Porpoise Burial Mystery

27 February 18 | Posted in Animals, Events, Friends, Global Catholic, Spirituality

In September 2017 archaeologists were wrapping up an excavation on the English Channel island of Chapelle Dom Hue when they made an unexpected and mystifying discovery. The excavation revealed a carefully cut grave plot, which the archaeologists reasonably assumed would hold the remains of a deceased human. Instead, they found that the grave contained the bones of a juvenile porpoise.  

The grave, carefully cut into the rocky soil on a high point of the island overlooking the sea, was constructed with the same techniques used for human graves.

The discovery was made at the site of a medieval monastic site, which was once occupied by monks searching for solitude. The team believes the bones date to the 13th or 14th century.

Philip de Jersey, a States of Guernsey archaeologist, said: “If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it? It was entirely consistent with a human burial, which is one of the most puzzling aspects,” de Jersey added. “The grave cut has been dug very carefully, with vertical sides and a flat base cut into the underlying bedrock. This has taken some considerable care and effort.”

He said it was the most unusual find in his 35-year career. “It’s very peculiar, I don’t know what to make of it. Why go to the trouble of burying a porpoise in what looks like a grave. It’s a wonderful surprise.”

Perhaps the answer is obvious: a wild porpoise developed a bond with one or more of the monks. Someone may have started to feed it, or found it stranded and helped it back into the sea. Or, the porpoise and the man saw each other at a certain time of day in the same spot and a companionship developed.  When it died, or if it was killed, the porpoise was lovingly buried.  

See the excavation video.


Catholic Ecology Disconnects

There appears to be a disconnect in the beliefs of Catholics across the ideological spectrum on Care for Creation–all Creation.

Many good Catholics who care for the environment and would protest the killing of baby seals for pelts, agricultural killing of animal “pests,” and insist on humanely raised and harvested food, don’t blink when it comes to abortion on demand.

Many good Catholics who are “Pro-Life,” deeply concerned with promoting the sacredness of life, are indifferent or actively opposed to environmental protection as part of their “Culture of Life” ethos.  Ecological degradation and pollution affect everyone, and it affects the poor disproportionately, especially children.  

Can each group reconsider the logic of their position?

Fr. James Kurzynski, who writes for The Catholic Astronomer, had an excellent blog post on the Catholic disconnect over what the Church teaches about ecology, and what Catholics believe and do.

He noted that despite the clear and unambiguous teaching of the last three popes (St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis), there is a gap between what the Church teaches–and what her members practice–in regard to caring for all creation.






A Sermon from St. Umilta of Faenza

28 September 17 | Posted in Arts and Letters, Saints, Spirituality

“I’m like a fish resting in the ocean. The waves rush over the little fish, and the great storms buffet; but this fish goes on swimming, knowing capture is impossible, and the storms just make this fish leap with more agility.”

“That’s what I do in this world that is a troubled sea. The great currents arrive, and I sail below them. I take shelter in You, God, and let them pass by. Then my soul finds wings in the arms of Christ on the cross, and I rush up, Jesus, into Your protection and saving grace.”

“When I stop and remember that I’m with You, I don’t fear the currents. I conquer them by navigating through them to Your peace, and I come out of all the storms unharmed.”

St. Umilta of Faenza (1226-1310) is known for her mystical writings, including her sermons. She is considered to be the founder of the Vallumbrosan nuns. 

An excellent biography of this strong, versatile woman can be found on the Monastic Matrix website.


St. Hilda and the Ammonites

3 August 14 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

St. Hilda of Whitby or Hild of Whitby (c. 614-680 A.D.) was a Saxon abbess and a member of the ancient Northumbrian nobility. She is frequently depicted with a pastoral staff and carrying an abbey church.  There are often ammonites at her feet.  Saint Hilda2

The historian, St. Bede (who was about eight years old when she died), records she hosted the Synod of Whitby, at which Celtic and Roman Catholicism met to decide on liturgical matters in 664 A.D. She is an important person, and personality, in the history of the early development of Christianity in Britain.  St. Hilda, or “Mother” as she was affectionately known, was a source of encouragement and counsel for people from all walks of life.

Hilda was baptized at age 13 by St. Paulinus of York, who converted her great-uncle, St. Edwin, King of Northumbria and all of his court to the Christian faith. She lived the first half of her life as a noblewoman, but at the age of 33 she became a nun. Whitby Abbey was a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, and Hilda presided over both communities. Whitby Abbey became well-known as a place of learning.  For more on her life, especially her importance to women in the Church, read here.

St. Hilda is associated with several legends, especially turning snakes into stone.

Ammonites were frequently interpreted as being coiled snakes that had turned to stone and somehow lost their heads. They were often called snakestones. Most of the legends surrounding snakestones centered around Whitby. Sir Walter Scott recounts in his 1808 poem, Marmion, how snakestones came to be:

They told, how in their convent cell – A Saxon Princess once did dwell, The lovely Edelfled. And how, of thousand snakes, each one – Was changed into a coil of stone. When holy Hilda pray’d: Themselves, within their holy bound, Their stony folds had often found. They told, how sea-fowls’ pinions fail, as over Whitby’s towers they sail. And, sinking down, with flutterings faint, They do their homage to the saint.

The legend goes that she turned all the snakes to stone in Whitby in order to clear the ground for a new convent.  In response to her devout praying, the snakes coiled up, turned to stone, and fell off the edge of the cliffs after she cut off their heads with a whip. The absence of heads is also attributed to a curse by St. Cuthbert.  ammmonite 1

It has become a tradition in Whitby to carve snakeheads onto ammonites.  These snakestones, usually specimens of Hildoceras (named in honor of St. Hilda) and Dactylioceras are used for this purpose.  Some of the carved and polished specimens from Whitby were found in Norway, clearly traded or transported by Norse settlers.  In Elizabethan England snakestone brooches of jet were highly prized.

Hilda was succeeded as abbess by Eanflaed, widow of King Oswiu of Northumbria, and their daughter, Aelfflaed. St. Hilda and Eanflaed were cousins. All three were buried at Whitby Abbey with St. Hilda.

After the rule of Aelfflaed as abbess, nothing more is known of Whitby until it was destroyed by Vikings in 867.  After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD, monks from Evesham refounded the abbey as a Benedictine house for men.  It continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539.

According to local folklore, the the wraith of St. Hilda appears in the abbey ruins in a shroud; and the bells of the abbey can be heard ringing under the sea, where they sank with the ship taking them to London after the abbey was dismantled.

The 2013 novel Hild by Nicola Griffith is based on the life of St. Hilda.  She also appears as a main character in Absolution for Murder, the first book in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries.








St. Emer and the Dragon

16 January 12 | Posted in Animals, Saints

There are different versions of everything in this story! St. Emer, Saint Emerius, Sant Emerio or Mer, was an 8th century abbott, Benedictine monk, and legendary founder of the monastery of San Esteban de Banyoles, Spain. Tradition places his birth at Narbonne, in southern France.  Although his father was a noble, Emerius renounced the prospect of a military career to live as a hermit, journeying to the Catalonia region of Spain.  Another version explains Emerius was called by Charlemagne to accompany him in his campaign against the Muslims in Girona–also called Gerona. Several wonders and miracles are attributed to Emer.  He wore some cloak, helmet or basket with a fish design, which was removed each day to feed the army of Charlemagne in its siege of Gerona.  There was always enough and never failed. But the fighting around Girona was not only against the Muslims, said chronicler Joan Amades, an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist, “the Christian troops were fighting a fierce dragon and had its huge falls in the lake of Banyoles, this dragon possessed the property of flying, swimming and walking..”…his fetid breath had made life impossible for people and livestock in Selva, “and its strength was so great that the best of the French army” died by its claws or poisoned by its breath. Emerius, arming himself with holy water, led a procession to confront the beast. In one version, he sprinkled the dragon with holy water, easily capturing and destroying it.  In another version, he was sent alone to confront the monster. When Emer drew the sign of the cross on the dragon, it became tame.  Emer wrapped his stole around its neck, and led the dragon “like a gentle dog” to Charlemagne.  Santmer


There is another version that links the dragon to dinosaurs. “A story from the 8th century tells of a great beast which lives beside the lake. It is the last descendant of the prehistoric beast that lived in that region.  It lives in a deep cave and it is not good to disturb him. According to what people said, the beast had a voracious appetite and it devoured the peasants’ flocks.  They lived hidden at home protected by walls. In fact, every night one man disappeared from his house. One day, Charlemagne arrived there and, having heard about the beast, he decided to go kill it. When the soldiers arrived there, the dragon came out of its cave giving off its foul breath and they began to cough because of the toxic cloud that formed around them. After that, the peasants asked a monk to help.  He had arrived with Charlemagne’s troops, and was called “Mer” (Sant Emerio). The monk went into the dragon’s cave and began to pray, after that both the dragon and the monk appeared together at the mouth of the cave.  The peasants asked the monk to kill him. The monk stopped them and told them it was harmless and ate only grass and roots. And when they asked him about the disappeared people he told them the truth: the disappeared people were fighting with Charlemagne who stole all the flock. The big monster went back to its cave and even today, if somebody tries to disturb it, it will give off its foul breath against them.”