Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Patron Saint of Careful Chewing

If you haven't gotten your throat blessed, shame on you. If you've no clue what I'm talking about, then you're in for a good one.

As hopefully most know, yesterday was the feast of the bishop St Blase -- not the one in Rapid City (for how much longer?), but the fourth-century Armenian martyr and patron of throat troubles.

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, St Blase was killed amidst persecution after refusing to supplicate to a pagan god. But most Catholics know him for the annual throat-blessing, which stems from a child who'd choken on a fishbone and was brought to the bishop, whose prayer released it. (The revered image of "Blase with Fish" above is one of many reflecting his claim to fame.)

One of the more-memorable manifestations of the Catholic imagination, the blessing involves the crossing of two unlit candles over a person's neck and the prayer "Through the intercession of St. Blase, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from ailments of the throat and from every other evil..." Despite the calendar's observance yesterday, most of the throat-blessings will actually take place today -- given the usual turnouts for daily Mass, popular demand and customary practice have extended the opportunity to receive it to the liturgies of the Sunday closest to the feast.

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. It's unknown whether they choked.

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

The Hinchman Collection