Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Column: Expansive blessings

I really was terrified of choking on a fish bone when I was little. I ate fish reluctantly in those days and only once it had been smothered in bright orange Kraft French dressing.

The spelling of Blaise here is not the spelling that is used in either Butler's lives on the saints (I have all 5 volumes on my iPad, is that at all eccentric?) or in the Roman breviary - both of which use "Blase"...

This column appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Catholic Standard & Times.

With the crossed candles touched to the throat of each person, the celebrant says immediately: Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness. — From the Book of Blessings

Difficult to come by in my tiny landlocked Midwest town, and not within the grocery budget when it was, fresh fish was not often on the menu when I was a young girl. Instead Friday dinners alternated between tuna casseroles and macaroni and cheese. My mother, raised on the East Coast, missed fresh fish, and she couldn't figure out why I didn't share her enthusiasm when it made a rare appearance on our table. For this, I blame St. Blaise.

My childhood memories of the feast of St. Blaise are ones of damp wool and beeswax, of a warmly lit church and cold dark winds that sullenly shook the windows, hoping to find a way in. But it was the story of the fishbone that really stuck.

Little is known of St. Blaise's life, he was perhaps the bishop of Sebaste in the 4th century, who died a martyr for the faith. The story of St. Blaise that captured my imagination was of a mother brought her son to the bishop with a fish bone stuck in his throat. St. Blaise prayed and the young boy was healed.

When I was five, the enduring message of the story of St. Blaise (alas) seemed to be, "watch out for bones when you eat fish." Almost five decades later, it reminds me that the stories we tell of the saints and blesseds have an enduring power to them, a way of engaging our imaginations. St. Augustine wrote that we remember the particular deeds of the saints and martyrs "to excite us to imitate them and to obtain a share in their merits, and the assistance of their prayers."

St. Augustine's commentary challenges me to think beyond the assistance that St. Blaise may offer me or what merits he might be inclined to share with me, and to wonder in what way a suburban mother of teen-agers might be moved to imitate a 4th century bishop. What is there in St. Blaise's life that could excite me to similar feats of virtue?

In the many miracle tales told of St. Blaise, from the healing of the young boy to the return of a widow's stolen pig, he looks for help from God not only for the situation in front of him, but for the broader world. His prayers were always simultaneously for the here and now and the people of God in difficulties in every place and time. I'm quick to pray for the safety of my children each night, but do I remember to pray for other mothers' children? In asking for healing for my father, do I think to pray for the elderly who suffer with chronic pain?

I still get my throat blessed each February 3rd. No longer terrified of choking on a fish bone -- hoping that St. Blaise would notice the prayers of one small girl in a town far away in time and space — I find now in the crossed candles and Triune blessing more than an assurance that God is concerned with our worries (even if they are as irrational as mine over stray fish bones). God's grace spills over, reaching beyond the needs of one to all His people until the end of time.

Hear, O Lord, the supplications your people make,
under the patronage of the martyr Saint Blaise,
and grant that they may rejoice in peace in this present life,
and find help for life eternal. Amen. – From the closing prayer for the feast of St. Blaise.


  1. My son's birthday is St. Blaise's day so I am always a little wistful that he has no conscious memory of getting his throat blessed then. My favorite St. Blaise story, though, is one about a Jesuit presider from slightly before my time at my undergrad. He apparently *lit* the candles before using them, so St. Blaise was probably quite busy making sure no one's hair caught on fire during their blessing on his feastday. Apparently no one in line protested till my friend, who blew them out and watched the light dawn in his social-justice-and-spirituality-astute, yet liturgically-impaired eyes. Gives new meaning to the old saying "lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week"!

  2. Michelle, I was terrified of eating fish because of the bones as a child. I remember my grandmother telling me of a story of her having to go to the hospital for them to remove a bone from her eating fish. It took a long long time to overcome that fear.