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St Nicholas

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Saint Nicholas (early 300s) was the Christian saint that Santa Claus comes from. He is one of the best loved saints, especially among the Eastern Orthodox. Because of him Nicholas is a common name. Because of him people get presents on Christmas.

Nicholas once knew a nobleman who was poor. He had three daughters but no money to marry them off. Nicholas could have just given him the money, but he was too proud to accept it.

Nicholas had an idea. In the middle of the night he secretly put gold into the daughters’ stockings that hung by the fire to dry. They all got married off.

This is where the idea of Christmas stockings come from. It is the one bit of Christmas that comes from the life of Nicholas.

The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day, December 6th. The English liked the idea but did not believe in saints. So instead they gave their children presents three weeks later on Christmas. And over the years St Nicholas himself was changed from a Christian saint into a department store Santa.

St Nicholas was bishop of Myra in Lycia on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. In those days, before the Turks came, it was a Greek land ruled by Rome.

He was the only child of rich parents. They died when he was a boy. The ships that came from Egypt carrying grain to Rome stopped at Myra. One day they brought a terrible disease from Egypt. The plague killed his parents but not him. His uncle, the bishop, brought him up.

When he was a young man his uncle died too. The other bishops of the region came to Myra to choose a new bishop. One of them had a dream: God told him to choose the first man named Nicholas who came to church the next morning. That was how Nicholas became bishop even though he was so young.

In his day some still worshipped Diana, the old Greek goddess. They did it under a particular tree that was sacred to her. Nicholas had the tree cut down.

To get back at Nicholas, the story goes, Diana assumed the appearance of a holy woman and gave oil to some pilgrims on their way to his church. She told them to paint the walls of the church with it.

It was a trick. Just then a man who looked like Nicholas appeared and took the oil and threw it into the sea where it burst into flames, burning on the water for hours, saving the church and the lives of the pilgrims.

Most of his miracles were just like that: he appears at just the right time to save the day – to save men about to be lost at sea, to save princes about to have their heads cut off, and so on. But these appearances were just that: appearances. Nicholas himself was always far away at the time.

Feast day: December 6th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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St Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (early 300s) is a Christian saint who is not well-known these days, but she was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Raphael painted her; she spoke to Joan of Arc.

Catherine said she was the daughter of King Costas. She was born rich and had a fine Greek education. She lived alone in palace with her servants.

This was in the time of emperor Maximinus, when the Roman Empire was still trying to wipe out the Christian faith. When Maximinus came to Alexandria he forced Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. The old stories say it was emperor Maxentius, but it was Maximinus who ruled the east in those days. Since the names are so alike they were probably mixed up.

Many Christians offered sacrifice to the gods out of fear of the emperor.

When Catherine saw this she went to the emperor and tried to reason with him, even though she was only 18. Standing at the doors of a temple, she pointed out that as beautiful as the temple was, it was nothing compared to the beauty of the heavens and the earth. We should worship the god who created those things, not the gods inside a temple which will one day turn to dust.

The emperor could have killed her right there, but he took up her challenge. He would prove to her that Christianity was nothing but a pack of lies.

He tried to do it himself, but soon found that he could not match her education and wit. So he gathered together 50 of the most learned men in the empire and brought them to Alexandria to debate her.

They wondered why they were brought from so far away to do such a simple thing. But she wound up persuading them that she was right! She did it with their own books which they took to be true, like those of Plato and Sibyl.

The emperor threw Catherine into a dark cell for 12 days without food. The queen visited her secretly in the middle of the night. Catherine brought her and the guards over to Christ.

After 12 days the emperor brought Catherine before him. He gave her a simple choice: either offer sacrifice to the gods and be made a queen or be put to death. Her king and master was not the emperor nor the devils that he worshipped as gods, but Jesus Christ. She had no doubt what to do.

They were going to kill her on a breaking wheel, which would cut her to pieces. But she prayed to God and it fell apart. So they cut off her head instead.

They say that when she died milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Then angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses once talked to God. There is an ancient monastery in her name that stands there to this day.

Feast day: November 25th.

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St Clement of Rome

Clement-of-Rome-icon-206x300.jpgSaint Clement (000s) was a Christian martyr and one the first popes. He was pope from 88 to 99. That was in the time of emperor Domitian of Rome, who wanted to get rid of the Christians and Jews.

Clement wrote a long letter to the Corinthians, now called “1 Clement”. It was found in some early Christian Bibles. It is one of the earliest Christian writings apart from the New Testament itself. It used to be read in churches. Even today it should be read by anyone who wants to know the history of the popes and their powers.

There is also “2 Clement”, but scholars say it was written in a later time.

Clement was raised in Rome by his father, who believed men’s fates were written in the stars. He gave his son a good education in Greek letters and philosophy. Clement later became a Christian.

When he was a boy his mother and his two older brothers went to Athens but were never heard from again, apparently lost at sea. His father went looking for them. He did not come back either. Then Clement set out to look for them. He met St Peter, who brought him together with not just his father but his mother and two brothers too.

He and Peter became friends. He followed Peter first to Antioch and then to Rome. He brought some of the top people of Rome to Christ. Later he became pope, as the bishop of Rome is called.

Clement refused to offer sacrifice to the emperor, as if he were a god. So he was sent away across the sea of Pontus (the Black Sea) to an island. Thousands of other Christians had already been sent there. They lived there cutting marble out of the earth.

Because the marble was far from any water, the water had to be carried from springs from far away. When Clement heard this he prayed. Then he saw a lamb that no one else could see. He knew was Jesus Christ. The lamb showed him where there was water nearby. Clement struck the ground and out came water.

The Christians on the island rose up against Rome and tore down all the temples and built churches in their place. But then Rome sent a general to put them back under Roman rule.

The general put an anchor round Clement’s neck and threw him into the sea. He died. But the Christians all prayed to see the body of their dead hero. The sea withdrew and showed a temple that was under the waves. In that temple was Clement’s body.

The sea withdrew every year at that time. But then when the people started to turn against God, the miracle stopped too. But the old stories of it lived on. Later they found his body and brought it back to Rome and built the church of St Clement.

Feast day: November 23rd.

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Saint Elizabeth

Saint Elizabeth (1207-1231) was a princess, the daughter of the king of Hungary. She lived in a castle on the top of a hill in the middle of Germany: she was married to the count of Thuringia. But after he died fighting in the Holy Land she was turned out of the castle and became a poor but holy woman in a plain, grey dress. She had never been so happy.

When she died the birds came and sang on the top of the church. People cut off pieces of her hair and graveclothes as holy relics. Many reported miracles done in her name after her death, especially at or near her tomb in Marburg.

Even when she was five she was religious. She would rather pray than play. She liked to pray laying face down on the ground with her arms stretched out. Even before she could read she would act as if she were reading the book of Psalms. Winning games made her uncomfortable and what she won she would give away.

She wanted to live as a poor virgin all her life, but her father, the king, wanted her to marry the count of Thuringia. She did so out of respect for him. She had sex and had children, but only as a duty not as a pleasure.

She would not eat the fine food that princesses ate in those days. She would push the food about on her plate or eat what the servants ate. When they were on the road that meant old black bread in hot water. When her husband was away she prayed all night.

She liked to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary. She liked the Te Deum.

With her own money she built a hospital to care for the sick. She sold her jewels to help feed the poor. She gave away clothing. She went to the funerals of the poor. Once she tore the linen veil from her face and used it to cover a poor, dead man before he was put into the ground. She was like Mother Theresa in our time, caring for the sick, the poor, the old and the dying.

After her husband died and she sank into poverty, her father, the king and her uncle, the bishop, offered to save her from her fate. But she said no: poverty is a virtue, the road to holiness. No one had ever seen anything like it: the daughter of the king living as a poor woman.

She prayed much and had visions of heaven. She once saw Jesus and, before she died, she saw her angel and the devil.

Many miracles were reported after her death when people visited her tomb or made a promise to God in her name. The dead were brought back to life (especially children pulled from rivers), the blind given sight and arms and legs made whole.

Feast day: November 17th.

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Saint Luke

Saint Luke (000s) was a Christian saint who wrote the book of Luke and Acts in the Bible. The book of Luke is one of the four gospels, which tell of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. St Luke was the first person we know of who used the word “Christian”.

Luke was a Greek doctor from Antioch in Syria. He was not Jewish. As a follower of St Paul his gospel is, in effect, the gospel according to Paul. When Paul talks about the gospel as a written thing, he is probably thinking of the book of Luke.

Luke travelled with Paul as he spread the Good News of Jesus Christ along the roads and ports of the Roman Empire. Even when Paul was thrown in prison, Luke stuck by him when few would.

It is from Luke that we get the stories of the Three Wise Men, the Prodigal Son, the Road to Emmaus, the Annunciation (where the angel Gabriel visits Mary) and many others.

Luke wrote more about Mary than anyone else in the Bible. He wrote things that only Mary would know. If you read his gospel it seems like he met her when she was old. Some say he even painted pictures of her (icons).

Some say Luke was one of the two men on the road to Emmaus. Luke names one man, Cleophas, but not the other. So some think that the unnamed man is Luke himself. If so, then Luke saw Christ after he rose from the dead.

Apart from that, Luke never met or saw Jesus. Because he wrote one of the four gospels, some assume that he was one of the Twelve Apostles. Not so. But he did know people who knew Jesus when he was alive on earth.

By closely comparing the book of Luke with the other three gospels we know that he had the gospel of Mark, but not Matthew or John. He also had Q, the lost book of the sayings of Jesus.

He wrote in Greek. Some say he wrote the gospel in Achaia (Greece). If so, then he probably wrote it in the 50s. Some scholars say he wrote it in the early 60s where the story in Acts suddenly ends. Acts and the book of Luke seem like they were written at the same time. Others say he wrote it in the 70s or later.

He was a virgin all his life and died at the age of 84. Jerome says he died in the Holy Spirit in Bithynia, now known as northern Turkey.

A thousand years later when the Turks made war on his hometown of Antioch, a man in white appeared to those praying in the church of St Mary of Tripoli. They say it was Luke. This gave the Christians the strength to hold out against the Turks.

St Luke is the patron saint of doctors and artists. His feast day is October 18th.

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St John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) is a Spanish saint who lived in the time of El Greco. His book “The Dark Night of the Soul” and others has helped to inform Catholic thinking about the experience of God in this world. He also helped St Teresa of Avila to make the religious order of the Carmelites think more about God and less about their shoes.

He was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez. His father was a noble who had fallen in love with a poor girl and married her. His family was against the marriage and cut him off. But once his father died, it got much worse. John, the son of a noble, grew up a hungry boy in the richest city in Spain.

When he was 14 he went to work in a hospital. There he took care of the sick and the mad. He learned to look for beauty and joy not in this world but in God.

While he worked in the hospital, John learned Greek and Latin at a Jesuit school. He became a brother of the Carmelite order and continued his studies at the University of Salamanca. There he learned Thomist philosophy, which affected him deeply.

The Carmelites had a bad name in those days. They lived well and did little work. They hardly seemed to be living for God. He was thinking of leaving, but St Teresa of Avila asked him to stay and help her to change things. He did. Their Carmelites lived such a strict and poor life that they did not even wear shoes!

Not all the Carmelites were happy about these changes. They locked John in a small, dark cell. It just had one small window, too high for him to look out. They whipped him three times a week. There he remained for nine months.

Most people would be bitter and angry – or lose all hope. Not John. He knew it was part of what God had in mind for him.

He had nothing, but he still had God. His faith and love burned more strongly. God filled his heart with joy. There he wrote some of the most beautiful Spanish ever written.

At last he escaped. He hid from his enemies in a convent. There he read his beautiful words about God to the nuns.

From that time on he wrote about his experience of the love of God and led his order of Carmelites, which in time became independent of the bad old order of Carmelites.

John wrote not just about his experience of God but also gave everyday advice about how to grow in faith and prayer. His two most famous books are “The Dark Night of the Soul”, a book that Pope John Paul II loved, and “Ascent of Mount Carmel”. The book he wrote in the cell is “The Spiritual Canticle”.

His feast day is December 14th, the day he went to heaven.

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St Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most famous and beloved Christian saints. He founded the religious order of the Franciscans. He is known for his love of animals, especially birds. He called them his brothers.

St Francis was born Francesco Bernardone in Assisi, a small town in the mountains of Italy. He was named for the France his mother came from, where his father often went to sell cloth. She came from Provence, land of the troubadours.

His father was rich but not a noble. To win glory and title for the family and himself Francis fought in the endless war against Perugia, a nearby city. But instead of glory and title, Francis found himself a prisoner of war. Later he had a long illness. God began to speak to him in dreams.

It took him some time to understand the dreams. In one dream God told him to rebuild his church. So he started to rebuild San Damiano, a small, broken-down church in the country where he went to pray. Not what God meant.

Francis still sought glory in war — in vain. And the dreams kept coming. In time Francis turned from war and glory to prayer and helping the poor. Humility, not honour.

Instead of selling cloth, Francis gave away the family’s money to the poor. He even had them come to eat at the house. His father was outraged, but not even prison would stop Francis from his course.

Finally his father took him to see the bishop. Maybe the bishop could talk some sense into Francis. It did not work: Francis disowned his father and even gave him the clothes on his back.

Francis walked out to the church with nothing — no money, no family, no home, trusting only in God. He preached the poor and simple life of the gospels, more by example than words. “Always preach the gospel,” he said, “by words if necessary.”

He began to gather followers, even among the sons and daughters of the rich. They knew the emptiness of wealth and saw in Francis something true and real. One was St Claire.

Francis wrote a short rule for the new order and got the approval of the pope. The Franciscan order was born.

His order was hardly the first, but it was something new. Until then members of a religious order – called monks and nuns – lived apart from the world – in their own buildings, on their own land, mostly in the country. Francis and his followers lived like Jesus: not apart from the world  but with everyone else. You saw them every day in the streets. They were called friars or brothers.

Franciscans take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. No money, no sex, no self-will.

The Dominican order founded by St Dominic about the same time was similar. The two orders renewed the Catholic Church, which at the time had grown powerful and corrupt. It is what God meant when he told Francis to rebuild his church.

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