One of my favorite parts of Pocket Guide to Sainthood are the stories behind saints’ patronages. Patron saints are saints believed to have a special fondness or protective relationship with a certain geographical location, church, diocese, occupation, health problem, or individual sharing the saint’s name. The theological idea is that people’s prayers are more effective if delivered to God by a person’s patron saint, since that saint already has 1) an abiding interest in the subject matter and 2) being a saint, more spiritual clout than a standard-grade human.
So there are patron saints of just about everything. The stories about how certain saints got connected to certain occupations or types of people? Almost always entertaining. Occasionally surprising. In some instances, well-nigh hilarious.
Here are a few of my favorites from the book.
St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was known for miraculous feats of levitation. Almost anything would send him skyward, including singing hymns, praying at mass, or simply hearing the names of Jesus or Mary. Then he’d get all dazed-looking and float heavenward until a superior commanded him to come down. Unfortunately, he was also known for being a few jets short of a fleet.
St. Zeno of Verona, who was stolen at birth by the devil (!) and secretly replaced with a lookalike demon. Much to her dismay, Zeno’s mom then breastfed the demon for 18 years. That’s right: 18 years. Why? Because the pseudo-Zeno didn’t seem to be growing. Eventually the real Zeno, all grown-up, showed up to rescue his mom — who had to be getting pretty uncomfortable with the whole scenario — and he forced the demon child to vomit up all the consumed milk. There’s a slight possibility this story is only a legend.
St. Francis of Paola, a Franciscan hermit who once wanted to cross the Strait of Messina on his way to Sicily, but was denied passage by a surly boatman. So Francis did what any wonder-working saint would do: he spread his cloak out on the water, plopped himself down on it, and motored right across the strait.
St. Giles, a hermit who lived with a deer as his only companion. And who, according to legend, was comforted and sustained by the milk of that deer following a terrible injury. Well now. And also: blech.
St. Alexander the Charcoal-Burner, a 3rd century bishop and martyr who was very handsome but wanted to live a chaste life, so he chose an occupation that left his face continually blemished with black charcoal dust, which was not so appealing to the ladies. (If you are currently asking yourself What is a charcoal-burner? you are not alone. The Pocket Guide has asked that same question, with unsatisfactory results.)
St. Brigid, who as a child in Ireland once gave away an entire pail of milk to help a poor person. This worried her, though. She was certain her pagan father would be furious about the missing milk, so she prayed that God would miraculously refill the pail. God was happy to oblige. For this reason, alcoholics have long lobbied to make Brigid the patron of beer.
St. Martin of Tours, who was about to be named bishop but didn’t think he’d do a very good job of it, so he tried to hide in a flock of geese. But the geese, sensing he was up to no good, honked and honked until Martin was discovered. So now, apparently, he protects them. You are not alone in thinking Geese? Since when does anyone ever require intercession on behalf of geese? You’re also not alone in wondering what kind of idiot tries to hide a flock of birds. This patronage? A big honking mystery.
St. Eustace, a former Roman general who converted when he saw a vision of Jesus between the antlers of a stag. His newfound holiness, of course, prevented him from killing the stag. Either that, or the mystical glare from the vision screwed up his aim. Either way, it’s clear that Jesus is interested in the salvation of deer.
St. Vitus, who was once accused of sorcery and tortured for it by being thrown into boiling oil. He was joined in the scalding oil bath by a rooster, thanks to a belief that sacrificial roosters combated sorcery. The connection to roosters led to a connection with early rising, and the early rising thing earned him a patronage of people who oversleep. Sounds like someone’s trying a little too hard to get a cool patronage.
St. Caedwalla of Wessex, a Saxon king who kept expanding his influence by killing off other kings and forcibly taking their kingdoms. The historian Bede tells of Caedwalla going through the countryside “by merciless slaughter.” But then he went on a pilgrimage and presumably started to feel bad for all the slaughter. Then he got baptized. Then he died not long after. Which technically makes him the patron saint of remorseful serial killers experiencing deathbed conversions.
St. Drogo, who suffered some weird affliction while on a pilgrimage, which led to a physical deformity that was so bad he frightened all the townsfolk. “Don’t look at me! I’m hideous!” the Pocket Guide imagines him saying. So Drogo walled himself into a cell attached to his church and lived in solitude for the next 40 years, to protect the community from his repulsiveness. Feel better, unattractive people!
[from Pocket Guide to Sainthood: A Field Manual for the Super-Virtuous Life, by Jason Boyett (Jossey-Bass, 2009)]