Ignorant musings about saints

This evening I was thinking about saints.  As a protestant I know very little about them, and how the institution works.  That makes me admirably suited to make some ignorant remarks on the subject.

What sparked my interest was the question of whether there was a patron saint of cats.  There seems to be a popular idea around that it is an obscure lady named Gertrude of Nivelle.  But … it seems to be a confection of time and imagination and the internet.  In fact I wonder if the cult of various saints might arise in a rather similar way, by popular tradition, invention, imagination.  Certainly the saints’ lives in medieval literature arise in this way – they are a form of folkstory, like the ballads of Robin Hood, not history.  So the creation of a cult by a gradual process is not a modern thing.

So… is it valid?  What does it mean, if it just appears over time?  One could say that perhaps this is an example of the work of God, to reveal an idea to the people.  But does anybody say that?

This led me to think about saints that actually probably never existed.  Their cult grew up over time, in a more or less popular, or even superstitious way.  But then in modern times the investigations by people like the Bollandists reveal that Saint Rastus – or whoever – never actually lived.  We could say this of St George; if he lived, he certainly was not responsible for a line of the various hagiographic stories, which themselves were condemned as “silly” in the Decretum Gelasianum in late antiquity.

St George is a good example of another phenomenon.  He gets adopted as the patron saint of England during the crusades.  So … how does this work?  How does anybody know that the saint, if he existed, and is in heaven, has the slightest interest in England?  How is this real?  Can patron saints just be created?  Or is it the case that, in reality, the distinction is an earthly one: that any saint may be prayed to about anything, but that for convenience the church, official or otherwise, suggests that people pray to this saint or that for specific things?

I have no answers on this, but suggestions of things to read would be welcomed.  It is, after all, rather embarrassing to produce material about the saints while having so little understanding of the subject!


14 thoughts on “Ignorant musings about saints

  1. About St. George and being patron of England, the way I look at is like this: When England chose St. George, she chose him not for his miraculous powers but for his great example of courage and sacrifice for his belief (we can say principles). Surely, St. George was a great soul. Thomas the Bucket and Thomas Moore were of the same caliber: the threat of death does not deter them. People may or may not intercede with him to pray for them, but not many people were like him.

  2. Hi Roger,
    Originally saints were those members of a local Christian community who were remembered after their deaths, a bit like an extended version of a memorial service. If they didn’t have a hagiographer with a generation then often only the day of their martyrdom and location was remembered. If this was the case the temptation was to invent/embellish the facts as a way of promoting that particular saint. I’ve always felt there was a bit of a competition between places to out do each other with amazing miracles. This was done at a local level with little or no Episcopal oversight. The idea of a patron saint of a particular occupation or animal developed later. A soldier martyr might be favoured by soldiers or a saint from a port city might be favoured by sailors or a maryr who was a gardener might be favoured by farmers, etc. The comprehensive list of patron saints put out by the Catholic Church is a late medieval. To this day Orthodox saints tend to be associated by location rather than a particular profession. Also there are still lots of ‘local’ saints in the Orthodox Church that are venerated in one national church but not in another. Due to the centralised system of canonization in the Catholic Church ‘local’ saints are relatively rare. One example that springs to mind is John Cassian who is only venerated around Marseille.

  3. A lot of patron saint stuff developed out of saint attributes in art (such as St. Gertrude with a mouse or a cat or both). You also see a lot of guilds or professions that adopted saints for various reasons, including propinquity, biographical incidents, convenient calendar dates for parties, or propinquity of a shrine. It is almost always a “vox populi, vox Dei” situation, and it might almost be called “fandom-driven.”

    (But most saints get associated eventually with almost every kind of miracle you can think of, and some that are just amazing in either religious or very human ways. I love, love, love the detailed, attested medieval account of the miraculous removal of a bean from a child’s ear, at the tomb of St. Elizabeth of Hungary! And there are some very good things happening all the time all over the place, including in connection with saintly intercession, so there’s lots of material. Of course, the wackier or wilder the miracle, the more often it gets remembered.)

    Nivelles/Nivelle was an important and rich monastery/house of canonesses, so a lot of their local saints got big billing. Gertrude was also the next best thing to a princess, and her later relatives were very interested in getting her help and thus in boosting her renown. Lots of other noblewomen became nuns or canonesses there, so there were a lot of connected people interested in her; and I think I recall that Nivelles was also important as a school for lots of young noblewomen or daughters of merchants, who went to stay with their relatives there in their childhoods.

    She was also part of an entire family of noble Austrasian saints, so there was synergy and signal-boosting between the various monasteries and shrines associated with those saints, as well as with patriotic interest in the history of those areas.

    But there are a lot of other cat-related saints out there; Gertrude just has better art and publicity.

  4. The sad thing is that in today’s world, or at least in English-speaking countries, we don’t get as much fun with saintly patronage. Given the miraculous multiplication of ice cream cones by Bl. Solanus Casey (apparently on more than one occasion!), and his frequent statement that Jesus and Mary were pleased when people celebrated with ice cream — well, you would expect that your man would have an ice cream feastday thing going on at his shrine, or that ice cream vendors would be encouraged to take him on as a patron (at least in Detroit and Milwaukee, or other cities where he was stationed).

    But noooo. And in fact, a lot of the Franciscans at his shrine are a little embarrassed that Detroit people remember the ice cream multiplication thing, among his other good works and miracles. I don’t always think the medievals were right in their attitudes, but they would have been all over an ice cream saint.

    The other amusing thing is that Bl. Solanus’ self-taught fiddle-playing and singing was not the greatest, at least in his old age when he got deaf, and his confreres were notoriously not very appreciative. But a lot of US Catholic musicians do have a devotion to him, even though his namesake, the gifted musical missionary St. Francis Solano, was an astoundingly gifted musician and composer. There is something comforting, even to people who are darned good at music, in the example of someone who was persistent and joyful rather than skilled.

    But this stuff can turn on a dime. St. Martin de Porres is an animal and stray cat saint in South America, but he’s mostly known as a black or social justice saint in the US. Fandom-driven, like I said. And that’s okay. Everybody appreciates different things about their favorite people.

  5. Thank you for these thoughts. It’s very useful to have a catholic point of view here.

    Do you have any other cat-related saints that I could look into?

  6. I was thinking a little further about this, and I found myself thinking about the confessional here. You have – I believe – the laity going to confess to the priest at the cathedral, whom they may or may not know; or possible familiar old Father B at their smaller church. They confess their sins, and receive absolution from their confessor; not because he can forgive sins, but because Christ can do so, and the priest is acting in his stead. Likewise they might ask him to pray to God for them.

    If we now imagine an old lady who has confessed to Fr. B all her life, and then learns that he is dead, surely it is not a large step for us to imagine her praying, and asking for his intercession in the much the same way that he did in life. In either case it is God who acts; God who hears the prayer, and Fr. B, alive or dead, is merely a way for fallible humans to receive certainty that He has done so.

    But what if, unknown to any, Fr. B. was actually an unrepentant sinner, behind his pious mask – our “realistic” novels are full of such clergy – and didn’t make it, and is currently in hell? What becomes of her prayer?

    The answer, surely, is the same as it was in life. It was not Fr. B. who actually forgave her sin, but Christ; and His work is not frustrated by human failures. Her request to Fr. B. to pray for her is futile in a sense – he is no longer in any state to pray to anyone – but again God will step in.

    Here I was reminded of the people who write letters to Sherlock Holmes, at 221B Baker Street in London. Of course Holmes is fictional, but I believe that the real owners of the property have a department to respond to such letters and see that they get dealt with appropriately.

    Is it unreasonable to assume that God likewise has made arrangements in such a case? That prayers mistakenly but directed in good faith at “saints” who did not make it to heaven, or indeed never existed, are dealt with in a similar way? There are, after all, countless saints in heaven. Humorously, we might imagine that some of them run a “bureau” for misdirected prayers.

    It’s not that unreasonable. Christians try to help. After all, if we ran a church where prayers were posted on a board, would we ignore the prayers because they were misaddressed? Surely not.

    I think of St George, who probably never existed. Is there a saint up there, whose name we do not know, handling the “George” portfolio, and making sure that requests are dealt with? Why should there not be? If we would do that, in such a situation – and the situation must happen sometimes – then surely the blessed saints would do the same or better?

    God copes with our mistakes. In the ages of superstition we got vast quantities of essentially fictional stories about the saints. No doubt they inspired people, hopefully for good. No doubt this sometimes caused people to do the wrong thing. The efforts of the Bollandists to clean up this mess are correct. But God handles the mess anyway.

    Likewise I think about the Vatican designating St Isidore as patron saint of the internet. Isidore of Seville died in 636. I am aware of no revelation declaring that he would be taking on a portfolio. But it seems clear that Catholic thought allows for such innovations, for saints to be handed responsibilities. Perhaps the logic is that they are still members of the church, and, if a priest can be packed off to Craggy Island for the good of the church, surely a saint can take on a role?

    Likewise if there is a popular need for Gertrude of Nivelle to answer prayers about cats, it would be churlish to suppose that she would respond that she is washing her hair; number unobtainable; etc. If someone nominated me as the go-to person for patristic blogging (please don’t!), and I started getting religious enquiries, I would certainly do what I humanly could for them. Only a rotter would do otherwise. Why would a saint be different?

    I have no idea whether this line of reasoning is correct – I am just musing – but if so, it does explain how men can create saints, and yet God still honours it all. Just like Sherlock Holmes replies to correspondents, even today, so prayers directed to even fictional saints are, by God’s mercy, honoured by God.


  7. An orthodox correspondent sent in this link, commenting:

    “As an Orthodox Christian, please allow me to suggest an article that should answer your query regarding “sainthood” – which is not a mere formal title given by mortals to certain “preferred” individuals or imaginary ones, but a divine recognition of existent men and women, who dedicated and sacrificed themselves for their faith and trust in the Lord and who now live the everlasting life near Him in heaven.

    As such, they can be addressed (prayed to) by us for their intercessions, precisely because they are permanently alive and near the source of permanent Life – Jesus Christ.


    Another pertinent article, with lots of scriptural references….


  8. It’s not that unreasonable. Christians try to help.

    That’s the whole saint thing in a nutshell. ^.^
    Folks ask me to pray for them– why wouldn’t I ask someone I know is better than I am, a saint? (Especially momma Mary!)

  9. Without at all removing anything of Jesus’ divinity and majesty, the whole thing about the communion of saints is that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and that He did set us up to have fellowship with each other as well as with Him.

    As for saints having portfolios… well, you go to church. What happens if you miss a meeting of a club, and they need somebody to do a job?

    So maybe that’s why the saints in Heaven get nominated to do stuff!

  10. Re: other saints of cats, apparently in Italy it’s St. Agatha, because of a pun — gatta or gato sounds like A-gata. In France, St. Yves the lawyer is shown with a cat as an attribute, which some people take as a nasty slam at lawyers as predators and others as a symbol of alertness.

    The Vulgate and Septuagint translations of Baruch 6:21 had cats (cattae and ailouroi, respectively) able to despise idols and walk all over their bodies and heads, so they had some positive press! But I gather there is some question about whether cattae or ailouroi were originally generic terms for both small members of the cat family and of the weasel family, because they were all hunters of birds and mice, and could be trained and used as useful housepets.

    There’s a funny story where St. Wulfstan got chided by another bishop, Geoffrey of Coutances, for dressing in wool or lamb fleeces, as it being unbefitting his station. Geoff said he ought to wear sable, beaver, or wolf. Wulfstan said those were clever beasts, such as befitted craftier men like Geoff, whereas he was simple and wore something that advertised it. “Then wear catskin,” said Geoff. Wulfstan replied, “I’ve never heard anyone chant the Cat of God, only the Lamb of God. So only a lamb and never a cat will warm me.” Geoffrey laughed and let him alone.

    St. Verena of Zurzach is part of the Theban Legion group of saints, but her feast falls on Sept. 1, in the middle of harvest. So her old attributes are a water jar and a comb, but she’s also depicted with a wheat ear and sometimes a cat. I haven’t found any pictures of that online, alas!

    St. Martin de Porres was assigned to be doorkeeper to his community of Dominicans, which means he also was supposed to feed any poor people who showed up looking for alms. Like a lot of religious who are doorkeepers, he stretched a point to feed stray animals at the door. Unlike most, however, he was saintly enough to keep the stray dogs and cats from attacking each other, and both from attacking stray birds, mice, etc. That’s why he’s seen as an animal saint in South America.

    Cyprus has St. Nicholas of the Cats Monastery (Nikolaus ton Gaton), a convent of Orthodox nuns, where they encourage cats in order to kill off venomous snakes that infest the island.

    Lion attribute saints, like St. Jerome, are sometimes depicted with cats.

  11. There’s a funny story about St. Moling of Ferns. He was sitting around one day when he saw a wren catch a fly and sit down to eat it. Then a cat pounced on the wren and started to eat it. So Moling yelled at the cat to spit the bird out, and the cat did. And then he yelled at the bird to spit the fly out, and he did. And they were none of them the worse for it!

    This might be connected to another story, about an Irish saint that had three animal assistants, including a fly that would sit down to mark his place in his book above the word where he stopped studying. One day all the animals ran off or died or something, and this saint got depressed, and another saint reprimanded him for getting attached to gifts from Heaven. Or something. I don’t remember the whole story.

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