May 18, 2014

It's St. Erik's day

Swedish king, lawmaker and patron of Stockholm, there are many reasons to know something about Erik Jevardsson, or St. Erik of Sweden. 

No actual historical records of Eric IX of Sweden, or Erik the Saint, have survived. Most of what we know about Erik is based on the Swedish Erikslegenden written in the 13th century.  But Erik is a saint whose legacy is relevant even today. 

Erik purportedly ruled from 1155-1160. From 1150, he was a rival king to Sverker the Elder who was crowned around 1130 and murdered in 1156, after which Erik was recognized as king. 

Crusade to Finland
During his reign, Erik was responsible for codifying laws that became known as King Erik's Law (or the Code of Uppland). Erik also insisted on paying tithes to the Church as elsewhere in Europe, irking many of the Swedish nobles at the time. He was also instrumental in Christianizing the Finns and led the First Crusade to Finland along with English bishop Henry of Uppsala, who later became Finland's patron saint, St. Henrik.

Scenes from Erikslegenden by Albertus Pictor, 1400s, Uppsala Cathedral. Photo: Anders Damberg

Murder in the cathedral?
Eric was attacked by rebel Swedish nobles in Uppsala at Ascension Mass on May 18 in 1160 at a church once located on the site of the present-day cathedral. According to legend, he was beheaded by Magnus Henriksson, an assassin said to have been hired by members of the Sverker dynasty. Interestingly, like many other Nordic saints, he is represented as a king standing on his murderer, who is often depicted as a dragon or serpent, in medieval iconography.

Also in line with legends about Nordic saints, a fountain purportedly sprang forth at the spot where his head fell. This was one of many miracles attributed to him after his death. The spring, which was said to cure the ill and restore sight to the blind, still flows by the north wall of Uppsala Cathedral. 

Erik was buried in the Old Uppsala church, which he had built around the Viking burial mounds located there. In 1167, his relics and regalia were transferred to the present cathedral of Uppsala. 

Not just a pretty face
Erik was never actually canonized, but he has been regarded as a saint in the Nordic countries since his death. At the end of the 12th century, the Swedes chose Erik as their patron saint and he later became Stockholm’s designated protector. His image first appeared on the Stockholm seal as early as in 1376 and it is used as the  logo of the City of Stockholm to this day. 

Erik in the news
In April, St. Erik's reliquary was opened by a team of researchers investigating the development of osteoporosis from the Middle Ages. This is the first scientific investigation of his relics and the first time the reliquary has been opened since 2000. The injuries that can be seen on the cranium, by the way, show that the person  suffered a violent death.  

Cranium and crown from reliquary. Photo: Bertil Eriksson

The royal burial crown (the oldest in Sweden) contained within the reliquary will also be restored and shown in an exhibition at Uppsala Cathedral this summer from June 18. The exhibition will be a part of Uppsala's celebration of 850 years as a bishopric. 

Mar 24, 2014

Kit Kat

There are many saints named Catherine in the world of hagiology, like St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Catherine of Siena. Today is the feast day of another of them, St. Catherine of Vadstena.

Saint Catherine, or Katarina Ulfsdotter, was born in 1332 as the fourth of eight children born to St. Bridget of Sweden and Ulf Gudmarsson, Lord of Ulvåsa. She is best known as the first abbess of the Bridgettine convent at Vadstena and for her devotional work, Consolation of the Soul. 

She is the patron saint of protection against abortion and miscarriage, and generally represented with a hind (female red deer), which is said to have come to her aid "when unchaste youths sought to ensnare her." 

Noli me tangere
At the age of 12, Catherine married Lord Eggert van Kyren, a very religious German nobleman whom she purportedly persuaded to take a vow of absolute chastity. She accompanied her mother to Rome in 1349 (Bridget was on a mission to have her order authorized by the pope). While she was away, her husband died. 

She stayed on in Rome, accompanying Bridget on her travels in Italy and the Holy Land. When Bridget died in 1373, she returned to Vadstena with the body (or what was left of it after the "skelettering" that was carried out to remove the flesh from the bones) on what might be termed the most famous PR road trip of the Middle Ages, since Catherine and her companions visited monasteries on the way to drop off copies of the works of St. Bridget. 

St Catherine of Siena with her hind, from a triptych in Trönö church, Sweden.

Catherine became the head of the Brigittine convent, returning to Rome only to work for her mother's canonization, which took place in 1391. During this time, she befriended St. Catherine of Siena. She died in 1381 and in 1488, her relics were translated to Vadstena. Her canonization was never formally completed because of the Protestant Reformation. 

The Brigittines still run a monastery in Vadstena, though not in the original building. The first building, which was a gift from King Magnus Ericsson, is now a luxury hotel and houses the Convent Museum. The order is contemplative, though nowadays they run a guesthouse. 

Klosterliljor, literally "monastery flowers" or spring snowflake flowers, were brought to Sweden by the first gardener at the Vadstena Abbey. Here, in full bloom near the original monastery in Vadstena.

Feb 2, 2014

Of candles and rodents of unusual size

Today, February 2, is Candlemas, which you probably know as Groundhog Day. 
In the Catholic Church, Candelmas is also called the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (at the temple) as well as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The idea of purification may seem a little weird, but it has to do with the old custom of "churching women" who were considered to be impure for six weeks after giving birth. In the Catholic tradition, it was believed that Mary gave birth around the winter solstice, about six weeks before February 2.
Candelmas is also the day of blessing of the candles that are to be used during the liturgical year. Incidentally, these newly blessed candles are used on the following day (Feast of St. Blaise) to bless the throats of parishioners to keep them from colds, flu, sore throats and the like.  

 "The presentation of Jesus in the Temple," James Tissot

So what does this have to do with groundhogs?
Candlemas happens to fall on the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In fact, the Celts celebrated the beginning of spring at this time at a festival called Imbolc at which they would try to divine the weather. 
In 16th century Germany, Candlemas became the day on which farmers tried to get a feel for how the upcoming growing season might be.
They would look for animals that hibernated (in this case, hedgehogs) to see if they were up and about. If these animals “saw” a shadow on February 2, then it was said that the winter would continue, while cloudy skies indicated an early spring. Indeed, this tradition existed in other parts of Europe, as evidenced in the traditional English poem:

If Candlemas be fair and bright/Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain/Winter will not come again.

Today, this tradition continues in North America as Groundhog Day, with two famous prognosticating rodents being Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania and Wiarton Willie of Wiarton, Ontario.

And according to Reuters, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow this morning, so it looks like a few more weeks await us. We may need those candles after all. 

Indeed, the news even reached the US White House, with President Barack Obama tweeting a reminder to Americans to sign up for health care coverage: #Punxsutawney Phil says there's more winter ahead - make sure you get covered. 

Dec 13, 2012

Gingerbread men banned, but Catholic saints okay in Swedish schools

If you're up on your saints' feast days (or your John Donne), you will know that tonight (Dec 12, actually) is the Eve of St. Lucy, or Lucia, the festival of lights celebrated in Sweden on December 13.
Lucia was born in Syracuse in 300 AD and was probably a victim of the wave of persecution of Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. According to legend, she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels, wearing a wreath of candles on her head to light the way. When a rejected suitor had her arrested, she was supposedly saved by divine intervention from a life of prostitution and then death by fire, but was eventually killed by the sword. 
In the Middle Ages, St. Lucy's Day was a popular festival in many parts of Europe. Before the 16th-century Gregorian calendar reform, the feast day coincided with the winter solstice. Since December 13 was the shortest day of the year, Lucia was said to bring light and longer days. 

Today, Lucia is celebrated on many different levels in Sweden, from the televised Lucia wearing candles in her hair to the thousands of Lucia processions held in daycare centers and schools around the country.

In schools, Lucia is normally marked with a morning procession led by a girl dressed as Lucia wearing a white robe and a red sash around her waist. She is followed by a train of white-gowned girls and "star boys" wearing dunce caps singing Lucia and Christmas songs. The retinue may also include various gingerbread people and gnomes. The pageant is generally followed by a spread of saffron buns, gingersnaps and coffee.

This year's Lucia celebrations have created a buzz in the Swedish media. Earlier in the week, news about a ban on gingerbread men, gingerbread cookies and gingerbread-themed songs (possibly for fear of racial connotations) at a school in Laxå spread like wildfire on social media. The school has since reversed the ban, it seems.  

Lucia celebrations are quintessentially Swedish, but highly religious in nature. And the Swedish Education Act states that Swedish schools should be non-religious. 

Why then, given the recent public debate about holding school closing ceremonies in churches – and celebrating Advent in schools  is no one protesting the tradition of sending children to school dressed as Catholic martyrs?

Do-it-yourself Lucia paper doll

Dec 6, 2012

St. Nicholas, Nikolaus, Sinterklaas and Santa Claus

December 6 marks the death of Nicholas of Myra (now the Anatolia region of modern Turkey) who died on this day in 346. He was a Greek Christian Bishop known for miracles and giving gifts secretly, and is now the patron saint of children, sailors, harbors, merchants and students. He is the saint behind a number of traditions associated with Christmas and gift-giving, and is also known for his oozing relics in Bari.

Miracles back in the day

In his most famous exploit, St. Nicholas aided a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. According to the legend, Nicholas heard of the man's plight and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window of the man's house by night. In some versions, he throws one bag per night or one bag every few years as the girls come of age. Another twist has him dropping the bag down the chimney – indeed, in one variant, the bag of gold falls into a stocking one of the daughters had hung to dry over the embers.

In another miracle, Saint Nicholas resurrected three boys murdered by a malicious butcher who intended to cure and sell them as ham.

Dripping relics

In 1087, half of the relics of St. Nicholas were translated from Myra to Bari in southeastern Italy (the rest ended up in Venice). For this reason, St. Nicholas is also known as Nicholas of Bari. 

The relics and certain icons of the saint are famous for exuding a clear watery liquid called myrrh (not to be confused with proper myrrh) which is said to smell like rose water and to possess miraculous powers. This liquid has been collected  and ostensibly sold  for centuries and can still be obtained from the shop at the Basilica di San Nicola. A search on eBay yielded nothing, alas.

Because of its "miraculous" relics, the Basilica di San Nicola has traditionally been a site of Christian pilgrimage and continues to be to this day. Indeed, modern people travel to Bari to witness the myrhh-streaming icon of St. Nicholas, as evident in the account given by pilgrims from St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Church in Edmonton, Alberta on a trip to Bari in 2012: 

"The first part of our first day’s visit was spent talking with Father Elias who told us accounts of miracles and spiritual blessings given by the icon… He then took the icon out of its cloth covering and wooden kivot and held it up. We could see more plainly the myrrh lightly flowing from the icon. The icon’s surface was “shiny wet” and the cotton batting placed below it was already half-soaked with myrrh."

Saint in a Santa suit

In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop wearing a red bishop's cloak and a red mitre and holding a bishop's crozier. In the Eastern Orthodox Church he looks like an Orthodox bishop, wearing the omophorion, holding a Gospel book and sometimes wearing a mitre. In fact, he's easy to spot because he looks like a fitter version of the modern Santa Claus. 
The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three balls of gold. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images are completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (recalling three slaughtered children he resurrected in one miracle).

The modern St. Nicholas is bearded, dresses like a bishop in red and white and usually carries a sack over his back.  

A rather merry group, wouldn't you say?

St. Nicholas traditions today

On December 6, children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Holland celebrate Nikolaus  or Sinterklaas in Holland  – by leaving one shoe outside for St. Nicholas to fill with treats like coins, chocolate, oranges and toys. Earlier, naughty children would receive a switch, ostensibly for spankings, and St. Nicholas was known to have a sinister-looking alter-ego named Knecht Ruprecht who would accompany a person disguised as St.Nicholas to reprimand the naughty child.  

In these countries, St. Nicholas does not return at Christmas: instead it is the Weihnachtsmann or Father Christmas, who comes to German homes – often in person – on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. 

The modern Santa Claus who brings presents for children on Christmas Day is derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas and retains many of the attributes of the original St. Nicholas. 

Jun 1, 2011

I've been to Lauds. Have you?

Last week, I attended my first Lauds service, surprisingly, in secular Stockholm, Sweden.

Lauds comes from "laudate" meaning "to praise" and is a part of what are known as the canonical hours of the Christian church. More specifically, lauds are the prayers that are sung at dawn.

The Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office is the official set of daily prayers of the Catholic Church to be recited at the canonical hours by the clergy, religious orders and laity. It comprises mainly psalms supplemented by hymns and readings, and together with the Mass, constitutes the official public prayer life of the Church. It also forms the basis of prayer within Christian monasticism.

Canonical hours, or nones, are divisions of time that serve as increments between the prescribed prayers. A Book of Hours contains such a set of prayers. Other monikers for the canonical hours include the Opus Dei (not to be confused with anything from a Dan Brown novel) and the Daily Office (Anglican Church).

In the Anglican Church, the Liturgy of the Hours is contained within the book of Daily Prayer of Common Worship and Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, because the prayers are more widespread among the laity in the Anglican Church, Anglicans are probably more familiar with the evening prayers known as Vespers than their Catholic counterparts.

Les très riches heures du duc de Berry, 1410. Musée de Condé, Chantilly.
Commissioned by John, Duc de Berry, this medieval book of hours is the most important
illuminated manuscript of the 15th century. How can you not want to see the original
when it is kept in a place whose name in English means "whipped cream"?

The canonical hours look pretty much like this:

Matins: Very early morning prayers, sometimes at midnight. Also called vigils or nocturns

Lauds: Dawn prayer at dawn or 3 am

Prime: Early morning prayer at the "first" hour, or 6 am

Terce: Mid-morning prayer at the "third" hour, or 9 am

Sext: Midday prayer at the sixth hour, 12 noon

None: Mid-afternoon prayer at the ninth hour, 3 pm

Vespers: Evening prayer at the lighting of the lamps, generally 6 pm

Compline: Night prayer before retiring, around 9 pm

The practice of daily prayers grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day. It was purportedly passed down from the Apostles and as monasticism spread, the practice of specified hours and liturgical formats was standardized.

In 525, Benedict of Nursia wrote the first official Western manual for praying the hours (this is St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order) as part of his Rule. The Rule of Benedict in fact became one of the most influential religious rules in Western Christendom. I think Benedict wanted to find a way to keep his monks out of trouble and on task.

The Lauds service I attended was part of the regular prayers held at Engelbrektskyrkan in Stockholm. A small gathering of clergy and laity (three priests and three lay people, myself included) met for a quarter of an hour at 7.45 to sing, or more like chant, the psalms in Swedish (disappointingly, not in Latin). I managed to croak along, despite my allergies. All in all, it was a very peaceful experience and I will definitely attend again when they start up again in the fall. You never know what cool people will turn up at Lauds.

The psalms we chanted were Psalm 130 and 107, and I was pleased to see that the concluding prayer was my favorite, the prayer of St. Bridget of Sweden:

Herre, visa mig din väg och gör mig villig att vandra den.

Lord, show me the way and make me willing to follow it.