Saint Ghislain and the Eagle and Bear

5 September 22 | Posted in Animals, Arts and Letters, Events, History, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Ghislain (died October 9, 680) was a confessor and hermit in Belgium.  He lived during the reign of King Dagobert I (605-639 A.D.), King of the Franks and one of the last great kings of the Merovingian dynasty.

The name of Ghislain comes from the Germanic words gisal, “hostage,” and lind “sweet.” St. Ghislain is frequently portrayed with a bear or bear cub beside him. According to legend, King Dagobert was out hunting in a forest and was chasing a bear. She sought refuge with Ghislain and he protected her from the hunting party.  The bear later showed Ghislain the place where he should establish a monastery.

The legend is sweetly told in the 1854 article, “A Few Words About Bears,” by S. French in an 1854 edition if the New York Journal of Romance, General Literature, Science and Art.

“One day, as King Dagobert, who reigned over France and Belgium, was hunting in the forests of Hainault, he strayed from his company in the pursuit of a large bear, which, knowing what it was about, sought refuge in the hermitage of Saint Ghislain. The saint was at his devotions, and did not look around. The bear squatted beside a basket, in which the hermit left his sacerdotal ornaments. Soon after, King Dagobert entered the hermitage, and was not a little startled and surprised to see the monstrous animal lying at the feet of an old man engaged in prayer.”

Saint Ghislain turned at the noise made by the prince’s entrance. He then perceived what had occurred, and begged the life of the bear. Dagobert immediately recognized the man of God, whose name was celebrated throughout the country, and accorded him that which he had solicited; and after embracing him, and praying him to rely upon him for countenance and support, he retired and left the Saint with his bear. “

“No sooner had the King departed than the bear arose, took up the basket with its contents, and, laden with this precious burden, fled away towards the place where she had left her young. She knew that by so doing she would be able to draw thither the hermit who protected her. The spot was a charm and picturesque one, afterwards called Ursidong or the Bears Grove, situated in the forest on the border of the river Haine, which has given its name to Hainault.” 

 “As the bear calculated, Ghislain followed her; but, impelled by a desire to join her little ones, she went so fast that the Saint in a very short time lost sight of her. He found himself bewildered in the midst of the vast forest, where the foot of man had never yet traced a path, when an eagle appeared before him, fluttering to attract his attention. Ghislain, seeing something extraordinary in all of this, suffered himself to be guided by the eagle, and presently arrived at the Grove of the Bear.”

 “This spot he found to be so attractive and convenient, that he transported thither his dwelling. His new friends, the eagle and the bear, never quitted him. Numerous anchorites, drawn by reports of these marvels, came and placed themselves under the discipline of the saint. They built a grand monastery, around which, in the process of time, grew a town, which was called Saint Ghislain.”

 “Up to the end of the last century, when the monastery was suppressed, an eagle and a she bear were constantly kept there, in memory of the saint who died in 670.”

 

 

Saint Thecla the Evangelist

A healthy number of saints’ stories feature people who were “called to chastity” or to a relationship with Christ vs. marriage. All kinds of fantastic legends and tales ensued about the lengths to which these people would go to avoid marriage and connubial sex. Ultimately, they were all successful in their quest to avoid sex with members of the opposite sex. They ended up living alone (rarely) or with a same-sex companion (often) or same-sex community in a wilderness setting (usually).

St. Thecla the Evangelist is one of those saints. She would face anything but marriage.

Thecla’s story is preserved in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, an apocryphal story of Paul’s impact on a young virgin, Thecla, and her subsequent trials, adventures and spiritual leadership as his disciple. She infuriated many Church Fathers, including Tertullian, who griped that some Christians were using the example of Thecla to legitimize women’s roles in teaching and baptizing.

According to Acts, Thecla was a beautiful young woman of Iconium (now Konya, Turkey) whose life was transformed when she heard St. Paul preaching in the street beneath her window. She announced her intention to break off her engagement and to embrace a life of chastity. Her finance was furious. Her family was scandalized. They denounced her to the governor who had her arrested and condemned to death. Thecla was tied naked to a stake, but a miraculous thunderstorm put out the flames. She is saved. Once home, Thecla disguises herself as a youth and escapes to reunite with Paul and travel to Antioch.

While traveling, she is sexually assaulted by Alexander, a prominent man of Antioch. One account reads: “Repulsing the assault, she tears his cloak and knocks the wreath from his head. Alexander (the would-be ravisher) brings her before the magistrate who, despite the protests of the women of the city, again condemns Thecla to death, this time ad bestias. Pleading to remain a virgin until her death, she is taken in by ‘a certain rich queen, Tryphaena by name,” who lost her own daughter. (Tryphaena was the widow of Cotys, King of Thrace and a great-niece of the Emperor Claudius. In Romans 16:12, Paul sends greetings to a Tryphaena.) 

Thecla is allowed to return to Tryphaena. She rides a lioness (who licks her feet) and is paraded through the city. The next morning, Alexander comes for her and escorts her to the arena to die. There she is stripped and thrown to wild beasts. A lioness (presumably the one who licked her feet) protects her from the attacks of lions, bulls and bears. Thecla prays, and throws herself into a trench of water (an euripus) and baptizes herself. The water is full of ferocious and hungry seals. A cloud of fire covers her nakedness and kills the vicious seals. The women in the stands of the arena cast fragrant nard and balsam into the area, which had a pacifying effect on the remaining wild animals. The awestruck governor releases Thecla and she returns to the palace of Queen Tryphaena. Refusing all entreaties to stay with the queen, Thecla dresses in male clothing and sets out to find Paul. She tells him that she baptized herself, and had been commissioned by Christ to baptize and preach in his name. According to the story, Paul recognized her as a fellow apostle and encouraged her to preach the Gospel. Wherever she went, “a bright cloud conducted her on her journey.”

Thecla encouraged women to live a life of chastity and to follow the word of God. She returned home to find her finance had died and her mother indifferent to her preaching. She left, and in one version of her story, she dwelt in a cave in Seleucia Cilicia (southern Turkey) for 72 years and formed a monastic community of women, whose members she instructed “in the oracles of God.” 

In another version, Thecla passed the rest of her life in a rocky desert cave in the mountains near the town of Ma’aloula (Syria). She became a healer and performed many miracles. She remained persecuted, and men still conspired to rape and kill her. Just as she was about to be seized, Thecla cried out to God for help. A fissure opened in the stone walls of her cave and she disappeared. It is said that she went to Rome and lay down beside Paul’s tomb.

Her cave became an important pilgrimage site in early and medieval Christianity. Today visitors can still see Thecla’s cave and the spring that provided water for her. The nuns who live at the Mar Thecla monastery will tell you her story and show you the opening in the rock where the saint escaped.

There are many wonderful parts of St. Thecla’s story, beginning with her determination to live her life following her calling to evangelize, rather than accede to family or societal expectations. Her protection by animals, the public affirmation by groups of women, are also very positive. She was unashamed of her nakedness when she was led twice to the arena to die. She was proud of her body, her virginity, and her sole possession of it. The biggest surprise was her encouragement by St. Paul ( wives-be-subordinate-to-your-husbands), accepting her as a fellow apostle. The ugly, horrifying constant throughout her life is the desire by men to rape Thecla or kill her if she won’t submit to their authority. Men who are rapists do not believe that they are the problem–females (or males) who aroused them are at fault. What can Christianity do to change this perception?

 

Saint Kieran (Ciaran) of Saighir

21 January 22 | Posted in Animals, Events, Global Catholic, History, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Kieran was an Irish abbot and bishop who lived in the sixth century. His feast day is March 5. Saint Kieran is said to be the first native-born saint of Ireland. 

His conversion to Christianity probably preceeded the arrival of Saint Patrick. He may have been ordained a bishop during a visit to Rome; or he could be one of the twelve bishops appointed by Saint Patrick.

On his return from Rome Saint Kieran settled in Saighir as a hermit, an area near the Slieve Bloom Mountain range. He wore animal skins and lived in the wilderness. One day, he noticed a fierce looking boar close to him in the forest. Saint Kieran spoke gently to the boar calling him, “Brother Boar.” Kieran loved animals and they trusted him. The boar realized that Kieran was a friend. He helped him build his hut, tearing down strong branches with his teeth and tusks and bringing them to Kieran. Soon, other animals joined them included a wolf, fox, badger, deer, and many birds. Kieran called them his brother monks. The fox stole Kieran’s shoes. The badger went after the fox The animals stayed even though men came to follow to follow Kieran and join his community.

Kieran performed his first miracle as a boy. A kite soared over him and grabbed a little bird as she sat on her nest. Kieran demanded that the kite release the little bird. The kite turned back and released the bird, but it was wounded and half-dead. At Kieran’s command, the little bird was restored to life and resumed sitting on her nest.

In one wonderful tale, Saint Kieran blessed a well and from that time it “had the taste of wine or honey—for everyone who drank from it got drunk as well as filled.” The site may have been a local holy well, which certainly would have become even more popular after his miracle.

 

 

 

Saint Brendan’s Voyage

Saint Brendan the Navigator (484-577 A.D.) is the patron saint of boaters, mariners, travelers, whales, portaging canoes, elderly adventurers and two Irish dioceses, Kerry and Clonfert.  His feast day is celebrated on May 16.  Brendan is chiefly renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed.  It is recorded he took two voyages; the first unsuccessful, the second (565–573 A.D.) is recorded as The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot

Brendan was born in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the west of Ireland.  When he was one, he was handed over to the care of the nun, Ita, when she lived at the foot of Mount Luachra. Ita of Killeedy was known as the “Brigid of Munster” and sometimes called “the white sun of the women of Munster.”  She was a skilled organizer, herbalist, and teacher. Brendan remained with her until he was seven. He regarded Ita as his foster mother and treated her with reverence and affection. He came to her for advice and guidance throughout his life.  One story states that after his first five years of wanderings, Brendan returned to Ireland and went to see Ita. “O my beloved,” she said, “wherefore hast thou tried without my counsel? Thou wilt not gain the Land of Promise borne in the hides of dead beasts. Thou wilt find it in a ship made of boards.” He went to Connaught, built a wooden ship, and embarked on his famous voyage. 

According to Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Brendan was in his seventies when he and 17 other monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The Irish monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years.  One of his companions is said to have been Saint Malo, the namesake of the historic port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.  The idea to sail in search of the promised land of the saints came from Barinth, the abbot of Drumcullen, a distant relative of Brendan’s. Barinth told him about a wonderful isle, a place where there was no hunger, thirst, or darkness.  Brendan was determined to find it. There were 13 voyagers (12 original apostles, plus 1) and Brendan. At the last minute three other monks begged to be taken along.  Brendan consented, but predicted that while one of them would come to a good end, the two others would perish miserably.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot is one of several wonder-voyages or sea tales of the Irish known as the “Immrama.”  These voyage stories describe the hero’s series of seafaring adventures.  Besides Brendan’s tale, four others have come down to us:  the Voyage of Bran, the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of the Boat of Ui Corra, and the Voyage of Snedgus and MacRiagla. Unlike the Voyage of Bran, where alluring women figure prominently, Brendan and his crew do not encounter any females on their trip. Not one. Only men and boys—very monk-like. 

During the Dark Ages (500-1000 AD), Irish monks ventured across Europe and into the North Atlantic in pursuit of spiritual and religious missions.  They reached the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Faeroe Islands.  They may have even reached Iceland.  Was it faith that made them step into a boat and hope they would find the Isle of the Blessed; or did they have prior knowledge of lands to the West from Scandinavians or others?  It’s possible that fishing boats, traders or a raiding party was blown off course during a storm and made an accidental discovery. Brendan’s voyage is part chronicle, allegory, explanation, and sea yarn. It contains a lot of mysteries, which makes it fun to try to identify different lands and creatures.  Two that particularly appeal to me are “Jasconius” and “Paul the Hermit.”

Jasconius

Jasconious is a giant sea creature that appears several times in the Voyage of Brendan the Abbot. The monks first thought Jasconius was an island, and went off to cook some fish to eat, leaving Brendan with the boat. “…and no sooner was the fire hot and the fish beginning to boil, than the island began to quake and to move like a living thing, and there was great fear on the brothers and then went back into the ship leaving the food and cauldron after them, and they saw what they took to be an island going fast through the sea, and they could notice the fire burning a long way off, that they were astonished. They asked Brendan then did he know what was the great wonder, and Brendan comforted them, and he said, “It is a great fish, the biggest of the fishes of the world, Jasconye his name is…”

Jasconius or Jasconye was most likely a Right whale but could have been a Humpback or even Sperm whale. Various cultures and ancient peoples had many legends surrounding the Leviathan, a gigantic and fearful sea creature found in the Book of Jonah in the Bible.  The Fastitocalon, a giant sea turtle, lured sailors to rest on its back, and then drowned them. In the Latin Physiologus, written in the second century AD, the creature is called an Aspidochelone.  The Christian scribe who compiled the Physiologus included plants, stones, animals and fabled, fantastic creatures, each with a moral or allegorical background. In the folklore of the Greenland Inuit, there was a similar monster called Imap Umassoursa, which also disguised itself as an island, and killed its prey by tipping over and spilling them into the sea. More likely mariners, hunters, or the curious attempted to stand on or get near the creature and were pulled down in its wake when it dove. Vikings also had many stories about giant whales or kraken monsters that would attack ships.

Paul the Hermit

Brendan finds “Paul the Hermit” living on a small circular island. Paul says he is 140 years old. For his first 30 years on the island, he was fed by an otter, who brought him a fish and firewood for cooking every three days.  For the last 60 years the hermit subsisted only on the waters of a tiny spring before the entrance to his cave home. He had no clothes except for his own hair which was long and white.  He was 50 years old when he first arrived on the island.

Brendan asked him about how he came to the island.  Paul told him his story: “For forty years I lived in the monastery of St. Patrick, and had the care of the cemetery. One day when the prior had pointed out to me the place for the burial of a deceased brother, there appeared before me an old man whom I knew not, who said, ‘Do not, brother, make the grave there, for that is the burial place of anther.’ I said, ‘Who are you, father?’ ‘Do you know know me?’ said he. ‘Am I not your abbot?’ ‘St. Patrick is my abbot,’ I said. ‘I am he,’ he said; and yesterday I departed this life and this is my burial place.’ He then pointed out to me another place, saying, “Here you will inter our deceased brother; but tell no one what I have said to you. Go down on tomorrow to the shore, and there you will find a boat that will bear you to that place where you shall await the day of your death.’ Next morning, in obedience to the directions of the abbot, I went to the place appointed, and found what he promised. I entered the boat, and rowed along for three days and nights, and then I allowed the boat to drift whither the wind drove it. On the seventh day, this rock appeared, upon which I at once landed, and I pushed off the boat with my foot, that it may return whence it came, when it cut through the waves in a rapid course to the land it had left.”

Was he deranged to push off the boat; or was he full of faith to obey his vision and abandon himself to his fate?  The story of Paul the Hermit’s relationship with the otter is similar to the tale of St. Cuthbert and the Otters. Both men had otters help and comfort them in their spiritual trials. Because of the presence of the otter, we know Paul’s island cave probably wasn’t more than a mile from land in Scotland or northern Ireland.

Is there any truth behind the story of the Voyage of Saint Brendan? Could it have really happened?  British historian and explorer Tim Severin set out to follow the legend. In 1976 Severin built a replica of Brendan’s currach. Handcrafted using traditional tools and materials, the 36-foot, two-masted boat was built of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with leather throng, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease.  Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland, Canada.

He sought to prove Brendan’s voyage by undertaking a similar journey following what is known as the “stepping stones” route: following trade routes to and amongst and beyond the islands of the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland to Nova Scotia. Severin’s re-creation of the voyage helped to potentially identify many of the legendary sites in the story: the “Island of the Sheep,” the “Paradise of the Birds,” “Crystal Towers,” “mountains that hurled rocks at the voyagers,” (volcanoes) and the “Promised Land” of the saints. The patch of sea they described as being in a semi-solid state may have been ice floes and slush.

The voyage of the Irish monks across the Atlantic and back was significant for the next group of transatlantic voyagers: Norwegians. Did Irish monks reach North America in the 6th century? It appears they did, and the stories of their sea voyages inspired Norsemen to set out for new lands farther to the west. Vikings first traveled to Greenland in the 8th or 9th century; and Leif the Lucky (Leif Eriksen) established the first Viking settlement in “Vinland,” in the 10th century. Brendan the Abbot discovered the “New World” almost 1,000 years before Columbus.

The abbot, Barith, Brendan’s distant kinsman, was his inspiration to travel to the Island of the Blessed.  Barith had traveled there and returned to Ireland. Who told Abbot Barith about the fabled lands to the west? 

Read the Brendan manuscript here.

Chapter Synopsis of the Voyage

1.Barinth tells of his visit to the Isle of the Blessed, which prompts Brendan to go on his journey.

2.Brendan assembles 13 monks to accompany him.

3.They fast at three-day intervals for 40 days and visit Saint Enda for three days and three nights.

4.Three latecomers join the group. They interfere with Brendan’s sacred numbers.

5.They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food offered) and an Ethiopian devil.

6.One latecomer admits to stealing from the mysterious island; Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer; the latecomer dies and is buried.

7.They find an island with a boy who brings them bread and water.

8.They find an island with some sheep; eat some and stay for Holy Week.

9.They find the island of Jasconius, celebrate Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish.

10.They find an island that is the “Paradise of Birds.” The birds sing psalms and praise God.

11.They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, who have magic loaves of bread, do not age, and maintain complete silence. They celebrate Christmas.

12.They undertake a long sail after Lent. They find an island with a well, and drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1-3 days, depending on the number of cups each man drank.

13.They find a sea in a semi-solid state.

14.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds. A bird prophesies that the men must continue this year-long cycle for seven years before they will be holy enough to reach the Island of the Blessed.

15.A sea monster approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea monster approaches, bites the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the flesh from the dead creature.

16.They find an island of three choirs of monks who give them fruit, and the second latecomer remains while the others leave.

17.They find an island of grapes and stay there for 40 days.

18.They see a gryphon and bird battle.  The gryphon dies.

19.They journey to the monastery of Ailbe again for Christmas.

20.Many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them.

21.They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks. They realize it is a whale.

22.They pass a “silver pillar wrapped in a net” in the sea.

23.They pass an island of blacksmiths who throw slag at them.

24.They find a volcano, and demons take the third newcomer down to Hell.

25.They find Judas Iscariot sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the sea, and learn it is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night.

26.They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived for 60 years. He wears nothing but his hair and is fed by an otter.

27.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds.

28.They find the Promised Land of the Saints.

29.They return home, and Brendan dies.

 

 

St. Botvid of Sweden

21 April 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Botvid could be a patron saint of good fishing luck, and/or what happens when a good intention takes a fatal turn.

Botvid was a successful Viking or trader who encountered Christianity on a trip to England and converted during his visit. When he returned home to Sodermanland he began to evangelize in the surrounding area. The year of St. Botvid’s martyrdom was traditionally thought to have occurred in 1120 A.D.  However the Swedish historian, Johannes Messenius, proposed that Botvid returned to Sweden from England in 1055 and died in 1076.

St. Botvid is usually shown holding a fish and an axe. The fish represents his “fishing luck” miracle. After Botvid returned to Sweden, he went out to fish with some neighbors. The best fishing spot was near an island owned by a man named Bo. Bo claimed one-quarter of the catch from anyone fishing his grounds. He sailed out to tell Botvid and his group when he saw their boats approaching. Knowing it was a rich fishing area, some of the people decided to stay and comply; but Botvid left and went to another spot. The fish followed him. His catch was so great that he was able to share with his neighbors and other local fishermen who went to his spot. When Bo sailed over to see what was happening Botvid invited Bo to fish for free, and his heart was won over. 

Another tale associated with St. Botvid is his encounter with a man for sale. The man was a foreigner, Wend, Finn or Slav – the stories vary. Botvid’s plan was to convert this pagan to Christianity, and then emancipate him so that he could return home to evangelize. After baptizing the slave, Botvid and one of his tenant farmers, a man named Esbjorn, set out to return him to his homeland. As they headed toward Gotland, they stopped to camp on Rago Island in Sodermanland. The new freeman took Botvid’s axe and killed both Botvid and Esbjorn in their sleep. He took the boat and sailed away.

According to legend, Botvid’s brother, Bjorn and a priest named Henrik began searching for the missing men. Guided by a white bird, they found Esbjorn’s bones and Botvid’s intact body. A well of clear water was streaming from the place where Botvid’s blood had dripped from his wounds. Botvid is associated with another spring as well. Saint Botvid’s Spring (Sankt Botvids Kalla) is located at the southeastern tip of Lake Bornsjons. The water began to flow after Botvid’s casket was set down in route to his final resting place. 

His brother, Bjorn, built a wooden church on the family land in Botvid’s honor. The miracles reported at Botvid’s grave over the next nine years led to the conversion of the local people. The original wooden church was replaced by a stone structure in 1176 A.D. It is in Botkyrka (Botvid’s Church), a town not far from Stockholm.