Including the saint who travelled on the back of a sea monster, and a weaver who was forced to become a bishop
Sunday, 28 January
St Agnes (second feast)
This was once the occasion of a second commemoration of St Agnes, separate from that of 21 January. Why it should not be today is beyond me. As Bishop Butler observed, citing the testimonies of Jerome, Austin, Ambrose, and Prudentius, “the tongues and pens of all nations are employed in the praises of this saint, who overcame both the cruelty of the tyrant and the tenderness of her age, and crowned the glory of chastity with that of martyrdom.” Keats, perhaps the most Catholic of our Protestant English poets, was dimly aware of her glories. Agnes’s retort to her patrician suitor in the Golden Legend is much too long to be quoted in full, but this beautiful excerpt (in Caxton’s rendering) gives us something of the flavour:
Go from me thou fardel of sin… I am now embraced of him of whom the mother is a virgin, and his father knew never woman, to whom the angels serve. The sun and the moon marvel them of his beauty, whose works never fail, whose riches never minish, by whose odour dead men rise again to life, by whose touching the sick men be comforted, whose love is chastity. To him I have given my faith, to him I have commanded my heart; when I love him then am I chaste, and when I touch him then am I pure and clean, and when I take him then am I a virgin, this is the love of my God.
According to some ancient authorities, Agnes, having refused both marriage and homage to the pagan deities, was led naked to a brothel, whereupon her hair grew so long that it clothed her entire form. It is also told that a certain Roman priest beset by lust and wishing therefore to take a wife was instructed by his bishop to espouse himself instead to St Agnes, before whose image he prayed fervently and was delivered from all carnal afflictions.
Monday, 29 January
SS Sabinian and Sabina
Goscelin of Saint-Bertin tells us that this brother and sister, having heard the Gospel preached on their native Samos, faced many threats from their father lest they fail to offer sacrifice to the idols of a certain temple. When they fled rather than appear before these images, he beseeched Our Lord that they might be destroyed. They soon were, by lightning.
Meanwhile Sabinian and Sabina found themselves separated; the former made his way to Gaul, where he was baptised in the Seine. Baring-Gould, following the account of Bollandus, informs us that the staff of Sabinian, upon its removal from the blessed waters, ‘put forth leaves and flowered’. He was martyred in the reign of Aurelian, after which his sister arrived at Troyes in pursuit of her sibling; there she was baptized and later died a holy virgin.
Tuesday, 30 January
Exceedingly pious in childhood, as a young woman this count’s daughter became enamored of the world and entered a cloister only after her marriage to a handsome suitor fell through. For ten years she offended her fellow sisters by her vanity. “Beware, Hyacintha,” her confessor is said to have exclaimed one day, “heaven is no place for giddy-pates!”
This happily worded rebuke seems to have had the desired effect, for she soon overcame what Baring-Gould, who was something of a prig, calls “the thoughtless and giddy female mind” and lived a life of austere devotion. Among other worthy ventures she founded a society for the discreet relief of impoverished gentlewomen, much like the one served by Mildred Lathbury in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.
Wednesday, 31 January
It is attested in the medieval Irish hagiographies that Aidan, while receiving spiritual instruction from St David in Wales, once left a valuable book in a field, whereupon it rained. The disciple was told by the great saint to lie prostrate beside the sea. Aidan remained there for some time despite the fact that the volume did not become wet. In later years he is said to have visited his old master on numerous occasions, travelling from Ireland on the back of a sea monster. He is also credited with having once made the trip to Rome and back in 24 hours.
Thursday, 1 February
SS Severus of Ravenna and Avranches
Who would ever wish to become a bishop? Certainly ecclesiastical ambition appears very rarely in the lives of the saints.
Severus, an impoverished weaver of the Fourth Century, happened to visit the cathedral of his diocese just as the presbyters were meeting to choose who should govern the vacant see. As soon as he entered a dove entered through a window and settled upon his head. Despite his attempts to knock the creature away, it was taken as a sign and he reluctantly agreed to receive priestly ordination and episcopal consecration. His wife was surprised by this news, but agreed to live with him in the manner of brother and sister. It is said that after High Mass one day, he visited her tomb and that of their daughter, where he was overcome with grief. “My dear ones!” he cried and died immediately.
A wholly distinct Severus of Avranches commemorated on this day was also a reluctant bishop. It appears that he was dragged by the local clergy from his forest cell to undergo consecration. In his old age, he was allowed to nominate a successor and returned to his hermitage.
Friday, February 2
It is seldom observed these days that in offering herself at the temple on this day, Our Blessed Mother, preserved since birth against any corruption (including, as Newman among others have insisted, that of ageing) and free of any obligation to the Old Law, demonstrated the virtues of humility and obedience.
Saturday, February 3
In the course of caring for her noble father, who suffered from what we now call Hansen’s disease, Berlinda unthinkingly wiped a cup he had just used before drinking from it herself. The old man was livid and disinherited her. Many years later in a monastery, she saw angels carrying her aged parent’s soul to heaven. Upon her return home, she was detained by her other relations and spent the rest of her days following the pattern of religious life at her ancestral castle. Among other things, Berlinda is a patroness against cattle diseases and known protectress of trees.