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.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 30 -- Feast of Saint Martial of Limoges

This is Saint Martial's day, and thus it should be Saint Martial's story.  Unfortunately, no reliable record of his story exists.  We know that he was the first bishop of Limoges, an area he evangelized after receiving his commission from Pope Fabian during the very dangerous reign of Emperor Decius.

This is also the story of a monk named Ademar de Charbannes, and of another monk named Benedict of Chiusa.   And of a couple of modern historians named Louis Saltet and Richard Landes.  Mostly, it is the story of revisionist history.

Brother Ademar, an eleventh century monk in the monastery of Saint-Martial, was not content with the incomplete record of his abbey's patron.  Moreover, what was known about Martial was a little modest, given the saints to whom other monasteries were dedicated.  As the author of a three-volume history of France, Ademar was in position to kick it all up a notch, so to speak.  If you're familiar with the Dr. Seuss book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, you have some sense of the Ademar Effect.

So Ademar got to work, writing both a biography and a Mass for Saint Martial, the cousin of Saint Peter and defender of consecrated virgins against the lust of villainous dukes.  But a wandering monk, a scholastic named Benedict of Chiusa, questioned the authenticity of Ademar's account of Martial, Apostolic Mass and all.  Actually, questioned might be too gentle a word.  Challenged?  How about denied?    So when even the liturgy was questioned, Ademar went all in and invented an  ecclesiastical council that debated and confirmed the apostolicity (I didn't make that word up) of Saint Martial.  He even wrote up a papal letter, acknowledging the Council's conclusion.

Ademar got away with it until the 1920s, and really even beyond.  An ecclesiastical historian named Louis Saltet documented the forgery, but the Church doesn't rush to overturn its apostles, even minor apostles.  Saltet's work was largely ignored until the 1990s, when another historian named Richard Landes documented the entire saga.

In the end of the Seuss book, young Marco confirms his father's low opinion by relating none of the fantastic things he dreamed up on his way home.  Saint Martial, apostle to the people of Limoges (Limousines?), probably would have been content with that.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

June 29 -- Feast of Saint Syrus of Genoa

Before I come to Syrus, I must acknowledge that today is also the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.  Without them, there is no Christianity.  That may be a radical statement, but before you dismiss it out of hand, at least consider the thoughts I posted a couple years ago.

As the legends of bishops and other saints grew, a curious thing developed.  Sometimes the miracle stories, offered as evidence of the power of faith, took on a life of their own.  The Holy Spirit, once seen as working through saints to perform miracles, is forgotten.  The implication (at least initially) is that the saint is so holy that he somehow works miracles himself.  In the most devolved of these, the saints are so gifted that as children they are miracle workers, not for the glory of God nor the benefit of others, but simply to satisfy their childish desires.

Saint Syrus, bishop of Genoa in the fourth century, is a good example.  As the priest of Imiliana (near Genoa) he exorcised a demon from the daughter of a local official.  That's good, holy work.  Later, when moving to Genoa to become its bishop, he drove off a basilisk that was preying on the Genoans.  Again, that's good work for a bishop, but a little mention of the Spiritus Sanctus would have been nice.  After his death in 381, someone recalled a couple of incidents that attested to his innate thaumatury.  When his pet blackbird died, he revived it with a little of his own saliva.  Not holy water, mind you, nor even water from a well, but his own saliva.  Whose will be done?  Not long after that, he was walking with his dad when he saw a ship making for the port.  He expressed a desire to look at it for a while and suddenly the wind died and it sat, dead in the water.  When he had his father's assent that he could go on board to see it more closely, the wind picked back up and it sailed straight into the port.

Don't get me wrong -- these are fun stories.  Little kids with superpowers fascinate us -- think about Danny Torrence in The Shining as one example.  But they are not stories that point us toward faith and righteousness.  If we enjoy them (and I do)m then we must be mindful of the distinction.

Friday, June 28, 2013

June 28 -- Feast of Saints Potamiaena and Basilides

In the Catholic tradition, these two saints are separated on the calendar, which might seem fitting since they were killed on different days.  The Orthodox tradition has them linked on the calendar, which is more fitting since Potamiaena did not abandon Basilides, even though she had died.  Saint Potamiaena was condemned as a Christian in Alexandria, Egypt in 205.  For reasons which might be imagined but are not recorded, the praetor did not fall in love with her and offer her a life of luxury if she would apostatize and marry him.  He did, however, tell her she would be handed over to a gang of gladiators to be raped if she did not apostatize.  She didn't cave in, and the praetor decided that slow immersion in boiling pitch was more of a crowd pleaser.  On the perp walk to the pitch, the crowd got menacing, but Basilides, one of the soldiers escorting Potamiaena, shielded her.  She promised that she would not forget him once she got to heaven.  They arrived at the cauldron and she was duly executed in the slow, painful, and messy way, much to the crowd's delight.

A few days later, Basilides unit was making a routine sacrifice and oath.  His comrades called on him to do his part.

"I can't," he replied.  "I'm a Christian now."

Everybody laughed at the joke.  Then it slowly dawned on them that he wasn't joking.  He explained that for three nights, Potamiaena had come to him in a dream, carrying the palm and crown for martyrs.  The others marched him off to jail, where some Christians who were waiting to die gave him the SparkNotes version of the catechism and baptism, and then he was beheaded.

See?  Isn't it better that they have a shared feast?

Marcella, the mother of Potamiaena, is also venerated on June 28, but as anyone who has ever taken a son or daughter to a school event knows, your kid's more or less obliterate your identity.  Having finally packed my kid off to college a couple year's ago, I recovered my own name at last.  It was shocking, therefore, to find myself walking along 14th Street in Columbus, Ohio and hear an inebriated young woman call out from a sorority house balcony, "Hi Noah!  Hi Noah's dad!"   Since Saint Marcella is apparently otherwise undesignated, I will here propose that she be the patron of Parental Selflessness, helping mothers and fathers to check their egos as their children develop and emerge.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

June 27 -- Feast of Saint Sampson the Hospitable

The story of Saint Sampson's life reads so simply and quickly that I might have overlooked the intriguing questions if I had not been planning to write this post.  Before raising those questions -- to which, by the way I have no firm answers -- let's look at his brief biography.  

Sampson was born in Rome to wealthy and well-respected parents.  He became a physician and moved to Constantinople, where he bought a small house which he converted to a free clinic.   His reputation as a healer grew, and eventually  Patriarch Menas ordained him a priest.  When Emperor Justinian the Great fell ill and none of his regular physicians could heal him, he was advised in a dream to send for Sampson.  The priest-physician came, laid a hand on him, and told him to be healed.  It was, as they say, done.  The grateful emperor offered silver and gold aplenty, but Sampson replied that he had no use for such treasure; in fact, he had been a wealthy man but had given it all away.  Justinian insisted that he had to repay him somehow, so Sampson suggested an expansion of the hospital.  The Emperor thought this was a fine idea, and when the expansions were completed, it was the largest free clinic in the Empire, serving the people for the next six centuries.  Sampson died in 530 and was laid to rest in the Church of Saint Mocius, where his body exuded oil of myrrh.  A fire damaged but did not destroy the clinic in 532, but the Emperor ensured the full reconstruction.  

There's nothing wrong with that story, but it's not totally  right, either.  To begin with, why Constantinople?  Rome in the fifth century was a desperate, needy place, a city on the way down, so to speak.  Think Detroit.  Surely there were plenty of folks there that needed medical attention.  Why didn't Sampson stick around to help his neighbors?  He presumably already had a good sized mansion that his folks had left, but did they leave it to him?  Was he a younger brother who inherited some cash and struck out for the capital to make his own fortune?  Did he think medicine was the path to fame and fortune, but later have some conversion experience with the least of God's children, or did he convert first and then see medicine as the way to help?  And was God on the face of the conversion, or just at its heart?  We are told that the Patriarch ordained him, but we don't hear much about Sampson's faith or devotion to God.  He served the people, which Jesus recommended as the way to serve God, but was the ordination just a recognition of his virtue, an honorary degree, so to speak?  Or was it expedient to have him administering sacraments to the mortally ill in his clinic?  Or was he also a man of profound faith, called to be a priest, but that faith was overlooked by his biographers in favor of his service as a hospitaler?  

The story's nice: rich guy gives up the soft life in service to the poor.  It's nice, and it's true, but it isn't complete.  There, in a couple of spots that still blank,  the Way of the Saint is still obscured.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

June 26 -- Feast of Saint Pelagius and Hrosvitha

I hope that young Saint Pelagius, a tenth century lad martyred before his fifteenth birthday, won't mind sharing his feast with an uncanonized (except here, of course) nun.  Given that she was his first biographer, I figure they have been linked for a millennium, so there's no harm in giving them a joint feast.

In truth, I don't understand how the hagiographers overlooked [Saint]  Hrosvitha of Gandersheim.  Sure we don't know much about her life except that she lived in an ascetic and high brow convent, but given the number of narrative verses and dramas that she wrote, she could hardly have time to have sinned.  As for heroic virtue, her work extolling the legends of saints -- historical and contemporary -- and condemning sin surely counts.  She wrote the first poetic treatment of the Faust myth.  Her six dramas, among the earliest in the post-Classical period, were inspired by Terence, who  did some heavy deriving from popular Greek comedies.  In spite of the literary pedigree which she acknowledged, we must give Hrotsvitha credit for much originality in creating dialogues about Christian martyrs.  When her play Dulcitius concludes with the villain besmirched and ruined while the three heroines go happily to martyrs' graves, we find something rare if not unique in literature; not until the rise of post-modernism would a comedy of errors again end with the deaths of the protagonists.
As I mentioned, Saint Pelagius was a contemporary of Saint Hrotsvitha.  Pelagius was the nephew of Hermogius, the Bishop of Tuy.  When Uncle Hermie got himself captured in battle by the Spanish  mMoors under Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III, ten-year-old Pelagius was swapped out as a hostage.  Tree years later, the handsome young Christian was still unredeemed and the Caliph had begun to wonder if the Christians just ditched the kid.  The question was less important to Pelagius, who wasdetermined to accept the will of The Lord and suffer whatever he must, not for his family's sake, but for the sake of Jesus.  Thus, when the Caliph offered rich food, fine clothes, and one side of a warm soft bed to sleep in, Pelagius was not tempted to apostatize.  Whether or not the Caliph would have bedded an under-nourished teen-aged non-apostate is unrecorded; fellow prisoners later testified that the negotiations moved quickly from incentives to disincentives.  If Pelagius had wanted to keep his ears and fingers and all the skin on his back, he probably shouldn't have hit he Caliph and calld him a bugger.  The boy died after six hours of torture, and his fellow prisoners, eventually redeemed, returned to Christian Europe with the story.  Apparently, at least one even spoke with Hrotsvitha, giving her plenty of details for her version of the story.

Hrotsvitha and Pelagius also share more than a full measure of obscurity.  While she did what she could to celebrate his virtue, he is certainly not up there with  Sebastian, Stephen, and the other holy martyrs.  There is a festival of Saint Pelagius, and it is. A huge bash with live music, good food, and fireworks, but unfortunately it is in August, in Croatia, and in honor of a different Pelagius.  And even though we have her works accessible now, Hrotsvitha's work was forgotten for four centuries an even now remains pretty darn obscure.  Moreover, she has yet to be canonized (except here).   As I
consider their joint obscurity, I am even more convinced that they wouldn't mind sharing the day together.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 25 -- Feast of Saint Febronia and Blessed Lysimachus

Monastery of St. Febronia, Palagonia, Sicily
Again, I am using the privilege of canonizing new saints within the space of hagiomajor.  It may lack the official standing of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Church of England, or even the Lutherans, but it sets the record straighter by my lights.

Febronia is a real saint -- as real as any virgin martyr in the reign of Diocletian.  The guy I'm canonizing is Lysimachus, the nephew of the prefect of Nisibis.  Now called Nusaybin and within Turkish borders, Nisibis was in the Mesopotamian-Armenian turf over which Greco-Romans, Persians, and Armenians constantly fought.  In the early fourth century, it seems to have been in the hands of the Romans, since Prefect Selenus was pursuing Diocletian's order to exterminate the Christians with zeal. 

Febronia was an especially attractive eighteen-year-old nun living in a convent.  She was dutiful and ascetic, living on bread and water (one meal every other day) in an attempt to tamp down her beauty.  "...she never took as much as she wanted, lest her body should continue to improve at the expense of her soul." (A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume I, Agnes Baille Cunninghame Dunbar)  Eventually, she fell ill, coincidentally just as Selenus and Lysimachus were raiding the area.

Smokin' hot -- roasted on a gridiron
The Christians in Nisibis fled. Even the Bishop and the deacons fled.  But the sisters were ordered by Bryene, the mother superior, to hang tough and die right.  In their terror, they spoke among themselves, saying it was not right that they should all have to suffer and die because Febronia was too sick to be moved.  They also expressed a very reasonable fear that in the face of being gang-raped, dismembered, scalded, burned alive, or beheaded (or any combination thereof), some of them might apostatize and lose their souls.  Bryene sagely consented to let them flee, but stayed behind with the beautiful, frail Febronia.

INTERJECTION:  Had she eaten a healthy diet (or at very least a reasonable one), Febronia might well have had the strength to flee also, and they all could have lived to serve God.  The body is a temple for the Holy Spirit -- one should maintain the temple, though one should not mistake the temple for the Spirit itself.

Lysimachus and some soldiers showed up.  Big secret: Lysimachus was secretly sympathetic to the Christians and had the habit of warning them to get away before the main body of soldiers arrived.  One of his soldiers, however, ran back and ratted him out to Uncle Selenus, noting that there was a smoking hot young virgin at the convent being guarded by two ancient crones.  The story says that in their haste to haul this hot young nun into court, they didn't even bother to arrest Bryene and Thomais, the other nun who stayed with Febronia. 

Everyone was gathered in the open air court to see the beautiful virgin put through the rigors of prosecution.  Lysimachus started putting the usual questions to Febronia, and she gave the usual answers.  Selenus, struck by her beauty, interrupted with a sudden proposal.  He stated that Lysimachus was his nephew, engaged to a wealthy patrician girl, but if Febronia would apostatize, he would give her a huge dowry and she could marry Lysimachus.  The family had Diocletian's favor  -- she'd be virtually a princess.  Her response was predictable: my Bridegroom's in Heaven and his kingdom is bigger than yours.  Selenus tried to break her down by having her stripped naked in front of the crowd, but she stood in perfect humility and innocence.  Then the torture began. 
  • Scourge her body so it looks like one big wound:  check. 
  • Roast her on a gridiron: check. 
  • Knock out all her teeth: check. 
  • Slice off her breasts: check. 
At this point, the crowd was turning from grim to hostile and Lysimachus had seen enough.  Hey, Uncle Selenus, she's not going to break, okay?  Can't we just finish her off and go have dinner?  
  • Cut off her head: check.  
They went in to have dinner, but Lysimachus was (understandably) not hungry and went to his room.  Selenus tried to have a normal meal, but started pacing in distress.  Then he raced headlong into a pillar, killing himself with the force of the collision.  Lysimachus commented, "Great is the god of the Christians," and then ordered a deluxe coffin built for what was left of Febronia.  Her remains were returned to the convent (the nuns having skulked home since the danger was passed) where she was laid, open coffin, for all the neighbors to see.

Eventually, there was a tussle between the Bishop and the sisters over the relics.  The Bishop wanted her bones for the cathedral but the sisters felt that she was at home in the convent.  After much quarreling, Bryene relented and told the Bishop to take her if she would go.  They tried to move the coffin, but a violent lightning storm drove them back inside.  They waited until it had passed and then tried again, but an earthquake persuaded them to put it down.  Strangely, it didn't take a third weather event to persuade the Bishop -- he settled for a single tooth for his reliquary.

So a word about Lysimachus.  He was secretly helping the Christians, though not a Christian himself.  He did not give up his position, or even his life, to oppose the persecution, but he did acknowledge the greatness of God.  Afterward, he and many of the soldiers who had been persecuting Christians converted -- Lysimachus and his servant Primus even became monks.  The way I see it, the original hagiographers were so taken with martyrdom that they overlooked Lysimachus.  Moreover, they didn't have the lesser status of beatus, which is a luxury we now have.  Fortunately, I am in a position to correct this omission.