Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Saint Olga of Kiev

Saint Olga was the wife of the prince of Kiev, Igor. Igor was the son of King Oleg, the second leader of Viking descent who ruled Novgorod, one of the largest cities in what we now know of as present-day Russia.

As prince, Igor was methodically subduing the various surrounding tribes, expanding his lands and receiving tribute from the tribes that proved too difficult to control completely. Among the conquered people was the tribe known as The Drevlians. They had tried to rebel several times in the past, and once again were refusing to pay their annual tribute to Igor.

With a large army, Igor went to the Drevlians' largest town and threatened them with violence. This caused the Drevlians to back down and pay Igor what they owed him. It seemed that everyone would go home happy. However, halfway to Novgorod, Igor instructed his men to carry on with the tribute, and went back to Drevlian territory alone with the intent of forcing further payment out of the Drevlians for all the trouble they had caused him.

Without his army to back him up, Prince Igor didn't have quite the clout he thought he had. The Drevlians murdered him and dumped his body in a shallow grave. The Chief of the Drevlians, Mal, then came up with a brilliant plan. If he could get Igor's widow, Olga, to marry him, he would be the prince of all the other tribes in that corner of Russia. He summoned 20 of his men and sent them to bring the "good" news to Olga and inform her of Igor's untimely demise.

When the Drevlian ambassadors arrived and told Olga that Igor was dead, she welcomed them graciously and spared no hospitality. Encouraged by what seemed to be a grand welcome, the Drevlians decided to be honest with Olga. They admitted to her that thier people had killed Igor, and that he had deserved it, then offered her the proposal from thier king, Mal, for her hand in marriage.

Amazingly suppressing her rage, Olga replied that the Drevlian's proposal was pleasing to her, admitting that Igor cannot rise from the dead. She suggested that they return the next day because she needed some time to think it over. As soon as the Drevlians had left, Olga instructed her servants to dig a deep ditch.

The following day, the Drevlians returned, dressed in their finest and expecting to hear Olga accept and become their princess. Instead, Olga had them seized by her guard and thrown into the pit. She stood at the edge of the pit and called down to the ambassadors, asking them how they liked their visit to Kiev. They replied "Our case is worse than Igors!" as she turned and commanded the pit to be filled. She had buried the 20 Drevlians alive.

Before word of their fate could reach the Drevlian king, Olga sent a messenger to Prince Mal. She told him that she accepted his proposal of marriage but if he wanted her to come, he must send his most distinguished men to serve as her escort. Imagining his plan to be going well, Mal sent the escort at once.

Once again, Olga played the part of a exemplary hostess. She welcomed the Drevlians and offered them the use of her private bathhouse to clean up after the ride. Once they were all inside, Olga had her guards seal the doors and set fire to the building. Everyone inside was burnt alive.

Olga sent another message to Prince Mal, saying she was coming at last. But she wanted to mourn at Igor's grave site and give him a proper memorial with the traditional banquet. She asked Mal and his favored men to be her guests, and to bring plenty of mead. Once finding Igor's grave, Olga's men got busy building a proper burial mound while she wept like a dutiful wife. When the funeral rites were complete, she went with Mal to the hall for the feast. Mal inquired about the escorts that he had sent her, and Olga told him that they were on the way accompanied by her personal bodyguards.

Olga and her people hosted the Drevlians and kept the mead flowing. Prince Mal and his men were so happy that everything seemed to be going their way that they never noticed how little drink was being consumed by Olga and her companions. When the Drevlians were finally incapacitated by mead, Olga's men went about with swords and killed every single Drevlian in the hall. It is estimated by historians that several hundred men were killed that night alone.

Princess Olga was still not satisfied. She returned to Kiev, massed her army and marched to Iskorosten, the main town of the Drevlians. By this time, word had gotten around, and the Drevlians were scared. They offered her anything she wanted, but Olga did not want to be bought off. Her soldiers set fire to the city, and as the townspeople ran out the gates into the field, they were slaughtered by Olga's troops. Those who managed to survive were sold into slavery. Finally, Igor's death was avenged.

In 954, approximately 9 years later, Olga went to Constantinople to form an alliance with the Emperor Constantine. While there, she converted to Christianity. There is no historical evidence to suggest why she was so willing to give up her pagan ways, but she returned to Kiev determined to bring her people to the Church. She was largely unsuccessful. She even invited missionaries from Germany to come to her lands and convert her people, but they were murdered by the tribes of Rus in the Ukraine for their efforts. Her own family even rejected her new found faith. When she died, her attempts to convert the people appeared to be a failure. It would be her grandson, Vladimir, who would see her vision of a christian Russia come to pass.

Olga is titled "Equal to the Apostles" because of her efforts. Her feast day is July 11.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Saint Calixtus

In Rome, around the year 190, a man named Carpophorus set up a bank for fellow Christians, in particular, poor widows. He placed in administration a slave named Calixtus who had experience managing money. It was the worst choice he could have possibly made.

Calixtus made terrible investment decisions, and worst of all habitually helped himself to the bank funds. The money was gone in no time at all, and the widows found themselves with no money at all. To escape punishment, Calixtus took the first ship out of port. However, Carpophorus chased after the slave and caught up with him in Portus, captured him and sent him back to Rome and hard labor chained to a gristmill and sentenced to work until he died.

Strangely, after hearing of his fate, the destitute patrons of the bank asked Carpophorus to release Calixtus and ask him to recover some of the money he had lost. No sooner was Calixtus out of his chains when he got into more trouble. The following Saturday, he stormed into Rome's Synagogue, disrupting the sabbath service, and demanded money from the Jewish congregation. A brawl ensued and Calixtus was dragged to court and charged with desecrating a holy place and disturbing the peace, in addition to being a Christian. He was sentanced quickly and given a scourgeing then sent off to the Mines of Sardinia, a virtual death sentance. Life expectancy in the mines for a healthy man in his prime was less than a year.

Calixtus was in the mines only a short time when fate gave him yet another chance. Marcia, the mistress of the Emperor Commodus, was a christian, and decided to excersize her power on behalf of the christians who were sentanced in the mines. She asked pope Victor to prepare a list of the "living martyrs" so she could arrange for thier release. The pope named every christian he knew of in Sardina, but purposely left out Calixtus. Marcia sent her old eunuch to Sardinia to release the prisoners. As he was leaving, Calixtus ran up to him weeping, and begged for his help. The old man knew of Calixtus's repuation but couldn't leave him in the mines to die, so Calixtus returned to Rome once again.

Predictably, Carpophorus and Pope Victor were horrified that Calixtus had returned, and he was set up outside the city walls with a small allowance and a home, in the hopes that he would stay out of trouble. He was placed in the service of a priest who managed the priests and deacons of Rome. After Pope Victor died, his successor, Pope Zephyrinus, elevated Calixtus to the position of Deacon and put him in charge of a cemetery. By the time Pope Zephyrinus died, Calixtus had become so respected among the church and Christians of Rome, he was elected Pope.

He ruled for 5 years and was acclaimed as a virtuous and merciful man. His reign was noted for his forgiveness. He decreed that Christians who had committed adultery, fornication, or even heresy, could be restored to full communion with the church if they confessed their sins and did penance.

In 222 an anti-christian mob murdered Calixtus and threw his body down a well. His remains
were recovered and are now enshrined in Rome.

Saint Valentine

There were perhaps as many as 3 Saint Valentines. He is perhaps one of 3 martyred men named Valentinius from the late 3d century. He was either a Priest in Rome, a Bishop of Terni, or a Roman who was martyred in Africa. Or, he was completely fictional.

The feast day of of St. Valentine, February 14th, was decreed in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." which implies that there is not much known at all about the saint, at all.

Many of the current legends surrounding Saint Valentine were created in the fourteenth century in England by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is also around this time that the day of February 14 first became associated with romance and love.

In 1836, a body was exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus near Rome, were identified as being that of St Valentine. They were placed in a gilded casket, and transported to Dublin, Ireland. Many tourists visit the relics there on St. Valentine's Day, when the casket is carried in solemn procession to the high altar for a special Mass which is dedicated to young people and everyone in love. Relics of St Valentine also lie in France, in Vienna and in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Saint's feast day was removed from the Church calendar in 1969 as part of a broader effort to remove saints viewed as being of legendary origin. It is still celebrated around the world locally, as well as by those Catholics who follow the older, pre-Vatican II calendar. Prior to this, the church in Rome that had been dedicated to him observed his feast day by displaying (one of) his (many) reputed skull(s) surrounded by roses.