The Extraordinary Tale of St. Blaise
Today the Church remembers the life and witness of Saint Blaise, a 3rd century Armenian bishop who endured terrifying torments and surrendered his life rather than repudiate his profession of Faith.
Much of the life of Saint Blaise is history that has passed into legend, but even these legendary accounts offer spiritual insight.
It is said that Blaise was renowned as a wonderworker, effecting miraculous cures. This would have been enough to attract attention, but he was also not averse to calling out the Roman officials who ruled the region in which he lived, Cappadocia, for their tyranny and intolerance of Christian faith and practice. The combination of a reputation for supernatural power and the courage of his convictions was not welcomed by Rome and the governor ordered Bishop Blaise to be arrested.
Blaise was able to elude capture and took refuge in the wilderness. It was there in the caves of Cappadocia that his ministry and his mission continued.
There is an account of Saint Blaise that identifies not only his pastoral care for the Christian faithful, but also for the animals of the wilderness.
It seems that a woman had witnessed her piglet carried off by a wolf and spoke of her plight to the bishop. Saint Blaise called for the wolf, demanded her return the piglet to its rightful owner, and reminded the wolf of the grave penalty that awaited a thief. The wolf complied and returned the piglet to its owner- a credit to the bishop’s power of persuasion. The woman would later return the favor to Saint Blaise when he was finally captured and imprisoned. She brought to him candles to illuminate his dank and dreary cell.
This legend hints at how the saints represent, in their holiness, the restoration of a paradise lost and regained in Christ. The ease and familiarity with which the Biblical character of Adam is believed to have communed with nature before the fall is recapitulated in Saint Blaise- he is a sign that anticipates the restoration of all things in Christ where the lion will rest with the lamb, and in this case, the wolf will return stolen property to its rightful owner.
Saint Blaise has been invoked for centuries as a specialist in diseases of the throat. The origin of this practice might be in the story of a child brought to the saint who was either choking or suffering from some other malady of the throat. Saint Blaise blessed the boy and he was restored to health.
The practice of blessing throats on the Feast of Saint Blaise is a commemoration of this miracle, that crossed candles are often used to impart this blessing might also be a recollection of the kindness of the woman who gave candles to the saint as he languished in prison.
Saint Blaise was an extraordinarily popular saint during the Middle Ages in Europe. Presentations of his miraculous and mighty deeds were commonly represented in art and sculpture, and he was included in a listing of saints called the Fourteen Holy Helpers (or Auxiliary Saints), holy men and women who could be counted on as intercessors for all manner of maladies from madness to travelers in distress. During times in which a sore throat could be a signal of an impending epidemic or an early death, the faithful were all too happy to accept the help of a heavenly specialist in such matters like Saint Blaise.
The legends regarding Saint Blaise report that his sojourn in the wilderness did not protect him for very long. He was eventually arrested and brought to trial. The judge advised him that only a pinch of incense offered to the image of Caesar and the gods of Rome could win him his freedom. Blaise refused. He was cruelly tortured and beheaded.
The Church does not mourn Saint Blaise, for we know that in Christ this world is not all that there is. While tyrants like Caesar and his successors can threaten us with death, Christ promises us a life that like his own, is transformed through suffering and death, into resurrection.
The scriptures proclaim, “though they slay me I will trust in you.”
Saint Blaise did precisely this. He trusted that Christ would not abandon him to the power of death nor allow his suffering to be meaningless. Our lives might never be raised to the legendary status of Saint Blaise, but we can trust in Christ as he did and live in hope that one day we will join him in communion with all the saints who have gone before us in faith and who, from their place in heaven, guide and protect us still.