Thursday, February 03, 2011

Ready, Set... Throats

In one of the Catholic imagination's more memorable moments of the year, today's the feast of St Blase, the fourth-century Armenian bishop-martyr, traditional patron of throat troubles -- and a physician, to boot.

Why he hasn't been adopted by cough-drop makers the world over is anyone's guess.

Known as "San Blas" en español and "San Biaggio" in italiano, Blase was killed amidst persecution after refusing to supplicate to a pagan god. But most Catholics know him for the annual throat-blessing, its roots drawn from the legend of a child who choked on a fishbone and was brought to the bishop, whose prayer released it. (The image of "Blase with Fish" above being one of many reflecting said claim to fame.)

One of the Catholic imagination's more enchanting rituals, the blessing involves the crossing of two (unlit) candles over the recipient's neck with the prayer
"Through the intercession of St. Blase, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
(For the record, the custom in Germany and Austria actually sees the use of lit candles for the blessing.)

Regardless of what day of the week the feast falls, most of the throat-blessings invariably take place on the closest Sunday -- given the usual turnouts for daily Mass, popular demand and customary practice have extended the blessing to weekend liturgies. It may also be given by nonordained ministers, albeit without the customary sign of the cross that a priest or deacon would make over the recipient.

And what's more, according to one version of his enigmatic legend, San Biaggio wasn't just good with fish:
Although the Edict of Toleration (311), granting freedom of worship in the Roman Empire, was already five years old, persecution still raged in Armenia. Blase was apparently forced to flee to the back country. There he lived as a hermit in solitude and prayer, but made friends with the wild animals. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the amphitheater stumbled upon Blase’s cave. They were first surprised and then frightened. The bishop was kneeling in prayer surrounded by patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears....
And his martyrdom wasn't so quick, either:
Agricolaus, governor of Cappadocia, tried to persuade Blase to sacrifice to pagan idols. The first time Blase refused, he was beaten. The next time he was suspended from a tree and his flesh torn with iron combs or rakes. (English wool combers, who used similar iron combs, took Blase as their patron. They could easily appreciate the agony the saint underwent.) Finally he was beheaded.
Another account says that, in the end, his body was eaten by wild dogs. Whether or not they choked is unknown.

The shrine to St Blase in Dubrovnik, Croatia -- where he appeared in a vision to a 10th century monk, warning of an impending invasion (which was then thwarted) -- remains one of Eastern Europe's most-visited pilgrimage stops.

The Hinchman Collection