Category Archives: Saint Stories

Ever-Everything….

After Christmas Eve Mass, when all the young kids and parents had gone home, and only middle-aged people and college students were left chatting in the vestibule, it emerged that one young woman had never learned what it meant that our Blessed Mother is called “Ever-Virgin.”

Kiddies, this is your cue to click somewhere else on the Internet….

Ever-Virgin (“Aeiparthenos” in Greek) is an ancient title, and it means what it says. The Church has always believed, and always taught, that Mary was a virgin, physically and every other way, throughout her pregnancy, childbirth, and entire life. As a special sign from God, her hymen remained physically intact at all times. Most virgins have their hymens wither away in middle age or break by accident, at some point, if they do not break it by sex. This did not apply to Mary’s physical integrity. Since she was resurrected and carried off to Heaven bodily, she is still a physical virgin up in Heaven; and she will remain a physical virgin forever.

This is not a sign that God is obsessed with virginity, or hates women having sex. Obviously not… God invented sexual reproduction, and created humans to reproduce that way. If he wanted us to be totally asexual, we’d be budding things off or splitting in two like amoebas.

Mary is ever-virgin for several reasons. First, as a sign that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the son of a human woman, not a normal human being born to two normal human beings. He is true God and true man, and Mary’s continued virginity shows this strange and wonderful situation.

Second, we are told that in Heaven there is no marriage or giving in marriage. The same is true of eternal life after the general resurrection and Judgment. We will all be in a mystical union with God and each other, which will fulfill our emotional needs; and reproduction and sex will no longer be needed, because we will be immortal. Just as celibate priests and religious are supposed to live without sex as signs of this life to come, the same is true of Mary in her life.

There are other reasons and Biblical prophecies involved, but I won’t mention these right now. I’ll pass on towards what seems to be the crux of the problem with Mary, for a lot of modern women….

Mary is also the New Eve, the new mother of all the living, and the second person in the Bible with the honorable title “Woman.” She is not only an ever-virgin woman, but forever the “bride unwedded,” ever-Ark of the Covenant, ever-mother to Jesus and His mystical Body of believers. She has lived the life of a wife and a widow in a difficult time, and her hands were busy with weaving and work as the ever-Valiant Woman. But now she works in heaven as the ever-queen mother to the Son of David. All generations will call her blest.

But on the other side, remember that she was also the ever-insulted and ever-whispered about. Without having any of the fun, she must have suffered rumors and nastiness all her life. Even now, she gets to hear this crud; and it hurts and disappoints her, because she loves all of us. But she went through it all without sinning — somehow. With God’s help and grace.

Mary is the subject of some awfully strange ideas. Some people are threatened by the way God chose her to represent the troubles of all women: young and old, maidens and mommies, sinners and saints. We ladies have a tendency to try to keep up with the Mrs. Joneses, and we are unlikely to be able to keep up with Mary. She is the ultimate multitasker; and unlike Mary Poppins, she really is practically perfect in almost every way!

But everything Mary did, she did out of weakness and normalness. She was not a goddess. She was a human woman, although specially graced by not having to deal with original sin. But Eve had that. Mary only stayed sinless by trusting God, and asking Him for help when she was troubled. Since she was a human, that probably was all the time.

And yes, later on, God lived in her house and was her kid, but that would probably make it harder not to kick against God’s ways!

The other side is that other people think Mary was useless and not worth any notice, and should get no credit for anything she did. Clearly this is not so. Mary was not a doormat; she was a smart and independent woman. She thought and pondered; she made mistakes even without sinning. She was no puppet, or a mere container sitting on the shelf. When she thought she should do something, she moved fast.

So the moral of the story of Mary, especially for women, is that we need God every day, in every way, if we want to do all the things we need to do and be all the things we have to become.

But the other moral is that although we are weak and imperfect, God wants to give us graces and strengths. He wants to see us grow and become great ladies. He is on our side; and He will be our help always, if we let Him.

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Burying the Lead: Blessed Laura Vicuña

Laura Vicuña was a Peruvian-Argentinean girl who lived a saintly life and died in a heroically edifying way. The Salesian Brothers and Sisters in Argentina supported her cause for sainthood, and she was named a Venerable back in the early 1900’s, eventually being beatified by Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s.

Here’s the problem. Laura lived a difficult life because her desperately poor widowed mother became the live-in girlfriend of a ranch owner, who then started to go after Laura as she got older. (She died at the age of 13, though, and the guy had been going after her for over six years. So obviously he was a sick puppy, and it’s not clear if he went after her younger sister, Julia, also.)

The ranch owner was also a violent man, when he was drunk and when he wasn’t. He beat up the mother, and he beat up Laura when she refused him. Finally, Laura’s mom fled with her two kids to another town, but the abuser followed, demanding to rape Laura. Laura tried to draw him off or prevent her mom from letting him in, by leaving the place they were staying by another door. Instead she received a crazy beating from the man in the middle of the street, in the middle of town. He almost rode off with her unconscious body, but townspeople intervened before he could. He finished his work by throwing her down in the middle of the street. Laura recovered consciousness, but died of her injuries, after making her mom promise not to go back to him and then forgiving her killer.

All this was covered up in the normal outlines of her life. They said that she had tuberculosis (which she did), and that she had offered God her life to get her mom and sister out of the bad situation (which she did). But they said that it was the tuberculosis that killed her, as opposed to her internal bleeding and injuries. And they said that the bad situation was her mom living an immoral life, not the whole family being subject to a crazy abusive would-be rapist.

(It’s a little weird, because the normal story about St. Maria Goretti, from about the same time, is perfectly clear about the man having rape and murder as his intentions.)

A minor point is that the normal story still emphasizes that Laura was a friend to everybody in school, loved by the teachers, and a leader in sports. Apparently the real story is that Laura worked hard, was devout, helped everyone, was a favorite with the teachers for her good qualities — and was absolutely despised by every other girl in school, except for her one best friend. She was poor, she was stubborn, she had normal looks, and she was showing everybody else up.

Here’s another point. Laura’s mom, Mercedes Pino, was treated pretty poorly by life. Her husband Domenico Vicuña came from a rich family, while hers was poor or middle class. When they married against his family’s wishes and he was disowned by his family, her family also disowned her. She kept the family going for six years after her family died, living an honest life as a dressmaker and hatmaker. But in 1899, thieves broke into her store and cleared out the whole inventory, plus the store appliances. Seeking a new start, she took her girls into the frontier lands of Argentina, where there was supposed to be plenty of opportunity. She was willing to work hard as a maid and cook. So nobody knows why she agreed to become Manuel Mora’s mistress as well as his housekeeper.

Like Mercedes’ dead husband, Manuel Mora came from a good family. Unlike her husband, he had a long list of prior convictions, and wasn’t shy about shooting or stabbing people. Thanks to his family’s influence, he got a good grant of cattle land along the frontier. To give him credit, he was good at running estancias and raising cattle, and he dressed well. However, he was known to treat his hands like slaves, the local natives like worse than slaves, and was in the habit of whipping anyone who displeased him. He was then in need of a mistress, because he had branded his previous one like a cow and then driven her off the ranch.

Apparently he was very charming to Mercedes in the beginning, and implied that he was planning to marry her. But that was all just lies. He did initially pay the kids’ tuition for boarding school, but eventually he refused to pay more because he wanted easy access to Laura. (To their credit, the sisters then awarded Laura and Julia scholarships.)

One sad point is this: Laura didn’t understand what was going on with her mom and the abuser until she was ten, and one of the sisters taught about marriage as a Sacrament. The poor kid fainted dead away, right in the middle of class. (No doubt some of her classmates had been hinting stuff that she hadn’t understood.) It’s just as well, though, because the abuser made his first move on her after the end of that school year, in 1902.

That wasn’t the end of her troubles, either. She wanted to join an order, both for religious reasons and to get out of the bad home situation. (Which would also have lightened the financial load on her mom and sister, although obviously her sister would have been up next for unwanted attention from the abuser.) But she was refused admission to the order of Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, not just because of her age (the standard outline’s explanation), but because her mother was living an irregular life, and they feared giving scandal. Yes, crappy things happen to the holy.

Piecing together her story from different English sources is not only difficult, but pretty horrifying. Obviously you can’t teach everything to kids, but come on, people!

Blessed Laura Vicuña has been named a patron saint of abuse victims.

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Here’s an Interesting Historical Figure.

St. Joseph of Palestine.

No, not St. Joseph the Carpenter. No, this is a different guy.

Among the notable Christians of Emperor Constantine’s time was an ex-disciple of Rabbi Hillel II (?). He was named Joseph, and was left the guardianship of Hillel’s son, Judah, after the rabbi died. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and also worked as an envoy for them.

Joseph alleged that in his last days, Hillel sent for a “physician” who was actually the local bishop, and received a “bath for his health” that was actually Baptism. Joseph kept silent about this, but he did get interested in reading the Gospels. At one point, he had a vision of Jesus. So he decided to become a Christian, but hadn’t done anything about it when he was caught with his suspicious Christian books, all the way out in Cilicia, where he was being an envoy. He was saved from being drowned in the river by the public arrival of s Cilician bishop, who took Joseph off to safety.

Emperor Constantine got very interested in the story and made Joseph a high officia in AD 323. During his time in office, he dealt with opposition by both Jews and Arian Christians, as he tried to build a church in his headquarters city, Tiberias. He also built churches in several Galilean towns important to the Gospels, including Sepphoris, Nazareth, and Capernaum. (There’s a lot of question as to whether any Christians lived there, or if he was just trying to create pilgrimage centers, or what. Apparently these were big centers of unrest during the Jewish revolt against Constantius Gallus.)

The good life ended when Emperor Constantine started to favor Arian bishops and persecute orthodox ones. Joseph moved to a nice place in Scythopolis, which had the advantage of being away from both Jewish and Christian factions. He used his place as a safe house for orthodox folks in trouble, including St. Eusebius of Vercelli and St. Epiphanius (who recorded his story in his book on heresies, the Panarion, in Lib. 30, c. 4).

Joseph died in AD 356. His feastday is July 22, and it is on the calendars of both East and West. He’s also known as Joseph of Tiberias.

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Be Kind: Everyone Is Fighting a Great Battle

A few years back, I ran into a blog called Fencing Bear at Prayer. It was written by a medievalist who liked Mary, so of course I was interested. But the farther back I got into her blog, the more I got the impression that she liked Mary in a neopagan way. So I posted some argumentative stuff about it in the comments and on here somewhere, and went on.

Well, I was wrong about her. So I hope the lady didn’t take my comments to heart.

She was doing the conversion thing and was very new to starting it, so I should have been a lot gentler. And more, she was just at the beginning of fighting a great Internet battle.

Milo Yiannopoulos took an interest in this lady and helped her in her conversion to Catholicism. Yup, the original Peck’s Bad Boy had an eye for the slightly puzzled-looking lost sheep… and I didn’t. That is a prodigious failure on my part.

Yiannopoulos has written a big fat essay, fully researched and linked, about the online mobbing that has been suffered by this kindly lady professor for the last three years, from members of her own field, and why medieval studies is being attacked as a discipline. He calls it “Middle Rages: Why the Battle for Medieval Studies Matters to America,” and it is worth reading the whole thing.

And then, one of the mob leaders threatened to sue the university where the professor works… over the article that had nothing to do with the university… and before the article even came out.

OTOH, the essay also exposes the way a lot of nasty people on the Internet are happy to speak with forked tongue — writing gentle prose to one group of “friends” on the same day they are whipping up hatemobs against their “friends” in another closed group. No wonder such people like to employ sock puppets; it’s just an extension of their usual methods.

In other news, the Fencing Bear at Prayer has a second book out. Mary and the Art of Prayer, by Rachel Fulton Brown is a tad bit pricey, but where else are you going to get this kind of research and all these great sources? It takes the subject of prayer seriously, instead of treating it as some mysterious obscure practice done only in the dark of the moon in lemur holes, by aliens with five heads. But it is also a history of ideas book, which I love. Prayer has its tides that go in and out, and this is a book about older ways to think about prayer.

And it’s about Mary, who is a great person to get to know. Why do Catholics insist on praying with her and chatting to her? It’s hard for us to explain, because it’s like fish doing dissertations on water. Rachel Fulton Brown is the new fish on the reef, so she can still talk about it instead of just breathing it!

Mostly, though, we need to pray for Rachel Fulton Brown, aka Fencing Bear at Prayer. Because she is still fighting a great battle.

O Blessed Virgin Mary,
Queen to angels and men,
Hypermachos Strategos (Great General) of the hosts of Heaven,
please continue to pray for your fencer and her champions.
O beautiful as an army set for battle,
send your subject St. Michael to give them aid and counsel!

O Queen of poets and prophets,
As you spoke your mind freely to your Son and to angels,
teach us to speak boldly and with honesty —
even if it makes us seem foolish before the world,
and even if the world hates us for it —
for we are body parts of your Son, and cannot expect better than He got.
Help us learn to make suffering a path to heaven; and help us not despair.

We ask this in Christ Our Lord, Amen.

* I still think some of the modern academics that Fulton Brown was using as sources are whacked out beyond wacky. But the main ones are useful-wacky, and worth picking through and yelling at. I later saw a lot of super-orthodox folks referencing the same whackdoodles, and some of them trained under the same people! Theology and Bible studies can get pretty offbeat.

Also, it’s well-known that a prof can make really good points and really stupid points in the same book or article, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the same thing happening in theology history books. And to be fair, 90% of all new experiments and theories are bound to turn out to be wrong, if you are actually investigating anything new.

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St. Ammonius and the Unwed Pregnant Girl

One time, they brought an unwed pregnant girl to Father Amun and his monks in the desert, and they said, “Give her a penance.”

But he blessed her womb with the Sign of the Cross, and ordered that pieces of cloth be given to her, to serve as a shroud in case the mother or her baby died.

And they asked, “What are you doing? Put a penance on her!”

But Father Amun said, “But my brothers, you see that she is in danger of death. What can I do?”

Amun felt unworthy to judge others. He was merciful and full of goodness toward people.

— Adapted from Anthony Alcock’s translation of the Syrian “Apothegmata of Amun.”

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St. Erin?

Or, Why Do Good Catholics Think This Is a Good Baptismal Name?

Yes, Irish-American Catholics tend to assume that anything they like is pre-approved by the Pope. But why did American Catholics start naming their girls Erin? Why is it such a thing? Why? Why? Why?

— First off, Erin is really “Eirinn.” It’s the Gaelic dative form of Eire, or its Old Irish form, Eriu. Eire is the name of Ireland, or the island upon which Ireland and Northern Ireland are found; and Eriu is the name of its personification, the goddess Eriu. (Which in Proto-Celtic meant something like “land, fat land, abundant land.”)

So are people naming their kids “for Ireland” or “to Ireland”? Or are they really using the genitive form “Eireann,” and thus naming them “of Ireland”?

Maybe, maybe not. There are actually two dialects of Irish where the dative form Eirinn can be used as a nominative form, instead of using Eire. Obviously, these dialects were influential, since they show up in sayings like “Erin go bragh.”

— Okay. So… what does it mean to name your kid after a country? Why does the Social Security Administration show all these “Erins” showing up in 1947? I don’t know. There may have been an influential movie or novel character, but that’s just a guess, or it may have just been a general consensus that “Erin go bragh” sounds pretty.

From a Catholic point of view, though, the name “Erin” is kind of weird. Yes, Ireland is the land of saints and scholars, but it is not itself holy. (As the vote for legalized abortion has abundantly proved.)

— So there are a couple of different options. It could be referring to Our Lady’s title “Queen of Ireland,” if it were actually using the genitive form Eireann. The title “Queen of Ireland” was connected with the 19th century apparitions at Knock, where Mary appeared to a good chunk of a village, and it appears in several popular prayers and songs praising Our Lady of Knock.

There’s also a wonderworking painting of Mary in Gyor, Hungary, called “Our Lady of Ireland,” because it had originally hung in Clonfert Cathedral, and had been rescued by the exiled Bishop Lynch (who left it to the Bishop of Gyor). Calvinists, Lutherans, and even a rabbi signed a deposition talking about how the painting shed real tears of blood on March 17, 1697. Here’s an article in Hungarian, with pictures of it in the cathedral.

There is a copy of this painting in St. Stephen’s Church in Toledo, Ohio, which was given in 1913 by Toledo’s bishop to his Hungarian parish; but unfortunately I’ve never seen it. The copy was touched to the actual painting, and is thus a relic itself.

Here’s an article with pictures of the Toledo copy and the original painting, by the amazing Jeffrey Smith! And here’s a closer view of the original. Was it by an Irish painter?

So yup, a shorter version of “Rian Eireann” or “Muire na hEireann” (“Mary of Ireland,” which is the translation used in Ireland for “Our Lady, Queen of Ireland”) is a real possibility. I think all of you Erins have a lovely patroness!

— However, there’s also a very famous title of St. Brigid that comes to mind. She was called “the Mary of the Gaels” (Muire na Gael).

— The other possibility is that it’s yet another version of the Greek “Irene,” peace, and the various St. Irenes. This name is sometimes written “Erina,” “Erena,” or “Herena.”

— “Erinna” is also an ancient Greek name, associated with a pagan Greek poetess of that name, Erinna of Telos.

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St. Leonides, the Father of Origen

I was online, poking through Butler’s Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (that’s the 12-volume original edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints), when I found an interesting guy.

As you may know, Origen was a great Biblical scholar and commentator, as well as a great theologian. But in later times, it was questioned whether his theological speculations were evidence of personal heresy; and there were also questions about his life (ie, obedience problems, not any crimes). Also, some of his students became saints (notably, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus), but some did become heretics. In fact, many heretical ideas were claimed to be from Origen when they were not, and there was tons of unrest and schism and such.

So later generations decided that it was safer to call Origen a famous guy than a saint, and he is considered an “ecclesiastical writer” rather than one of the Fathers. Every so often, fans of Origen complain about this and want to give him saintly honors. Unfortunately, some of his fans espouse heretical beliefs, or pull stupid things. (For example, one US Catholic hymnbook included an arrangement of the Litany of the Saints that included Origen… which is a no-no as well as being inaccurate to the song.)

However… Origen’s dad Leonides (or Leonidas) was a martyr. His feast day is April 22.

St. Leonides was one of the many Greek philosophers living in Alexandria. He was a Christian too, which was increasingly common. He had seven sons; Origen was his eldest and his heir. He was very proud of Origen’s smarts and piety, and Origen’s fatherly care for his own students suggests that Leonides was a very good dad.

When Origen was 17, and in the 10th year of Emperor Septimius Severus’ reign, St. Leonides was arrested for the crime of being a Christian. Origen visited him in prison, and was crazy to get martyred along with his dad. His mom, who was obviously a match for her men, decided that the only way to stop Origen from doing anything stupid was to lock up his clothes. She did let Origen write his dad letters, and we have one that has come down to us, where Origen encourages his dad to have courage and joy in contemplating the crown of martyrdom that was being offered to him.

There is some evidence that St. Leonides was made a bishop at some point, but we don’t know much about it.

St. Leonides was beheaded in AD 202.

As refusing to worship the Emperor’s Genius was a capital crime, his estates and goods were all confiscated and became government property. Origen became the head of the family and the protector of his widowed mom. At first the family got along mostly by charity, with Origen receiving special help from a rich “church lady.” But when Origen refused to receive communion together with a heretical guy whom this lady also supported, things seem to have gotten uncomfortable. So Origen opened his own grammar school and took in pupils for money.

A year after that, he served in his church as a catechist to catechumens (but he didn’t get money for that). His catechetical skills impressed everybody so much that he was appointed by the bishop to work full time at Alexandria’s catechetical school, even though he was still only 18. (Yeah, a lot of stuff can happen in a year, if you’re somebody with the energy of an Origen.)

When Origen became a full-time catechist, he sold all his secular books to a benefactor, who paid him in installments of 4 obols a day. (That’s about five cents.) Origen lived very simply off this, and slept on the ground. But since he wouldn’t accept charity or pay, a lot of his rich friends sent their scribes to take his dictation. At one point, Origen was dictating seven books at once, one to each amanuensis. (St. Thomas Aquinas and a fair number of other prolific guys have had the same habit; they could talk and think a lot faster than they could write.) His family was also taken care of, in various ways.

Origen never managed to achieve martyrdom. He followed his pupil St. Plutarch to the execution ground, and was almost attacked by one of those Alexandrian mobs — but his friends got him away. Other martyred students of Origen included St. Serenus (Plutarch’s brother), the other St. Serenus, St. Heraclides, St. Heron, St. Herias (a female catechumen who was executed by burning, and thus was literally baptized by fire), St. Marcella of Alexandria (a slave who took Origen’s catechism classes), St. Potamioena the Elder (her young daughter who was also catechized by Origen, and who was reported as a Christian by her slavemaster, who wanted to have sex with her; this led to Marcella’s arrest too. She’s “elder” to a later Potamioena from Hermopolis.), and St. Basilides (a pagan soldier who served as a friendly guard at the martyrs’ prison, and who was converted by dreams of St. Potamioena for three nights after her death, in which she put a crown on his head and told him that she was praying for him from Heaven). Tons of his students also survived, of course!

Origen also ended up traveling and teaching other places, such as Antioch, Caesarea in Palestine, and Berytus (Beirut). He got into trouble for being ordained a priest in Caesarea, without consulting his home bishop in Alexandria. He also got into trouble for a brief period of teaching that maybe Hell’s torments wouldn’t last forever (he changed his mind) and that the Devil could repent. (Actually, this was inserted into copies of one of his books by heretics — what he actually taught was that, if the Devil could repent, then he could be saved. But demons can’t, so he wouldn’t.) But he was also a great one for bringing people out of heresy, both by his good explanations and his kindly, humble personality. He was actually sent to the Arabian bishop of Bostra to stop a new heresy about the divinity of Christ, and we have the bishop’s letters to Origen thanking him for bringing him out of heresy.

Origen was tortured and imprisoned for the faith under the reign of Decius, in the city of Tyre. He died soon after his release from prison, from the after-effects of the torture; so he really did achieve martyrdom in a way. He was 69, and the year was 253. His tomb could long be visited in Tyre’s cathedral.

There’s a lot more to say about Origen… but anyway, his humility is probably pleased by his dad having a saint’s day, and him not having one at all.

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