Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Miracle of Pea Removal

I just ran across an interesting academic book, The Life and Afterlife of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. (The roses in the lap one. Died in AD 1231.)

The cool bit is that the book includes an English translation of all the depositions on posthumous miracles received by the papal canonization commission investigating St. Elizabeth. There are tons of people healed from insanity, paralysis, sickness, etc. A cross-section of society testifies, as well as both men and women, and sometimes there were so many eager witnesses that the commission members had to write down the testimony of only the most relevant ones.

But there is also Mahtild of Marburg, whose mother Gertrud testified in 1233 about her miracle of pea removal (along with her kids who were involved, and four of the neighbor women).

At the age of three, Mahtild had put a pea in her ear.

Nobody could get it out, although many people tried. (Presumably it started out as a dried pea, or it mummified in the ear.) Eventually, poor Mahtild was so traumatized that she would flinch, cry, and run away if anybody came near her, for fear that they’d start trying to dig out the pea with yet another twig or reed. After many years of this, Mahtild’s ear began to grow over the pea, until the passage was almost entirely blocked.

In desperation, Gertrud took Mahtild to the church where then-Blessed Elizabeth was buried. Gertrud knelt and poured out her desperate prayers, then ordered her older son Heinric to try digging out the pea with a reed, for the umpteenth time.

The boy happily announced that he didn’t have to, as the pea had popped out all by itself, before he could even get near Mahtild’s ear.

I love this miracle. It’s such a timeless human mishap, and there’s such a great happy ending.

So if you ever have a problem with your kid putting beans up his nose, I guess there’s a patron saint for legumes stuck into facial orifices!

St. Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us!

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Landscape with Two Saints, by Lisa M. Bitel

Lisa M. Bitel is a pretty well-known scholar. She focuses on the women’s side of medieval Irish history, but she’s not so feminist that her brain falls out. In Landscape with Two Saints, she compares St. Genovefa (better known as Genevieve), a Gaulish patron saint of Paris from the earliest days of the Frankish kings, with St. Brigid, the Irish abbess who founded the vast but now vanished monastic community of Kildare. We don’t have much left of the relics or community of either saintly lady, thanks to the rigors of history; and yet, they are still important to the faithful. Bitel follows both their history and the devotion to them, down to the present day.

It’s one of those books where it’s really worthwhile to check out the bibliography of primary sources, and there are some very nice maps and diagrams. She’s not Catholic or Christian (her foreword wryly notes that her kids say they’ve visited more churches than any other Jewish kids alive), but she doesn’t take a hostile or twisted view of saints and devotees. She also presents some very iconoclastic, but not crazy, research by other medieval/Irish/French scholars.

1. There is some evidence that St. Brigit’s popularity led to various minor pre-Christian human heroes named “Brig” and “Brigit” being given much more attention in medieval poetry about pre-Christian Ireland. We don’t hear anything about any goddesses named Brigit until the 9th century, and some scholars now think she may have been made up, or derived from some of the wilder saint fairy tales going around. So actually, we hear about the goddess Brigit today because of the saint, not the other way around.

2. There is a lot of evidence that the circling paths, etc. taken by Irish devotees at Irish holy wells and shrines are not derived from pagan custom. Rather, they are an imitation of the prayer-paths and processional ways used by pilgrims and church visitors when visiting various altars, pictures, statues, graves, etc., both on the way to and within local or basilica churches. (Much as one follows the Stations of the Cross in imitation of the Stations of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.) When shrine churches and parish churches were knocked down, people found an alternate Christian way to do things.

3. Customs like offering St. Brigid milk by leaving it outside on her feastday, or having things blessed by her or other saints by leaving them out on their feastdays or the evening of them, are apparently also a case of “no church to go to, no priest that can get here.” Again, the only reason they “look pagan” is because the English had outlawed the priests and knocked down the parish church. It is a lay spirituality of necessity, trusting that God and the saints will overcome the malice of man. (And of course, inside towns, people did start asking priests for blessings for the same things, or offering the same things as offertory gifts or tithes, when the priests were able to come back. But it took a while for Ireland to have enough parish priests to handle country parishes, and some priests were too “modern” to be comfortable with giving blessings or taking alms in such an old-fashioned style. So often people just kept doing it the old way.)

4. St. Genevieve kicked butt. Basically she was a minor noblewoman, not particularly rich, but known to be both pious and a prophetess. She built the first church of St. Denis and successfully prayed that the Huns wouldn’t get to Paris, among other things. In the dangers of the time and in the absence of anybody more charismatic (in either sense) among the local bishops, she seems to have run a lot of stuff in her capacity as church lady extraordinaire. The only time she was a shepherdess was when she was a little kid living with her minor noble family in Nanterre.

5. We just passed the day of one of her feasts (in Paris), the Feast of the Miracle of the Ardents (or Burning Ones, Feverish Ones). Back in 1130, Parisians suffered an epidemic of a terrible fever, which at the time was called Sacred Fire. (It may have been ergotism from bad rye.) Nothing helped and many died, until the relics of St. Genevieve were brought across the river to a church of the Virgin Mary on November 26. Suddenly all but two or three of the sufferers were healed. Pope Innocent II instituted the feast in 1131 during a papal visit, although it was initially under the title “The Excellence of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Locals grumbled about this, and the name soon changed to give credit to the local girl. 😉

6. St. Genevieve’s prayers saved Paris from the Huns, from the fever, and from a great flood of the Seine. That’s why a lot of river towns are named St. Genevieve. She was also the Bourbons’ favorite patron when family members were sick, which was why the French revolutionaries tried and convicted her as a counter-revolutionary. (And that’s why most of her relics are at the bottom of the Seine.) She is still a patron saint of both Paris and all of France, and has fallen into undeserved obscurity among us moderns. (Although there’s a nice French webpage about her.) Her feastday is January 3.

7. There were a lot of interesting tidbits about the Gaulish language and the naming of French places. Given how much crazy stuff gets said about anything vaguely Celt-related, it’s nice to have some safe references to rely on. (And btw, “Genovefa” is Germanic/Frankish for “kin/kind/race” + “woman”, and means something like “clanswoman.” The French spelling “Genevieve” was the subject of much medieval French wordplay that took the name to mean something like “living spirit” or “spirit of life.”)

8. Bitel lists some Roman-government itineraries and maps that we have from the “Dark Ages.” She also talks about a useful list of all the government offices that were still being assigned to people in Gaul at that time (Notitia Dignitatum in translation, and Seeck’s edition in Latin along with links of interest). Bitel says a lot of interesting stuff about Christian “Romanitas” and how it was preserved in the new decentralized Europe, as well as how it was carried to places like Ireland that had never been Roman or Christian.

9. “Vowess” was the descriptive word for any woman living under vows of chastity/celibacy but living at home (her own home, her family’s, whatever). Since they were vowed not to marry, this provided protection from family pressure that even canonesses and nuns didn’t always get. The old idea of consecrated widows and virgins who weren’t nuns seems to have been folded into the vocation of vowess. Here’s an article with a nice tomb rubbing.

10. The subtitle of the book is “How Genovefa of Paris and Brigid of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe.” Um. Yeah. That’s about the only thing that this book doesn’t tell you. I blame the publishers.

11. There’s actually a recent historical novel that was written about all the stuff happening in the France of St. Genovefa and King Clovis/Chlodovech. It’s called Centurion’s Daughter, and it’s by Justin Swanton. Don’t know if it’s any good, but it sure looks interesting.

St. Genevieve, pray for Paris!

St. Brigid, pray for us!

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Helena Rubinstein: Tough Entrepreneur

I’m not into makeup. But this is a good long article about one of the twentieth century’s great makeup mavens.

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“It’s a Mystery” Doesn’t Mean You Stop Thinking about It

A fitting thought, with Advent almost here….

“Insert yourself into this private matter, between both the One Unbegotten God and the One Only-begotten God!

“Dive into the hidden place of this unimaginable Nativity!

“Start out, run forward, keep going!

“Even though I know you won’t get there, I will congratulate you for what you will accomplish. For he who pursues the Infinite One with dutiful tenderness, even if he never catches up to Him, still will profit from having gone out after Him.”

“….insere te in hoc secretum, et inter unum ingenitum Deum, et unum unigenitum Deum, arcano te inopinabilis nativitatis immerge.

“Incipe, procurre, persiste:

“etsi non perventurum sciam, tamen gratulabor profecturum. Qui enim pie infinita persequitur, etsi non contingat aliquando, tamen proficiet prodeundo.”

St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, lib. II, c. 10.

“Incipe, procurre, persiste!” seems like a great motto.

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The Best Reader

“For the best reader is one who can look for the meaning of what is said in what is said, rather than what he imposes on it; and who can take that meaning rather than bring in his own; who can pick up what is seen to be contained in the words, rather than what he presumed to have understood them to contain before reading them.”

St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, lib. I, c. 18.


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An Excellent Ballad Retelling of a Classic Cautionary Tale

Here’s another example of Northern Soul:

Al Wilson, “The Snake”.

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What That Thing Is You Didn’t Get about UK Music

From the late 1960’s and all the way into the 1980’s, there was a large group of UK dance clubs (mostly in Northern England) which tended to play Motown music by groups that had been obscure in the US and UK, but which gained a second life through DJ’s. This influenced a lot of UK musicians (like Steve Winwood and Robert Plant) and thus created a lot of new soul music over there, which was also played in the clubs.

The movement was called Northern Soul. Yet most of the US musicians who were part of it probably never knew it….

But here’s one example: Gloria Jones’ 1964 song “Tainted Love” became a big UK hit in the 1970’s, and the singer ended up appearing with UK groups like T. Rex. (She married one of the members… awwww!) The song was covered in the UK by Soft Cell in 1982, and eventually came back to the US that way. (Although the original apparently appears on one of the Grand Theft Auto San Andreas radio stations.) It has now been covered by many groups, thanks to those UK dancehall DJ’s.

A Northern Soul article by UK folks with YouTube song references.

There are many YouTube playlists with very pleasant and interesting songs, if you search for “Northern soul.”

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Latin Phrases They Didn’t Teach You in School

“Valens cartam et calamum e manibus eius violenter extorsit.”

Valens violently wrenched the paper and pen out of his hands.

— Hilary of Poitiers, Liber I Ad Constantium, 8. (CSEL 65: 187, 12-15.)

This is another bad bishop story. Bishop Eusebius of Vercelli (good bishop) found out that his younger colleague, Bishop Dionysius of Milan, had signed a synod statement that was kinda Arian. So he up and went to the synod himself, and ended up presenting the synod with the Nicene Creed to sign. Dionysius thought this was a great idea, and started writing down his name.

That’s when Bishop Valens of Mursa (bad bishop) grabbed the paper and pen away from Bishop Dionysius.

“carta” is literally a sheet of papyrus, and hence a page or a letter.

“calamus” is a reed, and hence a reed pen or a reed pipe. A reed pen basically operates the same way as a quill pen or a dip pen: the hollow inside the reed is the ink reservoir, and the nib is carved into a rectangular shape with a cut down the middle for ink. (You carve the nib with a penknife, of course.) Dip the pen nib into an ink pot, and the ink goes up into the reed. Write something, and the ink goes down the nib onto the paper (or papyrus, in this case).


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Challoner on Prayers Addressed to the Saints

In the foreword to his book A Manual of Prayers and Other Christian Devotions, Bishop Challoner says:

“….because this collection of prayers may possibly meet with some readers who have no other knowledge of the Catholic religion [except] what they have received from the misrepresentations of ignorance or malice, and consequently may entertain a wrong notion concerning those prayers which are here addressed to the Blessed Virgin, and to the rest of the heavenly Citizens, imagining that the Catholics pay a divine honour to the Saints and Angels; which some, in despite of all our profession and protestation to the contrary, are unreasonable enough to lay to our charge; it will not be amiss to set down here the Catholic doctrine concerning this point, in the very words of the Council of Trent, which are:

Fideles diligentur instruant, docentes eos, sanctos una cum Christo regnantes orationes suas pro hominibus Deo offerre; bonum atque utile esse suppliciter eos invocare; et ob beneficia impetranda a Deo per Filium eius Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum, qui solus noster Redemptor et Salvator est, ad eorum orationes opem auxiliumque confugere.

[Let them instruct the faithful, teaching them] that the Saints, who reign with Christ, offer up their prayers for men; that it is good and profitable to invoke them with humility; and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and assistance, for the obtaining of benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Who is our only Saviour and Redeemer.

[Council of Trent, Session 25: On the Invocation and Veneration of Saints, of Relics, and of Sacred Images]

By which it is most evident that Catholics have recourse to the Angels and Saints for no other end, and in no other manner, than [only] that these blessed Spirits may become intercessors for them with our common Lord. Which is no more than what we desire of our brethren here on Earth, even tho’ we are ignorant whether their lives are in truth of such holiness as is necessary to render their prayers of any value.*

Where, then, are our understandings, when we think it an injury to Almighty God to betake ourselves to His assured friends for their assistance in this manner, and none at all to make the same [request] to those who, for aught we know, may be his enemies?

To conclude: I beseech our merciful Lord to hear the prayers of His holy Saints and Angels for those who are so blind as not to desire them; and for us who, tho’ we know by faith (and even by experience) how beneficial they are, have not that zeal and diligence in procuring them which we ought to have.”

* The bishop is thinking of James 5:16 (“The continual prayer of a righteous man avails much.”) and Psalm 65/66:18 (“If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”) Basically, if you are wicked but you’re sorry for it, the Lord will hear you; you should pray, even if you keep messing up. But the Lord has no time for granting requests to wicked people who fully intend to keep sinning and don’t care what God thinks, and the Bible says this in plenty of places.

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Why Everybody Can Have Their Own Kind of Prayer Life

In the foreword to his book A Manual of Prayers and Other Christian Devotions, Bishop Challoner advises that the reader should be:

“…. taking that which serves most for his own devotion, and leaving the rest to others, who perhaps may be more moved by that which seems dry and insipid to him.

For as several bodies are not equally pleased by the same [foods], so neither is the same spiritual food equally agreeable or beneficial to different souls. And it is for this reason that the most bountiful and provident Hand of Almighty God has appointed so great a variety of nourishment for both.”

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“O Good Cross, Long Desired”

Bl. John Cornelius’ last words quoted a famous passage from the breviary for St. Andrew’s Day. Since I’d never heard it before, here it is in Bishop Challoner’s translation, from A Manual of Prayers and Other Christian Devotions:

“When blessed Andrew was come to the place where the Cross was prepared for him, he cried out and said,

O good Cross, long desired, and now ready for my longing mind,

I come to thee secure and joyful;

Do thou also joyfully receive me, the Disciple of him who hung upon thee.

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Blessed Thomas Bosgrave – Executed for a Hat

When Fr. John Cornelius was arrested in 1594 by the sheriff of Dorsetshire, he was hurried away without his hat. And of course, every man wore a hat outside.

So Thomas Bosgrave, a fellow Cornishman, stuck his own hat on the priest’s head, saying that “The honor I owe to your functions will not suffer me to see you go bare-headed.”

So the wicked Sheriff Trenchard arrested him too.

Mr. Bosgrave was executed along with Fr. Cornelius and his brave companions (two Irish Catholic servants in the household where Fr. Cornelius was caught). Challoner describes him as a “man of reading” who was able to make a speech from the scaffold about the certainty of the Catholic faith that was so compelling that no Protestant minister dared to heckle it or reply to it. He was hung, but not drawn and quartered like Fr. Cornelius.

He was beatified, along with Cornelius and his companions, in 1929.

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St. Paige?

Paige was one of the most popular baby names in the previous generation, following the trend of giving girls surnames of unrelated persons for given names.

(As opposed to the Southern and English-ancestry custom of naming girls and boys after the surnames of relatives, particularly their mothers’ maiden names; or the generalized custom of using the surnames of persons admired by their parents.)

The surnames of Page, Paige, Padgett, etc. are occupational names, given to the families of men who served as “pages” in their youth. Latin “pagius” meant “servant,” and probably derived from Greek “paidion,” boy. (A similar path was followed by words like “knight,” “knave,” “garcon,” etc.)

But that doesn’t mean that the Paiges of the world don’t have a glorious patron! In fact, they have two!

Blessed Francis Page (or in Latin texts, Franciscus Pagius) was an English Jesuit who was martyred in 1602. He has an interesting story!

He was born in Antwerp of Protestant English merchant parents, but was sent to England to study English law with a friend of his parents, who was Catholic. He fell in love with this lawyer’s daughter, but she refused to marry him unless he became Catholic. (Which was reasonable enough.) He agreed and he must have seemed trustworthy, because they put him into contact with a Jesuit, Fr. John Gerard, for more religious instruction.

However, at this point he discovered that he felt the call to be a priest, as often happens to young converts. He started to discern whether he had a vocation. If times had been better, he might have become a priest and a missionary, or he might have ended up discerning a call to marry the girl.

But times were bad, and Fr. Gerard was found out and arrested by the authorities in 1594, moved around, and then thrown into the Tower of London. In his worry, Mr. Page went to stand outside the prison every day and get Fr. Gerard’s blessing. Eventually he got arrested for being suspicious, but was then released, thanks to Gerard pretending not to know him. Page decided this was a sign to get on with his vocation, and he went to Rheims to study at the English College.

(Fr. Gerard was unbroken by extreme torture, as the Tower’s own records indicate. He escaped the Tower later that year, probably with the help and planning of St. Nicholas Owen. He continued to work as a hunted English missionary for decades, though eventually he had to leave England and do Jesuit assignments in Europe instead. He also wrote his autobiography (in Latin, but it was translated into English by Philip Caraman), where he said that he felt that in heaven, the martyred Fr. Page was still anxious for his safety. The saintly but unmartyred Fr. Gerard died in bed in 1637 at the English College in Rome, aged 73.)

So there was Francis Page, studying away in the seminary in Rheims. He was ordained in 1600 as a normal diocesan priest and missionary, and headed back to London, where his secret ministry continued uneventfully for over a year. But while getting ready to celebrate Mass in the house of Anne Line, the priesthunters arrived. He quickly took off his vestments and sat down among the congregation, pretending to be just another guy waiting for the priest to show up. (Just trying to go to Mass wasn’t a capital crime, whereas hosting a Mass or being a priest meant death.) Anne Line and the rest of the Catholics kept their mouths shut, even though St. Anne Line was martyred for it later that year.

Fr. Page continued his ministry for the next fourteen months. But eventually he ran afoul of an ex-Catholic who had decided that turning in priests was a good way to make money. She saw him in the street and raised a hue and cry, then followed him to an inn and got the innkeeper to keep hold of him until the authorities arrived. (For a cut of the reward, presumably.) He was condemned for treason on April 19, 1602, and sentenced to die.

Fr. Page had dreamed of entering the Jesuits as well as being a priest, but he was never able to go back to Europe to enter their novitiate. The night before his execution, prison officials let Page stay in a cell with an imprisoned Jesuit. Fr. Page took Jesuit vows before him as well as letting the other man hear his Confession, and thus he died proudly proclaiming himself to be a Jesuit. He was hung, drawn, and quartered.

The Jesuits in Britain official site about Francis Page, S.J. It includes an audio excerpt about Page from Gerard’s autobiography, read by a woman. (The first bit read by a man is not from the autobiography.)

A woodcut picture of Blessed Francis Page being “drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution” at Tyburn. (If you ever wondered what that looked like.) Basically this was an extra punishment, because it wasn’t a fun way to travel and it made you a perfect target for missiles from the crowd. Also, it forbade you the dignity of walking or riding or being carried in a cart. (But the original version of the treason sentence had been being dragged by a horse without anything between you and the ground, so the late medieval introduction of hurdles was actually nicer.)

A woodcut holy card of Blessed Francis Page at the British Museum. A 1754 redo at Getty Images.

Blessed Anthony Page (also spelled Antony Page) was an earlier English priest. He was born in Harrow on the Hill, in the county of  Middlesex. He entered the college of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1581. At some point he left Oxford. Then he entered the English College at Rheims in 1584, received minor orders in 1585, was ordained a deacon in 1590 (at Laon), and was ordained a priest in 1591 at Rheims.

Challoner read the manuscript of the unpublished Annales Elizabethae Reginae by his classmate at Rheims, Anthony Champney; and Challoner said it described Bl. Anthony as being an unusually nice guy with unusual learning, who was loved by everyone at the college for his “singular candor of mind and sweetness of behavior.”

(The Annales ms is currently in the Westminster Diocesan Archives, and should be digitized!!)

Off Anthony went to England as a missionary, and was caught almost right away. During his time in prison, he was made to argue with a lot of Anglican ministers, and came off well because he was so learned. He was hung, drawn, and quartered on April 20, 1593. (That’s the same day of the year as Bl. Francis, yes. The way the English court system worked, they had certain days they liked to use for big trials and executions – the “Assizes.” These were often at market time, so they could get juries, witnesses, and/or crowds together.)

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Birth Control Pills = Messing Around with Your Hormones

A secular article on the many questionable aspects of birth control pills, and why they shouldn’t be treated as a universal remedy or something harmless for everyone.

And really, there’s no way it can be healthy for post-puberty women to spend twenty years telling their body not to ovulate. There aren’t that many women with that much bad risk for ovarian cancer.

And if you have really painful periods due to any kind of illness, you need to fix the problem and not just mask the symptoms. Even if your doctor doesn’t care, you need to. (And you need a new doctor.)

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