Including the Florentine nobleman who led a life of uninterrupted charity
Sunday, 11 February
Jonas was an Egyptian who for some 85 years tended the orchard of the monastery where he lived. To his brother monks and visitors he gave freely of everything he grew – chiefly figs, grapes, dates, and that sort of thing – but ate only wild flowers himself. Occasionally he also allowed himself a bit of vinegar. On a chance visit one day St Pachomius, having observed that enjoyment of figs seemed to be an obstacle to love of poverty for many of the postulants, suggested that Jonas cut down his most prized tree. The latter demurred, and Pachomius assured his companion that it was only a suggestion and that he had not wished to give offense. The next morning Jonas saw that the tree had wasted to nothing. For some time afterward he wore a shirt of rough sheep skin under his surplice at Mass and spent his evenings weaving rushes and reciting favorite scraps of the Bible. One night before Matins his brothers found him dead with his weaving materials in hand.
Monday, 12 February
St Saturninus and Companions
One day during the reign of Diocletian, a priest called Fr Saturninus was saying Mass at a private home, as was the custom in those days. Present also at the Holy Sacrifice were the priest’s four children and more than 40 others, all of whom were arrested. Butler’s account of their forced march to Carthage, during which they sang hymns almost without interruption, and their subsequent martyrdom is very moving, indeed so moving that Baring-Gould lifts much of it word for word. At one point during their trial, one of the companions, Felix, was asked whether he had indeed been present at Mass. “I am a Christian,” he replied. The judge responded that this was not what he had asked and repeated his initial question. Felix, clearly somewhat impatient, called the man a fool, and begged to know how he could be a Christian and not attend Mass. An important question in an age in which weekly Mass attendance is appallingly low among Catholics, despite the present unlikelihood, at least in the English-speaking world, of its leading to a visit from the police and a capital sentence. Perhaps when the latter changes the former will as well.
Their feast was inexplicably pushed forward to this date in the hasty revision of the Roman calendar in 1969, perhaps to avoid confusion with St Severinus of Agaunum, probably for less understandable reasons.
Tuesday, 13 February
At the age of 20 Licinius was sent to the court of his cousin, King Chlothar I. This seems to have been because he knew how to read and write. He was a good soldier and diplomat in the service of his noble relation, but his heart was drawn toward the Church and he fasted frequently. The king’s successor, Chilperic I, made him count of Angers and the saint was successfully browbeaten into being engaged. His fiancée, however, contracted Hansen’s disease and he became a monk. Years later when the bishop of the diocese died the people, remembering the wisdom, prudence, and munificence with which Licinius had governed them, insisted that the saint replace him. The clergy agreed, but it was only upon the intervention of his mother that he was persuaded. As bishop he had a particular regard for the sick and the imprisoned, performed numerous well-attested miracles, and in various other ways distinguished himself in the execution of duties from which, despite numerous petitions to the diocesan clergy to relinquish his office, he was relieved only by death.
Wednesday, 14 February
Ash Wednesday and St Valentine
Philip Larkin, whatever his many talents, tended to write poems that cannot be quoted in a family periodical. “Church-Going,” among his very best, is not one of these. It is difficult to think of a better illustration of those bizarre circumstances that have led to the corruption of the feast of St Valentine, which happens this year to coincide with the beginning of Lent. This week on Ash Wednesday millions will purchase tawdry gifts for one another and eat in bad but expensive restaurants ostensibly in commemoration of a great Roman martyr, even in countries like Sweden where only a handful of people believe in God. We cannot, one fears, be far from the day when, as Larkin imagined, religion is all but extinct but
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky
That and, it would appear, chocolate; tasteless jewels minded, like the Ring of the Nibelung, by unseen slaves; and cheaply made undergarments.
Thursday, 15 February
The history of the Church in Ireland affords many examples of men and women whose lives were holy but uneventful. The career of Berach, a descendant of the great Prince Brian of Connaught who lived at the turn of the sixth century, is not among these. When he was taken as an infant by his mother to be baptized, his uncle the bishop insisted upon raising Berach himself, insisting that God would provide for the child’s every need. No sooner did the young saint cry for milk that his uncle’s ear began to flow with nourishing honey. Later, while studying under St Kevin, he met a child who was sick with fever and begging for apples and, oddly, wood-sorrel. Consumed with pity for the ailing boy, Berach repaired to a wood, where he prayed earnestly, whereupon a willow tree began to bloom with apples, of which he gathered a lapful for the patient, who upon eating them recovered immediately. This happened in the very dead of winter.
Friday, 16 February
Juliana, having been affianced without her consent to a pagan official in Nicomedia, was stripped naked and beaten by her father, who then dragged her before her would-be husband. There she announced that she would consider marriage if he would receive instruction from a priest and undergo baptism. The provost, who thought her very beautiful, weighed the matter carefully before pointing out that were he to do so he would be removed from his post and executed at the behest of the emperor. She refused to appreciate the difficulty of his predicament and was by turns beaten, put in chains, hanged from her hair, and scalded with molten iron before being put in prison. Here a demon appeared to her in the guise of an angel. “Juliana,” he said (in Caxton’s rendering of The Golden Legend), “I am the angel of God, which hath sent me to thee to warn thee and say that thou make sacrifice to the idols for to escape the torments of evil death.” Juliana thought this very unlikely and prayed. “Who is thy father?” she asked. “Beelzebub,” he replied honestly. “I love homicide, luxury, battle, and make debate and war.” This was good enough for the saint, who disregarded the devil’s counsel and was later beheaded. Her relics are in the church of Our Lady of Sablon in Brussels, save for her head, which is at Hall in Tirol, Austria.
Saturday, 17 February
St Alexis Falconieri
The long career of this Florentine nobleman, one of the seven great founders of the Order of Servants of Mary, is one of uninterrupted charity bookended by two remarkable visions. On 15 August 1233, he and his companions saw Our Lady. He spent the rest of his life walking as a mendicant through the streets of the great city of which he had once been among the first sons. Though many were strengthened in their faith and love of poverty by his example, this saint, with the instinct that will be familiar to those of us who are old-fashioned clericalists, refused to be ordained a priest, considering himself unworthy of such a high dignity. On his deathbed at the very advanced age of 110, he was visited by the Infant Christ and numerous angels.