St. Blaise

One of the memories of my childhood, from about the 4th through the 8th grade, is of assisting the rector of the parish where I went to school and served as an acolyte (“altar boy” then) in the annual blessing of throats on the Feast of St. Blaise, February 3. People knelt at the communion rail and Fr. Holub held a pair of candles, held in an X arrangement, on each side of each person’s throat and said a prayer to St. Blaise, which was printed on a laminated card that I held for him. My mother came forward each year , suffering as she did from a thyroid condition. The prayer was probably just like this one, which is but one of many that you can find by searching for “st blaise prayer.”

“Dear Bishop and lover of souls, you willingly bore heavy crosses in faithful imitation of Jesus. Similarly, with Christlike compassion, you cured many sufferers. Then after undergoing horrible tortures you died as a martyr for Christ. Obtain a cure for these (name them here) ills if this is agreeable to God. Amen.”

The prayer demonstrates one of the differences in Roman and Anglican practice. In the Roman tradition, a saint’s-day prayer is often directed to the saint, asking him or her to intercede with God on our behalf to grant us what we ask, whereas in the Anglican tradition, prayers are directed to God, in thanksgiving for the life and example of the saint, and sometimes asking God for something we want. From the Roman tradition arises the cult of saints and the whole panoply of patron saints of this or that, such as St. Blaise being the patron saint of persons with throat ailments because while on his way to prison he cured a boy who was choking on a fish bone stuck in his throat. He is also the patron saint of wool gatherers and by extension all those involved in the wool trade because he was tortured with a wool carding comb before he was beheaded.

Blaise was a real person, a physician and later bishop of Sebastea, who was martyred in the persecution ordered by Emperor Licinius in the fourth century. There are many sites with information about Blaise. Here is one: His cult was quite widespread in England, and Canterbury claims one of his relics.

I have often wondered about this difference in saints day prayers in the two catholic traditions. I think that the Anglican approach might come from a decidedly stronger stand against the abuses that arose from the cult of saints, abuses which developed from corrupting devotional practices into money making opportunities.

Yet praying to the deceased seems such a natural human tendency. Abraham Lincoln was prayed to for decades after his death. And consider the song “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” with the lines “I’m going there to meet my mother; she said she’d meet me when I come.” We Anglicans seem ambivalent or at least reticent about our belief in the afterlife. On the one hand we say in the creed that we believe in the communion of saints, and in our burial rite we pray that the bereaved have joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love, but in our formal prayers we eschew praying directly to the deceased.

Are the spirits of the deceased as imminently near us as the very air? Are my mother and father, the grandmother who raised me during the war, my sainted aunt, Sister Vincent, watching over me every minute, privy to my every thought and action? The idea of it comforts, but it also unnerves me. Those who have been subscribing to “The Daily Cup” long enough have read mine of August 14, 2012 (“Dreams”) and August 21. 2012 (“Psychics”) know that I’m practically devoid of any personal perceptions of the spiritual world but that I accept it on the basis of accounts of it from persons that I trust to be telling the truth.

It is all an unfathomable mystery that I continue to ponder.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 04-February-2014.

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