Friday, October 11, 2013

Holy Shit!

Hagiography, of course, is not about hags.  Mostly, as it turns out, it's about virgins, torture, and titillation.

For example, in about 1368, St. Catherine of Siena (later a Doctor of the Church) had a vision in which Jesus proposed spiritual marriage to her and offered her his dried-up foreskin as a wedding ring.  She put it on, but it was apparently visible only to her, since the "real" prepuce was displayed, until 1983 (when it quite mysteriously disappeared) in the Church of the Holy Prepuce in Calcata, Italy.  Not to worry, though.  At least 18 other equally authentic Holy Foreskins have been venerated in diverse churches throughout Europe. It has also been proposed (by the "scholar" Leo Allatius) that at some point the One True Holy Foreskin ascended into heaven and became the weirdest of the rings of Saturn.

For somewhat more gruesome titillation, we have St. Lawrence, who was grilled alive on a specially-designed gridiron.  No one knows whether barbecue sauce was applied, but the saint supposedly chastised his grillers for their careless technique. "I am well done; turn me over."  Lawrence's prototypical Weber Grill is piously preserved and venerated in Rome's church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.  More famously, though, the St. Lawrence Gridiron is a barbecue restaurant in Boise, Idaho--they have a food truck.  With black-humored (charred?) logic, St. Lawrence has become the patron saint of cooks.

Back to virgins. St. Cecilia was an Roman noblewoman who "sang a song to the Lord" in her heart while she was being married to Valerian, with whom she later refused to have sex since, in her conversion to Christianity, she had consecrated her maidenhood to Jesus (he must have quite a collection). Thereafter, somehow, (because she preferred singing to sex?) she became the patron saint of musicians--especially, er, organists, I imagine.

St. Margaret (of Antioch) and St. Catherine (of Alexandria) were both virgins who like Cecilia consecrated themselves to a mystical union with Christ and were therefore martyred by villainous and pagan anti-feminists. Though Catherine was condemned to die on a spiked wheel, she managed by philosophical right- thinking to make the nasty instrument disappear into thin air.  Alas, her mental energies could no longer prevail when her captors ingeniously severed her head from her body, thereby endearing her to frustrated philosophers everywhere, for whom she has become the patron saint.  As for Margaret, well, she was swallowed by Satan disguised as a dragon, but since the cross she carried irritated his belly, he found it necessary to expel her via some orifice "down there" (like childbirth).  So naturally she, too, was beheaded and became, in memory of her delivery from Satan, the patron of childbirth.

Even the Catholic Church itself admits that there is little evidence that either St. Margaret or St. Catherine ever existed, so it is a bit of a surprise, I suppose, that these were the two saints (along with St. Michael, an archangel and thus, by definition, non-existent) who were supposedly appointed by God to speak with authority to Joan of Arc regarding her perhaps ill-advised mission to save France from England (just think:  if she had let the English win, French would have become England's language and America would be speaking French today. Zut alors.).

Joan of Arc, by the way, did indeed exist--and like most holy females--acquired sainthood by virtue of being a virgin--with a twist, though--since rather unusually, she was a virgin who put on men's clothing and then assumed the macho profession of soldier.

St. Sebastian, on the other hand, was a macho soldier who acquired sainthood by taking OFF men's clothing and posing for queasily BDSM-type portraits as a sexy male virgin.  The favorite subject of medieval and renaissance artists with homoerotic penchants, Sebastian is nearly always portrayed as an achingly beautiful naked youth bound to a tree and mortally penetrated by countless phallic arrows. Don't ask and don't tell, but seductive Sebastian has become the patron saint of both athletes and macho military men. In the 20th Century, he could have made it big as one of the Village People.

Then, hee hee, there was St. Hilarius (I'm not making this up) who was a pope sometime or other and didn't do much of anything.  As far as I can determine, he is not the patron saint of anything either. Very papal, but not as titillating as the name leads one to expect.

So let's check out another virgin of dubious authenticity--St. Barbara--who, much like her namesake city in California, seems rather more fairy-tale fantastical than real.  Legend has it, nonetheless, that Barbara was (what else?) a pious virgin, dedicated to remaining hermetically sealed and to spending a good deal of her life locked up in a tower.  In the end, though, she went the way of most pious virgins, getting her head chopped off--and by her own father, no less.  Though God inexplicably failed to save Barbara, He did manage to punish the wicked parent by striking him dead with a bolt of lightening.  Hence, by association, Barbara (not the father) has become the patron saint of artillerymen, firearms and fireworks.  NRA please take note of Barbara's feast day, which is still observed by Orthodox and Anglican Christians: December 4.  If you can't light a candle, light a couple firecrackers.

And now, the Big One. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?) By far the most popular saint, of course, is yet another virgin--the Virgin Mary--better known, perhaps, as Our Lady (of Something or Other). The "something or other" is sometimes a place where she supposedly appeared to someone (e.g., Lourdes) and sometimes a character trait (e.g., "Sorrows," "Perpetual Help") she supposedly possesses.

Our Lady of Lourdes, for instance, appeared to simple-minded Bernadette (a.k.a. Jennifer Jones) in a grotto in the Pyrenees announcing that she--the Lady--was also the "Immaculate Conception."  Obviously too dim to process this mind-boggler, Bernadette promptly set about scratching a hole in the ground from which, mirabile visu, a spring sprang forth, whose waters can now be purchased by modern-day pilgrims in Virgin-shaped plastic bottles with heads that screw off when one wants to take a sip.

Our Lady of Fatima, for her part, appeared to a passel of little Portuguese kids and scared the shit out of them by making the sun whirl and dance and bounce around.  She also told them three big secrets which they, in turn, related to priests and popes etc. (via a game of ecclesiastical Chinese Whispers) and which predicted things which may or may not have come true, especially the third, which might still be "sealed" and is probably about the end of the world. Look for further information in the next book by Dan Brown.

(I note, in passing, that the Reverend Pat Robertson also receives regular secrets from divine sources--though as a Protestant, he probably gets his info directly from Yahweh, not from any intermediary Virgin).

My favorite Lady is Our Lady of Guadalupe--I even have a pretty icon of her on my living room wall (it goes nicely with my décor). Not that I find this apparition more credible than any of the others, mind you, but I have a strong sentimental attachment to this brown-skinned Lady who, way back in 1531, supposedly spoke to the perhaps fictitious Juan Diego in Nahuatl (not an easy language for a Lady) and delivered to him (on his cloak!) a brightly-colored image of herself that differs considerably from the traditional portraits of vacuous, blue-garbed Ladies of Spain and Portugal and France.  I think of it, in fact, as a vivid but unpretentious 16th Century "selfie."

BTW, almost all biblical scholars (except those who completely despair of ever knowing anything whatsoever about Jesus of Nazareth)--all these scholars acknowledge that Mary, far from being a perpetual virgin of the Catherine, Margaret and Barbara sort, was in fact the mother of several children other than Jesus--most notably "James the Brother of the Lord" who is mentioned prominently in Acts and the Pauline epistles (Galatians) and was the leader of the initial Church in Jerusalem.

Holy Shit, eh?

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