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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

July 20 -- Feast of Saint Wilgefortis & Gregor Mendel

Why would Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, make the cut in hagiomajor when so many worthy saints have been deferred to subsequent years? Moreover, why include him while deferring Elijah the Prophet, the patron of the Romanian Air Force? Well, with enough respect to keep their IAR330SOCATs on their side of the Atlantic, they'll just have to wait. The pairing of a real person who wasn't a saint and a saint who wasn't a real person was just too tempting.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, Gregor Mendel was a monk (Augustinian friar) who experimented with genetically modifying (the natural way, by cross-breeding) peas. I had this picture of a happy, simple, under-educated brother running from prayers, robes flying and sandals flapping, to check on his plants. Yeah, not really the case.

Mendel  had worked on the family farm, but attended the local university, studying theoretical and practical philosophy. He also became a priest at the time, and when assigned to a monastery, the abbot sponsored him to study at the University of Vienna. There he pursued physics under Christian Doppler (THE Doppler, of the effect). He returned to the abbey, teaching physics and experimenting until he was promoted to abbot. Then administrative duties, especially a tax dispute with the government, prevented him from playing science much more. In addition to peas, Mendel also conducted experiments with bees. His genetic theories were rejected in his lifetime, but rediscovered after Darwin's natural selection theory caught on.

Religion gets a bad name among many who value science, and the theory of evolution is one of the most fractious issues. While it's easy to laugh at William Jennings Bryan's faith-based prosecution of John T. Scopes, it is worth remembering that, even if we set aside Darwin's vocation as a Christian minister, that area of science was advanced by the experiments of a Catholic priest. Yes, many religious leaders need to be more open to scientific arguments, but secularists can also help by chilling out a little on the faith side. As saints go, we can do far worse than popularly acclaim Gregor Mendel the patron of the middle ground.

Thanks for hanging in. On to Saint Wilgefortis, pictured above. Art historians (unnamed, but wicked credible) have attempted to explain the origin of this fictitious saint. In southern Italy, the trend among artists was to depict Jesus on the cross wearing royal robes. Since the Gospels tell us that the soldiers gambled for Jesus' clothes, we know that depiction is counter-textual, but they have artistic licenses, and frankly it is at least more respectful than Andre Serrano's Piss Christ. But some of these depictions made their way to Northern Europe where women wear robes and men wear trousers. How to account for this cross-dressing Christ? Plainly, that's not the Lord up there in a stunning Versace, the crimson trim of which contrasts brilliantly with his sable beard. It must be --- a bearded lady.

But Daddy, why does that lady have a beard? Well, I'll tell you son. Wilgefortis was a beautiful girl and a devout Christian. She had already sworn to remain a virgin when her father engaged her to be married to a pagan king, so she refused. He insisted, so she prayed that she would become so unattractive that the king would refuse to marry her. She prayed hard, and the Lord granted her prayers. She sprouted a thick beard and mustache. Her dad might have tried to trick the king by covering her face with a veil until after the wedding vows were exchanged, but he thought it would be better for everybody if he just had his daughter crucified.

Saint Wilgefortis, called Saint Uncumber in Britain, was very popular, especially among women who wanted to be rid of abusive men. However, her story was debunked in the sixteenth century and her cult was suppressed in the Roman Catholic Church in 1969.

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