Outside of a Risk board, you don't often find references to Irkutsk. You can see it on the image at right, south of Yakutsk, east of Siberia, north of Mongolia, and west of Kamchatka. Pretty much, that tells you everything you need to know about the place -- remember that when the Mongols went conquering, they traveled south and west. People sent exiles east to Siberia -- any one sent further east must have surely been condemned to oblivion.

One such exile was a Greek Catholic priest named Ivan Ziatyk. He worked in Poland and then the Ukraine, rising to the rank of Vicar General as all his superiors were exiled or imprisoned. The communist regime arrested him in 1950 and exiled him to Irkutsk, where he was tortured and beaten until his death in 1952.

He is (at present) beatified but not canonized. If you have any miracles that could be attributed to him, be sure to tell the Vatican so they can finish up the paperwork and make him a full saint.

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 16 -- Feast of St. Brendan the Navigator

Brendan was an Irish monk in the golden age of Irish monks. There were about two generations of Big Green Dogs; the second generation included Brigid, Brendan, Columba, Briga, Erc, Finian, Ciaran, and Enda.

Brendan was said to have established the Clonfert monastery, which housed around three thousand monks. It could boggle a mind that bothered to think about it -- perhaps it is best not to. The Rule by which the brothers lived was said to have been dictated by an angel. That too is best to take on faith or not -- thinking won't help much.

Brendan set out in a coracle -- a tippy little Celtic boat -- to evangelize the Atlantic islands. As the legend has it, he and his companions pulled ashore on Easter to light a fire and say Mass, only to discover that their island had been a sleeping sea monster named Jasconius. Roused by the fire on its back, Jasconius interrupted Mass and sent the brothers scrambling back to their coracle.

The legend, recounted in The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot, has lots of wild adventures. They even meet Judas, taking a break from Hell. I'll add the book to the list of things I ought to have read.

They were apparently looking for Eden, but eventually made landfall in North America instead. Having lived all my years (so far) in North America, I can attest that it is nice, but it is not Eden. Anyway, Brendan made it here long before that gentleman from the Italian peninsula for who the Capital District is named. Don't believe me? Ask any Celt.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 15 -- Feast of Saint Isidore the Farmer

I understand shirking. Hell, I'd like to believe I've gotten pretty good at it over the years. After all, it would be nice to be good at something. But the truth is, I was probably born with this knack for shirking.

St. Isidore was not really a shirker, but his co-worker accused him of it. He was just a husband, a father, and a worker on a large farm -- a peasant serf sort of guy. The death of his son led him to believe that God wanted to live chastely with his wife and spend much of his time in religious contemplation. He began to attend Mass daily.

This was, of course, the problem. His co-workers began to grumble that he was sitting in church singing and praying while they were in the fields toiling and sweating. He ignored their complaints.

Then the Big Boss Man (the master, overseer, lord, whatever) showed up to check on these complaints. In truth, he found Isidore at Mass, but the plowing was being done by angels. (See picture, upper right). Tough to argue with that.

I doubt however that an angel graded those Cold War quizzes while I was posting this.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

May 14 -- St. Victor the Martyr

This is all about the icon. Check that out. See how tough Victor is? He's just sitting there while the guy takes out his eye with a spoon gouge. He's got his left hand free and in position to grab and crush the fella's nads, but he didn't. Like a good martyr, he was willing to submit and suffer for his faith.

Victor had been a soldier in Damascus, but he was denounced as a Christian. Having admitted to the charge, he was tortured, blinded, and then beheaded.

May 13 -- Feast of St. John the Silent

The job of bishop is an to be an intermediary between the secular world full of politics, policy, and management, and the spiritual world. It is a tough balance, and many folks have not handled it well. Some have been too worldly for their own good and the good of the Church. Others, like St. John the Silent, are not canny enough.

John had been bishop of Colonia for about a decade when his brother-in-law became the regional governor. The brother-in-law of course saw this as a perfect alliance between church and state; he immediately set about policy alignment. John rightly saw this as intrusion and interference, but he lacked the political skill set to thwart it. Instead he fled to a monastery under an assumed name and his hid there for four years. Only when he was deemed prepared for ordination was he forced to admit he had already taken holy orders and was living in pretense.

In a surprising (to me, anyway) twist, the Patriarch of Jerusalem allowed him to remain. He took a vow of silence and walled himself up for four more years. Then he became a hermit in the desert, where (according to accounts) he was protected from robbers by lions. Eventually he made his way back to the human world to engage in the orthodoxy debates.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May 12 -- Feast of Saint Germanus

Germanus was the Patriarch of Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Leo the Isaurian. Leo was an iconoclast, but at least he had the decency to exile Germanus rather than kill him for his defense of icons.

In truth, the selection of this particular saint had much to do with Leo's title "Isaurian." How cool is that? In fact, that's Leo, not Germanus, at right.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

May 11 -- Feast of St. Ignatius of Laconi

There were lots of interesting choices for today, though nothing I read was especially compelling. I briefly thought that St. Comgall was a contender, having been the founder of Bangor, but then I realized that it was Ireland's Bangor, not Bangor, Maine. He did say that a man without a soul-friend is a body without a head, which is sweet, and his bones were desecrated by the Vikings. Heathen bastards.

Then I thought about St. Maieul, whose name contains most of the normal English vowels. Had the saint been Maieulo, the very name itself would be miraculous.

St. Credan of Cornwall was a contender. He accidentally killed his father. Deep in remorse, he abandoned his former way of life and became a hog reeve. Apparently he was such a dedicated hog reeve that he was recognized as a saint after his death.

However, the imagery involved in one story about St. Ignatius of Laconi was too good to be ignored. He was a questor, an official beggar, for his order. The brothers living within the monastery relied on the questors for their food, so it was a position of considerable responsibility. A local moneylender complained that Ignatius refused to beg from him, so he was ordered to go ask for food. He did so, and was given a large sack of provisions. However, when he returned to the monastery and opened the bag, the food was dripping with the blood of the poor. I imagine that after that, no one told him where to beg.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10 -- Feast of Job the Patriarch

Here's one I hope you can't relate to. If you can, let's hope your faith is as strong.

Job is the object lesson of patient devotion to the Lord, even when the chips were down. And by down, I mean down to the bottom of the pit. His wife and kids were dead, his house in ruins, his livestock dead (I guess it would be deadstock, but that sounds like a jam band concert), and his own body covered in ulcers. He sat on a pile of ashes and scraped his ulcerated skin with a potsherd, but he did not curse God. He cursed the day he was born, but he did not curse God.

Monday, May 9, 2011

May 9 -- Feast of Saint George Preca

Does this man look crazy to you?

They thought he was crazy, but of course he was just Maltese. I'm sure the difference is subtle but important.

George had big ideas about how to spread the Gospel of Jesus, ideas that might have been taken as founding a whole New Religious Movement (cult) if he had not been working within the Catholic Church. He founded a group called MUSEUM, taking as its slogan the Latin phrase "Magister, Utinam Sequator Evangelium Universus Mundus! (Master, that the whole world would follow the Gospel!"

Of course, the Latin in that strikes me as pretty odd, since Magister means master as in teacher, but the translation for Master as Lord is Dominus. The difference might be unimportant, but it could raise the question about whether the Magister was Jesus or George. Most likely, the slogan followed the nickname ("the Museum") of the group home for spiritually minded lay people that George founded after an intense stint of solitary meditation. The small religious order he built was questioned for its unorthodox approach to missionary work. He wanted to evangelize the working class by working class lay people demonstrating lives of Christian devotion.

He struggled to get his new Society off the ground. It was ordered closed for a time. It was ridiculed in the newspapers, and in the streets. It was investigated by the Curia. But eventually, his work was vindicated and flourished. In fact, after death, Pope John Paul II venerated and beatified him, and Pope Benedict XVI canonized him, speaking in Maltese. He is called the second apostle of Malta (Paul of Tarsus being the first).

I am struck by the similarity between him and leaders of other twentieth century New Religious Movements. He sought true devotion to God outside the recognized, existing Church structures. He focused on marginalized populations, especially the working class. He plainly was making up the name and motto as the group emerged and evolved. And yet having done this within the existing larger Church, he found more rapid acceptance than the NRMs that have made their own paths.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

May 8 -- Feast of Pope St. Boniface VI

I'm a little conflicted about the most famous achievement of Boniface. He was the first to convert a polytheistic temple into a Christian Church.

On one hand, I don't like jacking one faith's sacred space for the celebration of another faith. I don't like that the Soviets and their allies in Eastern Europe took synagogues and churches to turn into concert halls, removing all the symbols of faith and replacing them with garish expressions of veiled nationalism in the guise of "The People." I can't say that I like the idea that the Hagia Sophia was altered to be a mosque. I appreciate that it is today a museum, and that the Christian mosaics have been uncovered. I also appreciate that the mosaics were plastered instead of chiseled out -- some iconoclasts are more thoughtful (or perhaps less aggressive) than others.

On the other hand, many of the Christian iconoclasts and purists felt compelled to pull down the old polytheistic temples. Whether they were inspired by a desire to preserve, to gloat, or simply to utilize efficiently, the Turks, the Communists, and Pope Boniface all protected at least some part of the old sacred spaces.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

May 7 -- Feast of St. Agostino Roscelli

I've noted it before, but I am struck by the fact every time I encounter it: no cohort of saints stands out as much for loving their neighbors and caring for the least of their brothers and sisters as the saints of the nineteenth century. For me, the question is whether this is due to the extraordinary amount of social work being done by the Church in that era, or the preference of 20th century popes for folks who did that work.

Agostino Roscelli was a poor shepherd whose vocation to priesthood was nearly unrealized because he could not afford the eleven years of school required. His own determination and the generosity of others made it happen -- consider this when you get a shakedown for a college fund. And please don't suggest that your taxes are your contribution to a college fund. You may have excellent reasons for not donating, but public funding of universities is not among those reasons. That money ain't covering jack. But I digress. Kind of.

Agostino became the chaplain to an orphanage in 1847. Sometimes we disconnect one narrative from another, so remember that Europe was in the throes of the industrial revolution, with all the dislocation and misery imaginable. In 1848, of course, European workers would rebel in cities across the continent, and of course all those rebellions would be crushed within a few years. Orphanages did a banner business -- Agostino baptized more than eight thousand babies.

He also provided guidance and support for unwed teenage moms. He founded the Sisters of the Immaculata to take care of the women's homes he established. He also became a prison chaplain. In short, he was minister to the pariahs. He never sought headlines or higher office, but he did leave the impression of the his knees in his church kneeler.

I'd say we need more Agostinos, and of course we do, but in truth they are out there. We just need notice them and to give them our support.

Friday, May 6, 2011

May 6 -- Feast of Francis de Montmerency Laval

The coat of arms at right belongs to Laval University (Allons-y, Rouge-et-Or), named for today's patron saint. Third son of an aristocratic soldier, Francis was educated by the Jesuits and appointed to a parish canon position following his father's death so that his salary could support his family. Natural talent helped him rise in the clerical ranks, but his career was repeatedly interrupted by his need to assist with family management. He became the vicar apostolic of Tongkin, Indochina (Vietnam) but was prevented from traveling to Asia by family needs. He resigned the post, but was eventually appointed to manage the growing congregation in Quebec City. Still a colonial frontier town in 1658, Bishop Francis restored the shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre, built the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and founded both a monastery and a public school system. He also forbade trading alcohol to Native Americans and excommunicated those who broke that rule.

He tried to retire in 1684, but fires in 1701 and 1705 led him to oversee the rebuilding of Quebec City. He was venerated in 1960 and beatified in 1980. The Rouge-et-Or are still waiting for the full canonization.

It is also the feast of St. John at the Latin Gate. St. John the Apostle was arrested in Ephesus and brought to Rome for execution. They set up a pot of oil in which to boil him, but he was unscathed. For the effrontery of not dying, he was exiled to Patmos, where he recorded his extraordinary apocalyptic Revelation.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5 -- Feast of St. Britto of Trier

A local mosque was tagged with anti-Muslim graffiti the other night. A day or so later, the Roman Catholic bishop condemned such hateful acts. It was the sort of broad ecumenicalism that I expect from our clergy, but Britto's story is every bit as admirable, and he lived in the fourth century AD.

While he was the bishop of Trier, a group of pagans sought sanctuary in his church. He strove to convert them, but could not do so. Then authorities demanded that he surrender them. In spite of their commitment to polytheism, he refused to turn them over, saying the state had no authority to interfere in Church matters.

The shield to the right is the coat of arms of the Bishop of Trier.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

May 4 -- Feast of St. Florian of Lorch

The tattoo at right honors St. Florian of Lorch, the patron of firefighters and chimney sweeps. He was said to have extinguished a housefire with one bucket of water and a prayer. If you know any firefighters, wish them a happy St. Florian day. Same for any chimney sweeps you know.

Florian was a crypto-Christian (i.e. a secret one) during the reign of Diocletian. Although he was a mid-level officer, the accusation of Christianity during the reign of Diocletian put his life in jeopardy. It had stemmed from his refusal to execute confessed Christians, and led to his own public confession.

In AD 304, he was scourged, flayed alive, and then tied to a mill stone and dumped in the river.

By the way, if you are concerned about Old Testament prohibitions against tattoos, you may want to consider this page commenting on it.

Post script: As I read this almost two years later (5/2/13), I am struck by the fact that I barely talked about his legend.  In addition to saving the entire house (or some say town) with a single bucket of water and some powerful praying, this captain of an elite Roman fire brigade was particularly brave in the face or torture.  As he was being flogged and clubbed by Roman military colleagues, he shouted over to the folks building his funeral pyre that they needed to stack the wood higher.  That way, his soul could ascend to heaven more quickly. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May 3 -- Feast of Saints Philip and James the Lesser

Note: After browsing the images of St. James the Less, one thing is clear: we have no freaking idea what he looked like. Balding or hirsute, pensive or vigorous, young or old, gentle or harsh, fair or dark -- the only thing the iconographers agreed on is that he was a white guy.  And I suppose that even that is questionable.

St. Philip and James the Less share this feast because the Roman basilica that is now dedicated to the Twelve Apostles was once dedicated to Just These Two Apostles. In the Gospels, Philip had faith that Jesus was the Messiah, but continued to doubt the little things, like feeding the multitude. "Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." Other examples of his doubt followed, which should be a comfort to the skeptics among us who aspire to faith.

James the Less is the son of Alphaeus, not to be confused with James the Greater, son of Zebedee. James the Less was the apostle who provided the compromise solution to the question of how Jewish a Gentile would need to become in order to be Christian. Some of the hardcore apostles (I think James the Greater was one) wanted the full conversion. Circumcision was of course the part that made many squeamish. Some thought declaration of belief in Christ as the son of the One True and Living God would be enough. Paul called a council, at which James the Less suggested that they abstain from things (food, wine) offered to idols, and from whatever has been strangled, and from blood. Paul led the council in approving the compromise and Christianity began its slow ascent to prominence.

There are a couple of deacons celebrated on this day -- Rhodopianus and Diodorus, both martyred during the reign of Diocletian. Deacon John: If you are reading this, I haven't forgotten the need for research. It's on my mind.

Monday, May 2, 2011

May 2 -- Feast of Saints Exsuperius and Zoe

Zoe and Exsuperius were Christian slaves in the household of a wealthy Roman polytheist in Pamphylia (see map at right -- that's Turkey you're looking at). They were the parents of Saints Cyriacus and Theodulus, though of course none of them were saints until the very end.

Exsuperius was a field worker. As such, he saw his wife very seldom. Her job was to control the dogs, making sure they were fed and preventing them from biting visitors.

At some point, she was called upon to give consecrated meat to an idol. Being Christian, she refused. Her husband was then called forward for the same purpose. He too refused. The whole family was then martyred, which is pretty expensive if you think about it. Romans had to have been pretty dedicated to squander four good slaves on such a small point, but that's how it was in the second century AD.

Reading this entry two years later (5/2/13), I marvel suspect the story is unvarnished truth.  Had I been the hagiographer, I would have been tempted to have her prove that the consecrated meat was profane by throwing it to the dogs, who would of course refuse to eat it.  

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May 1 -- Beatification of Pope John Paul II

Trust me. I will work my way around to JP2. If you're all about him and don't want to suffer through my ramblings, seek him here.

May 1 is of course International Labor Day. It was a day for workers, and later for unions, to have parades and make speeches celebrating themselves. Then it became a day for Marxist-Leninist regimes to have parades and make speeches celebrating themselves in the name of the working people they were exploiting.

Having been that kind of kid, I have powerful memories of the Soviet May Day parades, when legions of lock-stepped soldiers preceded columns of tanks which preceded massive trucks with giant missiles, all of them passing a dais full of grim-faced men standing behind Leonid Brezhnev's eyebrows.

in 1955, while those men were still knotted behind Nikita Khrushchev's bald dome, Pope Pius XII was determined to reclaim May Day for the free and faithful. Okay, I don't know that, but it is what I surmise. What I do know is that he chose that day to celebrate St. Joseph the Worker. Joseph already had a feast, celebrating him as an all-around saint, but this one focused on him as a carpenter, a working man, a provider for his family.

The Vatican had good cause to be concerned about Communist regimes. Ever since Karlo Marx (the least funny Marx Brother) declared that religion is the opiate of the masses, Marxists have worked to close the churches and eliminate the clergy. They weren't real gentle with synagogues and rabbis (or any Jews) and the mosques and imams either. For that matter, ask the Dali Lama how they feel about Buddhism. But I think I might be ranting.

None knew this better than Karol Wojtyla. Having survived (just barely, on a couple of occasions) the Nazi occupation of Poland while studying in a clandestine seminary, he rose from priest to cardinal in Communist (Soviet-dominated) Poland. After a long deadlock over the replacement for poor John Paul I, the cardinals settled on Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in four hundred fifty years.

There are more cool things about this Pope than I want to list here. There are some criticisms, too. Most of these are detailed at the wikipedia for easy access. What I want to stress, since His Holiness the Pontifex Maximus John Paul II is being beatified in Rome today is that the pope I remember for standing up to Communist countries, even after one of their agents put a bullet in him. At the same time, he was no shill for the west, often criticizing the excesses of capitalism that led to the exploitation of the poor. To beatify him on May Day makes it just a little bit sweeter.