Friday, October 20, 2006

Saint Ursula

Ursula is a British saint, and her feast day is October 21, though her feast was removed from the general calendar of saints in 1969.
Her extremely unhistorical legend, is that she was a Romano-British princess who, at the request of her father King Donaut of Cornwall, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan Governor of Brittany, and taking along with her 11,000 virginal handmaidens.

A miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, where Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pilgrimage to Rome. She set off with her followers, and somehow persuaded the Pope and the Bishop of Ravenna to join them. When they arrived at Cologne, it was being besieged by the Huns. All the virgins were beheaded in a dreadful massacre. The Huns' leader shot Ursula dead when she refused his hand in marriage.
Ursula and her fellow virgins were buried in Cologne where the Church of St. Ursula is dedicated to her.
While there was a long standing tradition of virgin martyrs in Cologne by the 5th century, this was limited to a small number between two and eleven according to different sources. The number 11,000 was first mentioned in the 9th century. It has been suggested that this came from reading the name "Undecimillia" or "Ximillia" as a number, or reading the abbreviation "XI. M. V." as eleven thousand virgins rather than a more realistic eleven martyred virgins. Another theory however is that the number 11,000 originated in the middle ages, when bones of questionable origin were commonly sold as relics. St. Ursula and her virgins were very popular, so according to theory, people sold so many bones of the Saint and the virgins that people invented the 11,000 virgins as an explanation for the ample supply of bones. These bones were in fact proven to be the remains of people buried in a churchyard which dates back to Roman times.

Today the story of Saint Ursula is overwhelmingly considered to be fiction, for obvious reasons. As a result of this, in 1969 Pope Paul VI suppressed her cult as part of a larger revision of the canon of saints. Interestingly enough, Ursula which means 'bear' in Latin, was also another name for Artemis, (the Great Bitch, Mother of Animals, Mother of Cats), one of whose shrines was, unsurprisingly, at Cologne. The church dedicated to Saint Ursula in Cologne has so many relics that Lord Byron was moved to comment: 'Eleven thousand maidenheads of bone, / the greatest number flesh has ever known.'

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Saint Frideswide

Frideswide was the daughter of King Didan. She was born in the mid 7th century. An early age, Frideswide was already rather spiritual, having been raised by a devout governess. After her mother's death, Frideswide persuaded her father to give her a large parcel of land at the gates of the city where she could build a church. Here she and twelve companions built a convent adjoining the church. The ladies were not, however, bound by the strict rules of the cloister, but only by their love of seclusion and chastity.

Frideswide's fame spread far and wide, and as a beautiful girl with plenty of money and vast tracts of land, she was seen as a rich prize. Aelfgar, the Earl of Leicester, decided to try and woo the lady and sent messengers asking for her hand in marriage. Though she was flattered, Frideswide would not give in because she had taken a vow of chastity. Aelfgar was furious at her refusal, and decided to take Frideswide by force. King Didan's spies, however, got wind of the plan and his daughter thought it best to flee to Oxford with two of her companions.

By the Thames, the three found a small boat tended by a white robed youth. Unknow to them, according to legend, the young man was an angel in disguise. He happily agreed to take them down the river to Abingdon. From here the ladies hid in the deep oak forest which covered much of Berkshire at that time. They then travelled many miles on foot to a place then called Bentona, now Yattendon. Here they discovered a small ivy-covered pig-sty. Frideswide made the sty into a small oratory for the three companions and they lived off the land for about three years, drinking from a well which appeared when Frideswide prayed for water.

In the meantime, Prince Aelfgar continued to search for Frideswide. He sent his emissaries all over the land looking for her. In desperation he gathered a large force of men and marched on Oxford. At the city gates, he threatened to burn the city down if Frideswide was not delivered to him. King Didan would not sacrifice his daughter, but the people of Oxford were frightened of loosing their homes. They opened the city gates to Aelfgar and revealed the princess's hiding place.

At a drunken party that night, Aelfgar declared he would take Frideswide for his pleasure, and that his men could have her too, whether she liked it or not. However, in the morning, after he became sober, he changed his mind and hoped to win her with a display of his persistent affection. He sent two messengers into the forest with gifts and songs of love. Frideswide received the ambassadors with quiet reverence, and listened to what they had to say. Her answer, however, was the same as before. The two messengers returned to Oxford, and as they entered the city gates to report to Aelfgar, they were both struck blind.

The prince was furious at the second rebuff. He jumped on his horse and rode off into the forest to confront Frideswide. She was going to be his wife whether she liked it or not. Near Frideswide's oratory, her two companions were out gathering berries when they heard Aelfgar's approach. They ran to their mistress to warn her. Frideswide's body, however, was weak and her spirit broken. It seemed she was cornered at last. She remembered Saints Catherine and Cecilia, who had also had to defend their virtue at the price of life, and she prayed to them for help. Just as she became within grasping distance of Prince Aelfgar, he was suddenly struck blind, just like his emissaries before him. Ever since, the superstition grew up that the same would happen to any monarch who entered the City of Oxford. Accordingly, the Kings of England stayed away until the reign of Henry III. Some said that all the ills of his reign were due to this. Perhaps, if the kings had known the Berkshire version: that the people of Oxford were St. Frideswide's betrayers, not her defenders, then they would have visited Oxford sooner

The prince fell to the ground, stumbling around in the mud and crying out for help. He pleaded forgiveness from Frideswide and swore to his repentance. He would leave her alone, if only he could see again. Having pity on this pathetic sight, Frideswide took Aelfgar by the hand and led him to her well. Here she bathed his eyes and prayed for his sight to be restored, and it was. Frideswide now decided to return to her nunnery at Oxford. She refused offers of a ride home, and travelled on foot.

On her way back through North Berkshire, she and her companions were accosted by a hideous leper. Her friends were repulsed, but when he asked her to kiss him, Frideswide overcame her natural revulsion. She made the sign of the cross and gave the man a sisterly kiss on the lips. At once his leprous skin fell away, to reveal his flesh to be as smooth once more. He was cured.

Frideswide lived happily at Oxford for many years. She eventually retired to quiet seclusion in Thornbury Wood where, at Binsey, she built a small chapel. She prayed for water once more, this time to St. Margaret, and a spring appeared to feed her for the rest of her life. She eventually died on 19th October 735 and was buried in her nunnery's church in Oxford. Many pilgrims visited the holy lady's grave and so many miracles occurred there that she was soon proclaimed a saint. She died in 735 of natural causes. The monastary she founded is now Christ Church College, University of Oxford, and the convent church became Oxford cathedral.

Hundreds of years later, in 1561 the bones of Saint Frideswide were dug up by an extremist Protestant reformer called Calfhill, who mixed them with the bones of a nun who had married a monk, and reburied it all in the cathedral with a new inscription 'Hic jacet religione cum superstitione' (Here lies religion with superstition). Ironically, by this act he preserved the saint's bones when so many other catholic relics were completely destroyed by Cromwell's enthusiasts.

Her feast day is October 19th
She is the patroness of Oxford England, University of Oxford, England

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Saint Basil the Blessed, Fool for Christ

Saint Basil the Blessed, was born in December 1468 on the portico of the Elokhov church outside Moscow. His parents were commoners and sent their son to be trained as a cobbler. During Basil's apprenticeship, the master cobbler happened to witness an occurrence, which showed him that his apprentice was not an ordinary young man. A merchant had brought grain to Moscow on a barge and came in to order boots, specifying that they be made in a particular way, since he would not pick them up for a year. After taking the order, Saint Basil began to weep and said, "I wish you would cancel the order, since you will never wear them." Confused, the master cobbler questioned his apprentice, and he explained that the man would not wear the boots, for he would soon die. After several days the prediction came true.

When he was sixteen, the saint arrived in Moscow and began to display what is called "Yurodivy" or foolishness for Christ. In the burning summer heat and in the freezing Russian winters, he walked barefoot through the streets of Moscow. His actions were strange, for instance, he would topple kalachi and kvas stands in the marketplace. Angry merchants would throttle and beat Saint Basil, but he welcomed the abuse with joy and he thanked God for it. Soon after it would be discovered that the kalachi was poorly cooked, and the kvas was badly prepared. The reputation of St Basil quickly grew. People saw him as a holy fool, a man of God, and a denouncer of wrong.

Another story tells of a merchant who wanted to build a stone church on in Moscow, but its arches collapsed three times. The merchant turned to the saint for advice, and he pointed him toward Kiev. "Find John the Cripple," he said. "He will advise you how to construct the church." Traveling to Kiev, the merchant sought out John, who sat in a poor hut and rocked an empty cradle. "Whom do you rock?" asked the merchant. "I weep for my mother, who was made poor by my birth and upbringing." Only then did the merchant remember his own mother, whom he had thrown out of the house. Then it became clear to him why he was not able to build the church. Returning to Moscow, he brought his mother home, begged her forgiveness, and built the church.

Preaching mercy, Saint Basil helped those who were ashamed to ask for alms, but who were more in need of help than others. Once, he gave away a rich imperial present to a foreign merchant who had been left destitute. Although the man had eaten nothing for three days, he was not able to beg for food, since he wore fine clothing. The saint harshly condemned those who gave to the poor for selfish reasons, not out of compassion, but hoping for an easy way to attract God's blessings. St Basil also visited the taverns, where he tried to see goodness, even in people who others had given up as lost, and to strengthen and encourage them by kindness.
Once Saint Basil even reproached Tsar Ivan the Terrible, saying that during the divine services the Tsar was preoccupied with thoughts of building a palace in the Vorobiev hills.

St Basil died on August 2, 1557. His body was buried in the cemetery of Trinity church, where in 1554, In an early icon, St Basil is portrayed as old, with white hair curling at his ears, and a short, curly white beard. He is completely naked, and holds a handkerchief in his hand. The veneration of St Basil the Blessed was always so strong that the Trinity temple and the attached Protection church were renamed for him as the famous St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. The saint's chains, his relics, are preserved at the Moscow Spiritual Academy.

Saint Dymphna

Saint Dymphna is believed to be the daughter of a pagan Irish chief and his Christian wife or concubine and who was born in the 7th century. When her mother unexpectedly died, her father Damon scoured the world for an equally beautiful replacement. When his search failed, the chiefs advisors pointed out to him that his teenage daughter had inherited her mother's looks. Driven mad by grief, Damon made advances on Dymphna.

With the assistance of St. Gerebernus, she fled to Belgium. There they took refuge at a chapel not far from Antwerp. However Damon's spies tracked them down the chief confronted them, ordering his soldiers to slay Gerebernus. Damon then begged Dymphna to return with him to Ireland as his wife. When she refused, he decapitated her in a rage with a single stroke of his sword.
The historical basis for this story is uncertain. There are variations in the legend and it has counterparts in the folktales of many European countries. Dymphna as a saint first shows up in a 13th century document after a local bishop commissioned her biography. Although it is obvious that he was prompted by already existing practice of veneration by the locals, it is clear the story is derived entirely from oral tradition. Fragments of two sarcophagi that supposedly bore the bodies of Dymphna and Gerebernus were found in the area, as well as a brick inscribed "DYMPNA" that was supposedly lay in one of the coffins. The body of St. Dymphna is supposedly held in a silver reliquary in the church named in her honor, although the original church burnt down in the 15th century.

The burial place of St. Dymphna has long been associated with accounts of miraculous cures of mental illness. A hospital was built there in the 13th century and to this day hosts a world-class sanatorium. A peculiar aspect of the treatment from the earliest days is that patients are hosted with local residents, living and working alongside them. This is especially remarkable considering the attitudes of hostility towards the insane at that time.

St. Dymphna may be synonymous with the Irish saints Davets and Damhnait. Her feast day falls on May 15. She is the patron saint of insanity and mental illness professionals as well as incest victims, runaways, and those suffering from mental illness.

Saint Vitus

Vitus, according to his extremely unreliable legend, become a Christian when he was very young, around the age of 12, through the influence of the servants who tended him. His tutor and nurse accompanied him on his tours around Sicily where he performed many miracles and converted hundreds if not thousands. When his deeds became widely known his angry father surrendered him to the authorities, who attempted to 'cure' him of his faith. They were unsuccessful, and Vitus with his tutor and nurse fled to Lucania and then to Rome, where he exorcised Emperor Diocletian's son of an evil spirit.

When Vitus would not sacrifice to the Roman gods his cure was attributed to sorcery. He was subjected to various tortures, including submersion in a cauldron of molten lead, from which he emerged unscathed. Vitus was then thrown into the den of a hungry lion, and the beast merely licked him affectionately. One version says that the tormentors gave up and freed Vitus and his companions when during a storm temples were destroyed and an angel guided them back to Lucania, where they eventually died.

The fact remains that his cult is an ancient one. No one is really even certain about when Saint Vitus lived, although most place his martyrdom at the time of Diocletian. There is even some confusion about the site of his martyrdom.

Saint Vitus is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who, are especially venerated in France and Germany. The Holy Helpers are believed to have especially effective intercessory power. The relics of Vitus are said to possess many healing properties, especially when epileptics pray before them

Saint Vitus is the patron of Prague, dogs, domestic animals, young people, dancers, copper smiths, actors, comedians, and mummers. He is invoked against epilepsy, lightning, poisoning by dog or snake bite, sleeplessness, snakebite, storm, and Saint Vitus Dance (Sydenham's chorea, a nervous disorder)

The reason for his patronage of the Dramatic arts and Dance is thought to be related to the practice of16th century Germans who believed they could obtain a year's good health by dancing before the statue of Saint Vitus on his feast day. This dancing developed almost into a mania, with convulsions and twitching, which could resemble chorea, the nervous condition later known as Saint Vitus' dance.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Saint Walburga

St. Walburga (d. 779) was born in England to an aristocratic family. At an early age, she was given to the care of the Benedictine nuns in Wimbourne Abbey (located in present-day Dorset) where she eventually became a nun. When her relative St. Boniface, who was a missionary monk and bishop who evangelized in Germany, asked for help from other Anglo-Saxon monasteries, St. Walburga became part of a group of nuns from Wimbourne who answered the missionary call. Later, she became abbess of the Heidenheim monastary, a double monastery of men and women founded by her brother St. Wunibald, who served as its first abbot. The legends of her life, which date from the 10th century tells stories of her gentleness, humility and charity, as well as her power to heal the sick.

Many years after her death, her bones were taken from Heidenheim to the town of Eichstatt, Bavaria. An order of Benedictine nuns was founded for the purpose of maintaining her shrine. Soon after, her bones began to produce a clear liquid, called oil which people began to use as a healing tool and in prayer for the sick.

Countless believers claim to have experienced healing through her intercession. St. Walburga's oil continues to flow every year from about October 12 to February 25, two of her feast days. It seeps from her relics through a thick slab of stone where it is collected and distributed by the nuns of the Abtei St. Walburg.

The fluid is caught in a silver cup, placed beneath the slab for that purpose, and is distributed among the faithful in small vials. A chemical analysis has shown that the fluid contains nothing more than the chemical makeup of water. The first mention of the oil of St. Walburga is made as early as the ninth century by her biographer Wolfhard of Herrieden.