Commentary
By Sonja Livingston 2-02-2018 | Series:

Like many Catholics, I had my throat blessed last year on the Feast of St. Blaise. After years of lapsing, I’d returned to church, eager to re-explore traditions I’d abandoned, as well as those that, as a Post-Vatican II Catholic, I’d never quite understood. I’m prone to sore throats, I thought. So why not?

Were I in Rome on Feb. 3, I could be blessed with a relic of the saint encased in a crystal ring. In Dubrovnik, I could join a procession with banners and brass bands and legions of white doves. But I was in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., where, like most places, the blessing is bestowed with two candles bound by red ribbon.

I stood in line before a priest whose round face resembled an uncle of mine, who worked at the Genesee Brewery and nipped occasionally from the vats. The priest set the vee of crossed candles against our necks and blessed us, one at a time, so that I wondered about the effect of the ritual on his own throat. By the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat.

The candles were not lit, which was fortunate, given how cold the day and the surplus of scarves and woolen collars. When Mass ended, I stepped from the church to my parked car and made my way downtown, to where a rally was planned for the day.

I hardly go to rallies anymore. In my early 20s, I marched and made signs and chanted until my throat was raw. I wrote letters, sat in, was arrested. But I’d grown mild over the years, convinced that all that protesting had fallen primarily into my own ears. I turned my bids for peace inward, which suited my tendency toward silence just fine. But by February of last year, everything had changed. Days after his inauguration, the president issued orders restricting immigration and sanctioning cities offering sanctuary. When I saw the rally advertised, I knew I had to go.

My face froze into a mask as I walked toward City Hall. Hats and gloves were nothing against the frigid air. But hundreds had gathered, holding signs and standing together against the dark and bitter cold.

I brought my hand to my throat and thought of Blaise. Martyred in 316, he’d been a physician before he was elected bishop. Little else is known about Blaise. When he’s remembered at all, it’s for the miracle attributed to him after his arrest.

Persecution against Christians was officially abolished with the Edict of Milan three years before, but Licinius in the East did not always abide the agreement reached with his co-Emperor and frequent enemy, Constantine, in the West. Licinius’s latest assault targeted bishops, and sent Blaise hiding in the mountains near Sebaste.

It’s said that wild animals were drawn to him. Bishop Blaise spoke to them, tamed them, and tended those with wounds. When a group of hunters tracked the animals to his cave, they discovered Blaise and seized him, marching him past scrub pine and ledges of volcanic rock. As they approached the jail, a woman threw herself into his path. Her child had a fishbone caught in his throat and could not breathe. She was so desperate to save him, the sight of drawn swords did not thwart her. According to legend, Blaise made the sign of the cross upon the boy, which dislodged the bone and linked the bishop forever with ailments of the throat.

As far as hagiographies go, it’s a good one. Word of his deeds spread. Blaise was honored first by the Eastern Church and eventually by the West. In the Middle Ages he was included as one of The Fourteen Holy Helpers during the years of Black Death. His name was invoked alongside saints such as Denis (for headaches), Barbara (for fever), and Elmo (for abdominal troubles). A set of curative superheroes. People petitioned these saints in their darkest days, when families huddled around sickbeds and such invocations provided their only hope.

At the rally, I touched my throat again and wondered what Blaise would think of the ritual, if I could pull him from ancient Armenia to the present day. I’m guessing he’d find the tradition sweet. He was a doctor, after all, and who could find fault with blessings bestowed upon the body?

But it would not be lost on him, the silence — our silence — on the very principles Christianity was founded on: love of neighbor, care for the poor, welcoming all. Blaise had only to renounce these values to stop the horrors inflicted upon him. Just a word to save his own neck. But he refused. Even as he was tortured and executed. How tame our religion would seem to him now, how close to the trappings of the Empire whose politicians had hauled him off to jail.

It seems no accident that his most famous act — the one we still honor today — involves unsticking a throat. He healed the boy’s breathing, yes. But the throat is made for more than breath.

I remembered again the blessing at church. How quiet we’d been, how easily we’d slipped from our pews back into our cars and the various pulls of our lives. We’d invoked Blaise against strep and laryngitis, but our country was in crisis, the most vulnerable among us at risk. Blaise’s faith was a wild and pulsing force. When had we turned his example into a quaint custom — how had we relegated him to the equivalent of a spiritual cough drop?

I find solace in tradition, inspiration in ritual, and will likely stand before a priest again this year. But attending a protest on Blaise’s feast day reminded me of the necessity of speech in times of darkness and the metaphorical fishbone lodged in my own throat — a throat that was all the more blessed by gathering in the frigid chapel of the evening, and calling out for what we knew to be true and right. 

Sonja Livingston is an award-winning essayist and author of three books of nonfiction, including the memoir Ghostbread. Sonja divides her time between Rochester, N.Y., and Richmond, Va., where she teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

 

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