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.

 

 

 

St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Tornado

6 April 21 | Posted in Arts and Letters, Events, History, Saints, Supernatural

In his book, Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, Peter J. Thuesen compares tornados, windstorms, and other especially violent weather events to human conceptions about God, punishment, and gratitude for coming through them.  “Tornadoes, and weather generally,” he writes, put us in touch with the origin of religions, which arose in part as humans struggled to account for the forces of nature.”  Thuesen explains that God and weather are unknowable and have uncontrollable power, so it is not surprising to see that the two tied together in the human psyche.

One night in August 1683, a tornado hit the Jesuit mission at Sault St. Louis, (the Mohawk village of Kahnawake) in Quebec, Canada. “All the monsters of hell” were unleashed against the mission in the form of a “whirlwind” which destroyed the chapel.  Miraculously, Fr. Claude Chauchetiere and two other Jesuits who were in the chapel at the time of the tornado survived without serious injury.

Fr. Chauchetiere credited their deliverance to Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert to Christianity. Earlier in the day each of the men had prayed at her grave nearby. They attributed their prayers at the site for their salvation from the tornado.  Surviving the destructive tornado was the second miracle Chauchetiere attributed to Kateri Tekakwitha. Three years earlier an oak tree next to the chapel had been struck by lightening but the chapel was left untouched.   

Fr. Claude Chauchetiere (September 7, 1645-April 17, 1709) was a French Jesuit missionary priest and painter.  He met Kateri Tekakwitha at Kahnawake a year or so before her death. His oil painting of her hangs in the sacristy of St. Francis Xavier Church on the Kanawake Mohawk Reserve near Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

 

 

 

 

Swift Runner the Wendigo

31 December 20 | Posted in Events, History, Spirituality, Supernatural

Swift Runner was a Cree hunter and trapper from the country north of Fort Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  His Cree name was Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin. He was a big man, tall and muscular. He traded with Hudson’s Bay Company and in 1875, served as a guide for the North West Mounted Police. 

He was well-liked, until he developed a taste for whiskey. When he was drunk, Swift Runner became nasty and violent.  The police sent Swift Runner back to his tribe, where he caused so much trouble that he was eventually turned out of his community.  In the winter of 1878-79, Swift Runner took his family, including his wife, six children, mother-in-law, and brother, out into the wilderness to a hunting camp.  Only Swift Runner returned in the spring. He said his wife had committed suicide and the others had died of starvation. Swift Runner appeared well fed and in good shape.  His anxious in-laws asked the police to investigate. The police travelled with Swift Runner to his family’s camp in the wilderness north of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta.

Swift Runner brought a detachment of mounted police to the camp. He showed them the grave of his eldest son. The police opened the grace and found the bones undisturbed. There were human bones scattered around the encampment, some broken in half and hollowed out. That could only mean one thing – someone had snapped them open and sucked out the marrow. They found a pot full of human fat. Swift Runner identified one of the skulls as belonging to his wife. A small moccasin had been stuffed inside the skull of Swift Runner’s mother-in-law, a beading needle still sticking out of the unfinished work.

Without much prodding, Swift Runner revealed what happened to his family.  At first, Swift Runner became haunted by dreams. A Wendigo spirit called on him to consume the people around him. The spirit crept through his mind, gradually taking control. Finally, he became a Wendigo. The Wendigo killed and ate Swift Runner’s wife, and eventually cooked and ate the rest of his family.

The police didn’t believe Swift Runner resorted to cannibalism out of hunger.  Emergency food supplies were close by at a Hudson’s Bay post was 25 miles away.  Swift Runner believed that he had become a Wendigo; the police thought he was a killer cannibal.  He may have been suffering from Wendigo psychosis, a psychiatric disorder associated with the Algonquian-speaking peoples—Cree, Wabanaki, Anishinaabe in the northern boral forests along the U.S.-Canadian border.  It manifests itself through compulsive attacks and a craving for human flesh. 

On May 27, 1879, the Mounted Police arrested Swift Runner and hauled him and the remains of his victims back to Fort Saskatchewan.  His trial began on August 8, 1879. Swift Runner was tried for murder and cannibalism by a jury that included three “English speaking Cree half-breeds,” four men “well up in the Cree language,” and a Cree man who translated the proceedings. Swift Runner sat calmly throughout the testimony of witnesses, who described the family being in perfect health when they headed out to the woods, then Swift Runner coming out of the forest alone.  Swift Runner confessed to the killings and said he had seen spirits telling him to become a Wendigo. After returning to his camp from a moose hunt, all that he could hear were “young moose, nothing but moose.” Local gossip said Swift Runner had developed a taste for human flesh from years earlier when he was forced to eat the remains of a hunting partner to save his life. Other people believed he had been possessed by the Wendigo.

Swift Runner was sentenced to be hung at Fort Saskatchewan on December 20, 1879 at 7:30 am.  He declined to speak to a priest before he was executed. “The white man has ruined me,” he said. “I don’t think their God would amount to much.” The morning was dark and bitterly cold when the police led the condemned man to the scaffold. It was discovered that the trap from the gallows had been burned as kindling, and the old pensioner that was hired as the hangman had forgotten to bring straps to bind the prisoner’s arms.  As the sheriff and hangman rushed around to get the scaffold ready again, Swift Runner sat near one of the fires that had been lighted nearby, joking and talking, and snacking on pemmican.  “I could kill myself with a tomahawk and save the hangman the trouble,” he joked. Two hours later, the gallows was ready.  Swift Runner was given the opportunity to address the crowd that had some to watch him die. He openly acknowledged his guilt, thanked his jailers for their kindness and berated his executioners for making him wait in the frigid cold. Just before the trap door opened, Swift Runner said, “I am no longer a man” the Daily Evening Mercury newspaper reported. “He died without a struggle. The body was cut down in an hour and buried in the snow outside the fort.”

Does the Wendigo exist or is it a myth? Is it an explanation for human behavior or part of the supernatural?  A cultural warning about cannibalism or spiritual possession?  Do they all blur together in the snowy mist we see just before a Wendigo appears?

The Wendigo (also known as Windigo, Weendigo) is part of the traditional beliefs of a number of Algonquin-speaking tribes in the northern United States and Canada, most notably the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), Saulteaux, Cree and Abenaki. Though descriptions can vary, common to all these tribes is the conception of the Wendigos as malevolent, cannibalistic, savage, supernatural beings (Manitous) of great spiritual and physical power. They were strongly associated with winter, snow, cold, famine and starvation. The lived in the forest, and stalked villages and camps, waiting for humans to venture alone into the woods.  People who did so and never returned were said to have been taken by a Wendigo; eaten alive or turned into a Wendigo themselves.

Basil H. Johnson, a Canadian Anishinaabe author, teacher and linguist, described the Wendigo in his book, The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (1995):

“The Weendigo was a giant manitou in the form of a man or woman, who towered five to eight times above the height of a tall man. The Weendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash grey of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Weendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody from its constant chewing with jagged teeth. Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Weendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.” 

“When the Weendigo set to attack a human being, a dark snow cloud would shroud its upper body from the waist up. The air would turn cold, so the trees crackled. Then a wind would rise, no more than a breath at first, but in moments whining and driving, transformed into a blizzard. Behind the odor and chill of death and the killing blizzard came the Weendigo.”

“The Weendigo seized its victim and tore him or her from limb to limb with its hands and teeth, eating the flesh and bones and drinking the blood while its victim screamed and struggled. The pain of others meant nothing to the Weendigo; all that mattered was its survival. The Weendigo gorged itself and glutted its belly as if it would never eat again. But a remarkable thing always occurred.  As the Weendigo ate, it grew, and as it grew so did its hunger, so that no matter how much it ate, its hunger always remained in proportion to its size. The Weendigo could never requite either its unnatural lust for human flesh or its unnatural appetite. It could never stop as animals do when bloated, unable to ingest another morsel, or sense as humans sense that enough is enough for the present. For the unfortunate Weendigo, the more it ate, the bigger it grew; and the bigger it grew, the more it wanted and needed.”

Wendigo sightings continue along our northern border with Canada. Walking alone in the woods in winter may not be a wise idea. Ancient gods and goddesses are rarely worshiped, but it doesn’t mean they have ceased to exist—we are just less aware of their supernatural presence. Some native people believe that the spirit and the ideas that the Wendigo embody live on in the modern world as executives in state run corporations, multinationals and conglomerates; people who have an insatiable appetite to devour natural resources, no matter what the consequence is to communities and human victims.  Cree songwriter-signer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song, “The Priests of the Golden Bull” asserts that “money junkies” of the world are wendigos. Greed, indifference, and ravenous consumption continue to kill a lot of people every year.