The Blogs of Francis Phillips
This past week has been rich in feasts and saints’ days, reminding us, if we need reminding, of the extraordinary beauty and breadth of our faith. On Monday 2nd February it was the Feast of the Presentation which we call Candlemas. On Tuesday, the feast of St Blaise; on Wednesday, the feast of St Catherine dei Ricci; on Thursday, the feast of St Agnes; and on Friday, 6th February, the feast of St Paul Mikki and his companions.
I have been dipping into Fr Aidan Nichols’ very useful book, Year of the Lord’s Favour volume 1, The Sanctoral Cycle, published by Gracewing for £12.99. It is full of thought-provoking remarks and facts, written in Nichols’ clear, wise and accessible style. For Candlemas he includes the comment that “light” is “one important way in which we confess the universal significance of Jesus Christ. A longing for illumination is found in every sphere of human life. There’s a basic demand to be able to see, to have some kind of insight. Jesus claims that to see anything, anyone, any human achievement, for what it really is, we need to see it in his light.”
If this is the case, as we believe it to be, the opposite is also true. Merely using our own understanding is not enough. We are too limited in our vision, too flawed in our judgements. That wonderful painting of 1568 by Pieter Breughel the Elder comes to mind: The Blind Leading the Blind. The 18th century Enlightenment did not bring spiritual illumination but the belief that human reason alone is the key to human progress.
I love the feast of St Blaise because, with its ancient tradition of the blessing of throats using candles and prayers, it is clearly not part of the Enlightenment project. It reminds us that medical science is not the only factor to consider in physical healing. Aidan Nichols mentions that Parson Woodforde, the diarist, describes a procession by the people of Norwich in honour of St Blaise as late as 1783. He comments, “I think we have to say that is an extraordinary survival in a Church which had suppressed, with State assistance, the cult of saints, and an eloquent testimony to how long the memory of Blaise’s benevolence lingered.” What secular historians of the Reformation period have missed is that commemorating saints’ days in medieval Catholic England was less a superstitious and frivolous practice than a popular celebration of the power of a holy life.
Of the feast of St Catherine dei Ricci, Nichols adds the amusing note that “one of her last acts was to put into the furnace of the monastery kitchen a set of papers the nuns had collected as testimonies to her holiness.” If she had lived today this Dominican nun, born in 1522, would have had tart observations to make on the cult, not of saints but of the “selfie”.
St Agatha endured a martyrdom every bit as horrible as the martyrdoms of people unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the IS in the Middle East. Some commentators think her tortures must have been fictional. Nichols remarks, “One wonders where they were living in the 20th century, age of countless barbarities in war and terrorism...” He adds the anecdote that once, while travelling on the Orient Express, he read “Murder on the Orient Express” authored “by another Agatha.” This other Agatha saw her crime stories as (he quotes from her official biography) “morality plays, demonstrating there was wickedness in the world [which] could be found out and sin expiated.”
Nichols observes that “if there is no such thing as wickedness, only moral feebleness, itself the result of social or psychological conditioning, then of course we don’t need a religion of redemption, such as Christianity is.”
It so happens that my father and mother were born on 3rd and 5th February respectively. The 7th February happens to be the day commemorating the departed parents of members of the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans. Aidan Nichols, himself a Dominican, makes the wise comment that despite the imperfections of our parents, they gave us life and thus we owe them homage and gratitude in return, “a homage and gratitude as imperfect, no doubt, as was their gift to us.”
If readers would like to know more about the saints and the days that are dedicated to their memory, Nichols’ book provides a thoughtful and very readable introduction.
Version: 16th March 2015