Oct 12, 2010

Some very good reasons to visit Strängnäs

A few weeks ago, I spent an exhausting day trying to keep up with an enthusiastic group of cyclists at a Livestrong Day cycling event in Strängnäs, Sweden.

Not only did I arrive without a decent map, but also without knowing if any saints were associated with the diocese city of Strängnäs. Bad preparation for an aspiring hagiologist like myself.

I now know that the saint related to Strängnäs is St. Eskil. Here is his story, along with some other compelling reasons to visit this friendly Swedish town.

Eskil was an 11th century English monk who was sent to be a missionary among a "wild and raw" Viking population by St. Sigfrid of Växjö. He established his operations in Tuna, near Lake Mälaren in Sweden, where he later become bishop.

According to legend, St. Eskil travelled from Tuna to nearby Strängnäs, which at the time was dominated by pagan (Asa) worship. When he arrived, he disrupted a holy ritual by bringing on a hailstorm that destroyed the pagan altar.

Enraged, the congregation axed and stoned Eskil to death on the hill where the Strängnäs Cathedral (from 1291) now stands. The death blow, by the way, was said to have been delivered by an infidel named Blot-Sven, King of Sweden from 1084 to 1087 who overthrew his brother-in-law, Inge the Elder (Inger Stenkilsson).

No Swedish saint's saga would be complete without a holy spring, and St. Eskil is no exception.

His followers carried his body back to Tuna, and according to local tradition, a miraculous spring gushed from where they put the body down, just outside of Strängnäs. Indeed, today as you drive or cycle out of Strängnäs, you can stop to see the trickle at St. Eskil's Spring.

St. Eskil was buried at his monastery in Tuna, and his relics are now kept at Strängnäs Cathedral as well as in churches in Copenhagen and Roskilde, Denmark. There is also an arm bone kept in a reliquary at the Museum of History in Stockholm.

Strängnäs was later converted to Christianity, and the diocese St. Eskil had created in Tuna was moved there. Tuna later became known as Eskilstuna, a nice bit of knowledge that you can now use to impress your friends.

St. Eskil's feast day is 12 June. He is usually depicted in episcopal attire, carrying three stones, as in the fresco below from Överselö Church in Sweden. Along with St. Botvid (namesake of Botkyrka) he has been the patron saint of the Province of Södermanland, Sweden, since the Middle Ages.

Detail of fresco showing St. Eskil, from Överselö Church, Sweden. Note the three stones.

Today, Strängäs is a charming town situated on the shore of Lake Mälaren that is definitely worth a visit, not least because it boasts Gyllenhjelmsgatan, purportedly the prettiest street in Sweden.

Strängnäs also has probably the friendliest cycling club in Sweden, as well as some restaurants worthy of mention.

We ate some lovely Greek food at Grekiska Taverna following our 53 km ride. Then there's Edsbacka Bistro Strängnäs, sister to Edsbacka Bistro in Sollentuna, where Christer Lingström of Edsbacka Krog fame is still dishing it up. We were also told that Hotel Rogge is the place to kick back with drinks on a Friday afternoon. Another reason to go back.

LIVESTRONG Day is an annual event held on October 2, the day on which its founder, cyclist Lance Armstrong, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He survived and went on to win the Tour de France, not once, but seven times in a row. Today, he is probably the world's most well-known advocate for cancer survivors.

Harbour in Strängnäs.

Windmill and quaint Swedish houses in the autumn sun.

Aug 3, 2010

Severed fingers, holy wells and miracles

Have you ever wondered why there is a severed finger on the coat of arms of the city of Skövde? Or the identity of the woman who is holding it? Find out today as we look at the story of St. Elin of Skövde, another proof that Swedish hagiology is indeed gory.

Coat of arms, City of Skövde.

St. Elin was a widow, a pilgrim and a martyr who was killed by her in-laws in Skövde, in western Sweden, in the latter part of the 1100s.

Widowed at an early age, she devoted herself to the service of the poor and the church in Skövde, which she helped to finance, and went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

When she returned in about 1160, she was stabbed to death by the family of her son-in-law while walking to or from the church in Götene. They had accused her murdering her son-in-law, who, according to the legend, was beating his wife.

Then the miracles started. The most remarkable involves a blind man who was able to see again after finding Elin’s amputated finger (which was wearing a ring from the Holy Land).

St. Elin was buried in Skövde Church and a spring began to flow in conjunction with her burial, St. Elin's spring, which was said to have miraculous healing properties.

Other strange curiosities include the stone on which her body was washed that was said to have split in two as her blood ran over it. Pregnant women traditionally walked around the stones to ensure a hassle-free delivery.

Until the Reformation, St. Elin was revered in Sweden as well as in Denmark. Interestingly, at Tisvilde, there is a holy well known as St. Lena Kild, or St. Helen's Well (she was known as Sankt Leene, or Lena, in Danish and St. Helen in English. Confusing?) that drew pilgrims.

According to legend, her body washed up there in a stone coffin (though why her body would be floating begs a few questions). Traditionally, pilgrims would take home small bags of dirt from St. Elin’s grave (they wore the bags around their necks) for their healing properties.

St. Lena Kild, incidentally, was one of the three great pilgrim destinations in the Nordic countries after Nidaros and Skövde during the Middle Ages.

St. Elin's life and works are well documented: there are 38 works from the Middle Ages that mention her name, and her life was described by St. Brynolf (Bishop Brynolf Algotsson) of Skara, Sweden, in his Helenaofficium from the 1280s. He called Elin Flos Westgocie, the Rose of Västergötland.

St. Elin’s feast day is 31 July and her church, St. Helen's, still stands in Skövde. Her cult lives on in the annual Elinsmässomarknaden that has traditionally been held on her feast day in Skövde, and which will be held on 14 August this year.

St. Elin is usually portrayed as a widow with a sword and an open book upon which rests an amputated finger, as you have already seen on the coat of arms of Skövde above.

Apr 14, 2010

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela

"When in April the sweet showers fall/And pierce the drought of March to the root.../Then people long to go on pilgrimages..." (The Canterbury Tales)

Chaucer couldn't have said it better. As the weather warms up, the desire to go on pilgrimage and see new vistas is never far from my mind.

I have followed medieval pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury, Vadstena and Uppsala, and recently wrote an article about cycling and walking to Santiago, which was published in the spring issue of Swedish Bulletin. I have included it here, along with a few photos from our trip, to inspire you, too, to hit the open road.

The Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Crossing five mountain chains, it winds through vineyards, over bridges and through the medieval city squares of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. From fountains that spout wine to unspoiled Maragato towns, the Camino offers a sightseeing trip, an art exhibition, a wine-tasting route and a spiritual journey, not to mention a strenuous workout.

Santiago de Compostela is home to the tomb of the apostle St. James the Greater, which was discovered in the 9th century. "Santiago" comes from the Spanish for St. James – Sant Iago.

The cathedral in Santiago became a popular destination for pilgrims – in fact, third in importance after Jerusalem and Rome. Thousands walked the Camino until the time of the Reformation, and many cities grew from the trade that flourished along the way.

In recent years, the Camino has enjoyed a renaissance, and today, thousands of people walk, cycle or ride to Santiago each year.

According to Jan Folkegård, author of Vägen till Santiago de Compostela (The Way to Santiago de Compostela), there has been a steady increase in pilgrims in the last ten years, and notably, more Swedes are choosing the Camino.

“Walking has become very modern in Sweden,” he explains, “and once people have experienced walking some of the better trails in Sweden, like Sörmlandsleden, they want to try other routes, especially nicer ones in warmer climates, like the Camino."

My walking companion taking a break on a medieval "puente," or bridge.

There are four pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, but the Camino Francés – or “Camino” – that starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, is the most popular.

The Camino is signposted with yellow arrows and scallop shells, so it’s hard to get lost. Along the way, there are traces of earlier pilgrims in the form of monijoies, small structures of piled stones that showed the way through forests and plains.

Staffs have given way to high-tech walking sticks, and mantles to more modern Gore-Tex clothing, but today’s pilgrims still don the scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrimage.

They also carry “passports” to collect stamps along the way, since pilgrims walking more than 100 km (or cycling 300 km) receive a ‘compostela’ certificate upon presenting their stamped passport in Santiago.

Accommodations on the Camino are easy to find and range from “refugios” (hostels) and schools to hotels and more luxurious “paradors.” Some of the refugios, such as the one in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, have existed since the Middle Ages.

Many people start the Camino at St. Jean Pied de Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees, and walk or cycle the entire 780 km. We wondered where one should start if time – or energy – are limited.

“If you want to walk one hundred kilometres, then the village of O Cebreiro is perfect. If you want to walk farther, like two hundred kilometres, then Astorga is a good place to begin,” explains Folkegård.

He also points out that O Cebreiro is one of the more scenic places he has been to on the Camino, offering a wonderful view of the Galician countryside.

“I have stood in O Cebreiro – looking at the church and restaurant – and thought to myself: the only things missing here are Asterix and Obelix,” he laughs.

For those who wish to walk or cycle even longer distances, Folkegård suggests starting in Paris, from which there are marked routes to Santiago that have in the last two years have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Gorgeous Spanish countryside. And a spirited walker, too!

No matter how far you walk on the Camino, there’s really nothing like a good hike when you know that a three-course meal and a glass of Rioja are never that far away. Plus you can’t beat the feeling when you wake up one day and realise that you’ve cycled over two thirds of Northern Spain, as I did. Except, of course, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally arrive in Santiago.

The square outside of the cathedral in Santiago was once filled with throngs of merchants and monks who gathered outside of the doors of the Portico de Gloria, selling scallop shells, indulgences and other memorabilia.

Santiago retains much of this commercial feeling and today it’s something of a Catholic Disneyland. Religious objects and T-shirts have replaced indulgences, but the crowds remain and the rituals are the same.

Inside the cathedral, pilgrims queue to place their hands on the Jesse tree, touch their heads to the statue of the Santo del Croques (the head-banging saint) and hug the statue of St. James from behind – all pilgrim rituals. Oddly, few queue to visit the crypt containing the saint’s relics.

Catholic pilgrims who choose to confess at the cathedral are eligible for a special absolution of all sins, which at one time even included those that the pope could not forgive.

There’s also the daily pilgrim mass complete with the swinging of a huge silverbotafumiero (incense burner) that requires eight people to operate it. Ostensibly, it was used to mask the stench of the medieval pilgrim congregation.

No pilgrimage to Santiago is complete without a trip to Finisterre.

Literally the “end of the Earth” and locally called the Coast of Death, Finisterre was the last stop on the medieval pilgrim’s itinerary before journeying homewards, and as Folkegård tells us, where pilgrims traditionally collected their scallop shells. Today, you’re more likely to see modern pilgrims burning their clothes, a more modern ritual.

Finisterre continues to attract modern pilgrims with its stunning sunsets and lighthouse, which is now a stylish little hotel.

In short, if you’re looking for an unforgettable vacation packed with culture and activity, just grab a backpack and a walking stick and follow the yellow arrows on the Camino de Santiago.

Buon camino!

Some of the Spanish scouts we met along the way, possibly in Rabanal del Camino.

Mar 21, 2010

Hurray! It's Waffle Day (or Våffeldagen)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, which in Sweden is known as Waffle Day. This is the day when Swedes gorge themselves on delicate and crisp flower-formed waffles served with jam and whipped cream.

The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary where he tells her that she will be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). The feast has been celebrated in the Christian Church since about the seventh century.

Tecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850. Tate Gallery. Do you really think this young girl is thinking "Be it done unto me according to thy will?"

In Sweden, until 1953, Marie bebådelsedag (Annunciation), or as it was more popularly known, Vårfrudagen (Our Lady's Day), was a red day (holiday) in the Swedish calendar, just one of the numerous red days that have a religious background (such as the Feast of the Ascension, which is still a red day today).

Traditionally, it is the first festival of the spring, marking the end of winter and the return of the cranes, which were said to "bär ljus i sång" (bring light with their song) a reference to the fact that it was light enough after work and dinner to see without lighting candles, since the days were longer.

So, what does any of this have to do with waffles?

The Swedish "Vårfrudagen" has over time morphed in the mouths of the populace into Våffeldagen, and today, few people are aware of its religious roots. Most people presumably think that it is the national waffle day.

We are going to attempt to make waffles from scratch this evening, (last year's attempt was a complete fiasco). Here is this year's recipe, from ICA Kurir.

4 dl milk

3 ½ dl dinkel flour (spelt)

4 dl milk

pinch of salt

2 tsp baking powder

150 g butter

Method: Mix milk, flour, salt and baking powder. Let stand 30 min. Melt butter and add to mix. Pour into a well-greased waffle iron. Tip: put a knife on the plate from which the waffles will be served and pile the waffles on top, this will help maintain crispiness.

Some more fascinating Annunciation trivia to impress your friends:

The Annunciation is related in the Quran (Sura 3, verses 45-51).

This year marks the first year that the Feast of the Annunciation will be a public holiday in Lebanon, for both Christians and Muslims.

The Annunciation has been a very frequent subject of artistic representation, especially during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Some famous examples include the works of Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo de Vinci, Caravaggio, Duccio, Murillo, Donatello and Giotto (in particular, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua). A good reason for an Annunciation road trip to Italy, I say!

There are many prayers and devotions based on the story of the Annunciation.

The Hail Mary (or Ave Maria in Latin) is a traditional Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary. It forms the basis of the Rosary, and most of the text can be found in the Gospel of Luke.

The Angelus is a Christian devotion in memory of the incarnation (angelus is Latin of for angel, and is derived from the opening words: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ). The prayer is recited as versicle and response, and includes three biblical verses and three Hail Mary's. It was traditionally recited in Roman Catholic churches and monasteries three times a day (6:00, 12:00 and 18:00) and today is still used by some churches (including some Anglican and Lutheran churches). Traditionally, it was accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus Bell.

(I had to say the Angelus on an empty stomach every day before lunch when I attended Grade Eight at St. Patrick's Catholic School in Canada.)

Then there's the Magnificat, which is also known as the Canticle or Song of Mary, and which has been set to music by many composers. The text also comes from the Gospel of Luke, recalling the words of Mary when she visits her cousin Elizabeth at what is known as the Visitation. Elizabeth was barren, and became pregnant late in life (her son was John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus by baptizing people). In the narrative, when Mary relates to her that she is also pregnant, Elizabeth's baby moves, and Elizabeth praises Mary's faith. Mary's response is the Magnificat.

Here is the Visitation from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Ber (Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry), ca. 1410, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Feb 19, 2010

Saint in the making: Canadian Brother André to be canonized 17 October

Today, the Vatican announced that Canadian André Bessette, or Brother André as he is more commonly known, will be canonized on 17 October in Rome. Once canonized, Brother André will join St. Marguerite Bourgeoys (1982) and St. Marguerite d'Youville (1990), as well as eight Jesuit missionaries recognized as Canadian saints.

Brother André was born Alfred Bessette on 9 August 1945 in Saint-Grégoire d'Iberville, Quebec near Montreal, as one of twelve children. Orphaned early in life, he worked at various jobs until joining the Congregation of the Holy Cross, where he worked as porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal, Canada, among other jobs. He also ministered to the sick, often by rubbing the sick person with oil, for which he gained a reputation as a healer. He also ostensibly cured everyone in an epidemic at his college.

Word of his power spread, and soon people began flooding to his door. The church was uneasy about his popularity, but Brother André never claimed that he could heal anyone: instead, he attributed the healing to St. Joseph, to whom he had a particular devotion.

Brother André's great wish was that St. Joseph would one day be venerated on Mount Royal in Montreal, which came to be when the Holy Cross was finally successful in purchasing land on Mount Royal on which to build a chapel. He helped collect money to build the church, which was started in 1904, and received visitors there, in addition to "curing" many people. Today, the chapel is part of St. Joseph's Oratory on Mount Royal, the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph, and the largest church in Canada.

I visited the Oratory when I was about eight and will never forget its dark and creepy interior: the walls were covered with braces, canes and crutches from people who had purportedly been cured. Worst of all, Brother André's heart was on display, preserved in a jar. Yuck.

According to the Oratory website: "At the time of Brother André’s death, the Archbishop of Montreal, George Gauthier, suggested reviving of a little known custom of the Middle Ages. In medieval France and Italy, when people of note passed away their hearts were often removed from their bodies before burial and preserved as a token of admiration or recognition. The hearts of the kings of France were long preserved in this way. It was therefore decided to preserve Brother André’s heart in a reliquary at the Oratory where it remains as a sign of his continuing spiritual presence among us."

Brother André died on 6 January in 1937 and more than one million people paid their respects. Calls for sainthood began almost immediately: he earned the title of Venerable (which means that Catholics could pray to him) in 1978, and was later beatified on 12 June 1982 (based on his first miracle of curing Guiseppe Carlo Audino of cancer in 1958 -- the road to sainthood is certainly convoluted and strange). A second miracle qualified him for canonization (details?), which will take place on
17 October. His feast day is on 6 January.

Australia's Mary MacKillop, a nun, will also be canonized along with Brother André on 17 October, making her the country's first saint.

Oratory trivia
The Oratory served as the backdrop of the 1989 film, Jésus de Montréal.
More than 2 million people visit the Oratory each year.
The reliquary containing the heart of Brother André was stolen from the shrine on 15 March 1973, but later recovered from the home of a basement in South Montreal on 21 December 1974.

Read the press release from St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal.

I have seen it! (The orant, that is)

Recently, I was cleaning up a box of our things from Dubai and came across a button that I bought at the Vadstena Abbey Church after we completed (well, almost completed, more on this later) our pilgrimage from Söderköping to Vadstena, Sweden in 2005.

The button, shown below, reads "I have seen it!" ("Jag har sett den!") and refers to a small figure painted on the ceiling above the second pillar to the left of the nave of the church. (If you manage to go there, just ask someone to show it to you.)

This type of figure is known as an orant. An orant is a type of gesture used during prayer where the hands are raised and set apart, with the palms facing outward.

My favourite button from Vadstena Abbey Church, Vadstena, Sweden

Photo: Erik Eric Ricknell

The orant is a common motif in early Christian art, used mainly from about the third century onwards, for example, in the catacombs of Rome. The figure is often a woman, sometimes on her knees, with her arms outstretched and palms facing outward.

Nowadays, the gesture is most common in charismatic and Pentecostal churches. It is also an element of Catholic worship and it used in certain types of exorcism rituals.

I cannot help but wonder if this little figure is an orant or a fine example of medieval graffiti. Did one of the fresco painters want to leave his (or her) mark on Vadstena Abbey Church?

In any case, the button is a nice example of effective marketing, and without a doubt, one of the most remarkable souvenirs I have from any church.

Feb 16, 2010

Sigge: St. Sigfrid of Växjö

Yesterday was the feast of St. Sigfrid of Växjö, Sweden, the English missionary and (possibly) archbishop of York who ventured into Scandinavia on a mission to spread Christianity in the 11th century.

King Magnus Eriksson named Sigfrid as the patron saint of Sweden in the 1300s, and according to En svensk helgonkrönika, he is one of Sweden's more complicated saints mainly because there are so many discrepancies between what is historically known about him and the numerous legends surrounding his life, not to mention that there may have been two Sigfrids.

As missionary, Sigfrid was highly successful: He converted King Olof of Sweden (Olof Skötkonung) to Christianity by baptizing him in Husaby in around 1008 (at the time, most of Sweden was still pagan). St. Sigfrid's well near Husaby Church came to be known for its healing powers in the Middle Ages and became an important pilgrim destination.

After the conversion, while Sigfrid was away preaching, his three nephews (the Cluniac monks Winaman, Unaman and Sunaman) were beheaded by pagan raiders, notably Gunnar Gröpe. According to the legend, the heads of the three unfortunates were put into a weighted tub and thrown into Lake Helgasjön.

When Sigfrid returned and discovered the deed, he recovered the tub and claimed that the heads could still talk. King Olof offered to execute the murderers, but Sigfrid convinced him to spare their lives. The king then ordered them to pay blood money to Sigfrid, which he refused.

Sigfrid continued his mission and may have founded the parish of Växjö, Sweden, where he lived until his death on 15 February (the year is unknown). In 1342, King Magnus Eriksson granted Växjö a city charter "in the name of God and St. Sigfrid" ("Gudi till heder och Sancto Sigfrido").

St. Sigfrid is normally represented as one of three bishops on a ship, as baptizing King Olof, as a bishop menaced by devils or as a bishop carrying three severed heads (or loaves of bread, a misrepresentation of the heads).

Statue of St. Sigfrid, Övergran Church. Note the tub containing the heads of Winaman, Unaman and Sunaman.

During the Middle Ages, there were so many pilgrims who visited St. Sigfrid's grave in Växjö cathedral that Pope Clemens V ruled in 1352 that all who visited the church on the feast of the saint would receive a 140 day indulgence (which meant a temporary respite from Purgatory). Undertaking a pilgrimage to the church also gave an extra 100 days.

Sigfrid is still relevant today, mainly in the annual "Siffersmarknaden" (St. Sigfrid Market) held in Växjö each year on 15 February.

According to the Sibbo Swedish Parish's website (the Old Church in Sibbo, Finland is dedicated to St. Sigfrid, or "Sankte" as he is known there), a "Seffrasmessemarken" was even held prior to Christianity in Växjö on 15 February each year (though perhaps under a different name).

Cool fact about St. Sigfrid:

The Swedish pop band, The Ark, also hails from Växjö. They are mentioned together with St. Sigfrid, in the 2010 anthology of music in Växjö entitled Från Sigfridsmässa till The Ark (From the Feast of St. Sigfrid to The Ark.)

Feb 15, 2010

Cranium in Vadstena Abbey Church not St. Bridget's

According to a new study from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the bones in the reliquary in the Vadstena Abbey Church are not those of St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughter (St. Katherine of Sweden).

In 2002, samples were taken from both craniums, which were believed to have belonged to the Swedish saint and her daughter. Analysis has shown that they most likely belonged to other people.

The oldest cranium dates from the 1200s, and St. Bridget was not born until 1303. The younger cranium is from the period 1470-1670.

(This text was translated from SVT's news feed, 15 February 2010)

Jan 19, 2010

Summer Henry or Winter Henry?

Due to popular demand from my Finnish readers, today we are going to take a very quick look at St. Henrik, or St. Henry, Finland's apostle, who is one of the first people documented in Finnish history, and founder of the Church of Finland.

Henry may or may not have been an English missionary to Sweden in the mid 12th century, and may or may not have been ordained bishop in Uppsala. It seems that the official Catholic legend of St. Henry has been challenged by historians to the point of being termed pure imagination. But it's still an interesting story.

According to legend, Henry participated in the a crusade to Christianize the Finns, along with King Erik (later St. Erik) of Sweden.
Following their success, Erik returned to Sweden and Henry remained in Finland to preach and build churches.

If you look closely at the intricate work on St. Henry's sarcophagus, you will see St. Erik and St. Henry on the boat to Finland -- the precursor of today's Finland ferries, perhaps?

He didn't last long.

Here's the first version of what happened, based on the official vita of the saint:
Henry tried to give a canonical punishment to a murderer, who became enraged and killed the bishop.

The more popular version derives from the Finnish folk poem, "The Death-lay of Bishop Henry" (Piispa Henrikin surmavirsi) and goes like this: Henry was travelling alone in the middle of winter and visited Kerttu and woodsman Lalli's cottage. He supposedly left without repaying the couple for his meal, thus angering Lalli who chased the saint onto frozen
Lake Köyliönjärvi and killed him with an axe on 20 January 1156.

His body was taken to Nousianen (Nousis), not far from Turkku, where a spring is said to have sprung up where the oxen-drawn cart carrying his hearse stopped.

His relics (or at least most of them) were later translated to the Cathedral of Turkku on 18 June 1292 where they remain today, well, at least when they are not on loan to St. Henry's Cathedral in Helsinki.

You see, Henry's remains move around each year. And so does his feast day.

Today is what is known as Winter Henry, or talviheikki, in Finland, and I am sure a great reason to rejoice in their deep, dark winter forests. The Finns actually observe talviheikki on 20 January, the death of the saint, while in Sweden (and according to the Catholic church), St.Henry's Day, or Hindersmässan as it is known in Swedish, is celebrated on the 19th.

Summer Henry, or kesäheikki, falls on 18 June, at which time we shall take a closer look at this fascinating person.

Then you, like my Finnish friends, can decide for yourself which Henry you prefer -- Summer Henry or Winter Henry?

St. Henry in the modern coat of arms of Nousianen, Finland.

Note: Hindersmässan, or Saint Henry, is still celebrated in Örebro, Sweden, and is one of the city's oldest traditions. It was first celebrated in the 1300s as a market where iron from Bergslagen was sold.

Today the tradition lives on and a Hindersmässan market is held annually in Örebro, along with concerts, conferences and other events. It attracts about 80,000 people every year. I was also very surprised to find a website: www.hindersmassan.com that covers the event.

The name "hinders", by the way, comes from St. Henrik. The only translation I have found for the event is the Hinders Trade Fair.

Jan 18, 2010

"Had I been in his clothes , I would have stayed in them"

Sometimes cultural differences can be shocking. Like the time I was writing my final exam for my theology course on St. Bridget of Sweden, at the University of Lund, in 2003.

Imagine, if you will, a room full of Swedish theology students. Some 200 people or so, on an early snowy morning in Lund, Sweden.

Most of them are supplied with food and beverages -- Swedish exams are long enough to necessitate bringing provisions. People are arriving on a drop-in basis since there is usually a one-hour window during which you can show up. Yes, very strange from a North American perspective, but hey, this is Sweden.

About half-way through the exam, I heard someone say "I'm doing this to get your attention, and to protest that I am not allowed to write my exam."

Now, I am used to Canadian exam-room settings. Stress, sweat, starvation and strict rules on exam start times, bathroom use, etc. No one ever says anything out loud (except: Put down your pens and stop writing now). Ever.

I looked up and saw a red-haired guy standing at the front of the room. My first reaction was, is this guy trying to advertise the Engineering play? Was this just another cultural difference?

There was, however, one problem.

The guy was completely naked.

Well, except for his shoes.

After getting over the initial shock, I remembered that Sweden is liberal in attitudes towards nudity. But during a theology exam? Was this normal behaviour for students possibly preparing for careers in the church?

Had this happened in Canada, probably everyone would have been allowed to leave with an A+ since they would have been considered victims of sexual assault of some kind.

What happened in Lund that morning was this: the proctors managed to convince the guy to leave (still naked) without writing the exam. I continued writing my exam (and got top marks) and the world kept turning.

But the story, I think, is one of the best I have from my academic career.

Here's the comment that was published in Sydsvenskan, followed by my translation:

"Had been in his clothes, I probably would have stayed in them."
Fredrik Lindström, Prefect at the Faculty of Theology, regarding the student who stripped to protest that he was not allowed to write his exam when he arrived late.
Source: Sydsvenskan
(29 January 2004)

Note: In Swedish, the expression "to be in someone else's shoes" is "to be in someone's clothes"

Jan 15, 2010

On lost things and hopeless situations

A friend of mine recently published an urgent plea on Facebook asking people to pray to Saints Anthony and Jude to help find her mother's wedding ring, which she lost on the way into surgery last week.

It's been a while since I've heard anyone invoke these saints -- the patrons of lost items and hopeless situations -- so I decided it's high time to take a look at them.

Saint Anthony of Padua (c. 1195 - 13 June 1291) is your man if you have lost something (or find yourself shipwrecked). He was a Franciscan monk of Portuguese origin and a great orator who lived at times as a hermit in a walnut tree and is reported to have preached to fish. His tongue is preserved in a reliquary at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, where he is buried.

There is a jingle-like prayer to St. Anthony that goes "Tony, Tony, look around; something is lost and must be found."

The background to this invocation comes from an incident where a novice carried off St. Anthony's psalter. The saint prayed for its recovery (and may also have appeared to the novice in a frightening manner) and the psalter was returned.

Now on to St. Jude, the patron of lost causes and cases despaired of, especially in grave health matters and life and death situations.
The usual prayer to St. Jude is: “Saint Jude, hope of the hopeless, pray for me.”

St. Jude, also known as Judas Thaddeus, was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus who also wrote an epistle and preached in Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia with Saint Simon.

St. Jude is easily recognizable: almost all images depict him carrying an image of Jesus and usually with a small flame above his head, representing his baptism by fire.

There are several reasons suggested for his patronage of lost or impossible causes. First, there is the traditional belief that it derives from confusion among many early Christians between St. Jude and Judas Iscariot (who handed Jesus over the Romans). For this reason, few people ever prayed to St. Jude, and devotion to him became something of a lost cause in itself.

More convincing are his words from the Epistle of Jude (the short, penultimate book of the New Testament) on the perseverance of faith in harsh and difficult circumstances.

When asking St. Jude for help, it is customary to make a vow to publish a notice of thanks once the favour is granted, which is why there are newspaper classified ad ex-votos such as "Thank you St. Jude for favours granted" or a more terse "Thank you, St. Jude."

St. Anthony of Padua, by Antonio de Pereda

Jan 13, 2010

St. Hilary of Poitiers

St. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300 – c. 368) was Bishop of Poitiers and is a Doctor of the Church.

A pagan convert, he is perhaps best known for his stance against arianism (the doctrine that Jesus Christ is not divine but separate from God) for which he spent four years in exile. Because of his stance against arianism, he is sometimes referred to as the "Hammer of the Arians” and the “Athansius of the West.”

Upon his return, he continued to try to purge the West of arianism and wrote several renowned theological works, including De synodis and De trinitate, as well as hymns.

St. Hilary is the patron saint against snakes and snake bites, and of backward children. His attribute is a snake.

His feast day, which is also known as Hilarymas, is 13 January according to the General Roman Calendar (which includes the Roman Catholic calendar of saints). Earlier, this date was occupied by the Octave Day of the Epiphany, and his feast day was celebrated on 14 January instead. Octave Day, by the way, is the eighth day after a feast.

In England, “Hilary term” starts after Hilarymas in English courts and schools. The designation originated in the legal system, which divides the legal year into four terms: Hilary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas.

Who said saints aren’t still relevant today?

Note: St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293 – 373) was also an opponent of arianism and argued against Arius at the First Council of Nicea (in present-day Turkey) in 325. The Council was convened by Roman Emperor Constantine I and aimed to reach consensus on Christian doctrine. The result of the council was the Nicene Creed.

Athanasius is a Doctor of the Church (Roman Catholic) as well as one of the four Great Doctors in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His feast days are 2 May (Roman Catholic) and 19 January (Orthodox).

Tjugondag Knut

Tjugondag Knut, dansas julen ut!
(On the 20th of Canute, Christmas gets the boot!)

Yuletide in Sweden is gruelingly long – 20 days, in fact – and the last day of Christmas falls on the Feast of St. Canute, or Tjugondag Knut
in Swedish.

St. Canute’s Day is celebrated in the Nordic countries on 13 January (the Swedish name day for Knut), although the Catholic Church observes it on 19 January.

Canute (c. 1043 –1086) was King of Denmark from 1080 until 1086. He was an ambitious king who attempted to conquer England and take the English throne from William of Normandy (his claim was via his great-uncle, Canute the Great, King of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden at various times between 1016 and 1035). He also worked to strengthen the Danish monarchy and supported the Catholic Church by building churches and encouraging missionaries.

On 10 July 1086, during an insurrection in Odense, Denmark, Canute and his brother Benedict were murdered by rebels while kneeling at in the altar of St. Alban’s Church where they had taken refuge. Oddly enough, it has been suggested that Canute had earlier stolen relics of Saint Alban from Ely in England and deposited them at St. Alban's Priory, which he founded in Odense. Perhaps being murdered there was his just reward.

Because of his supposed martyrdom and his advocacy of the Catholic Church, he was quickly regarded as a saint. A Canute cult developed, and miracles were reported at his grave.

St. Canute was canonized in 1101 and is the patron saint of Denmark. He is also known as Canute IV, Canutus, Cnut, Knud IV and Knute.

St. Canute is normally represented as a Nordic king with a lance, dagger or arrow. He is often depicted barefoot with his hair in a fillet (a round band worn around the head and over the hair), or being murdered at an altar.

St. Canute’s Day marks the end of Christmas in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. On this day in Sweden, people dance around their Christmas trees and candy is hidden among the branches for children to find in a tradition known as “Christmas tree plundering” before the tree is finally tossed.

Additionally, in some parts of the country, masked and costumed children beg for candy, and in Gimo (outside of Uppsala), there is a festive “knutmasso”, or St. Canute carnival, with elaborate paper mâché masks, every year.

St. Canute festivities are not confined to the Nordic countries: in Spain, St. Canute’s Day, or San Canuto, is celebrated on 19 January. The feast is characterized by the imbibing of alcohol and smoking of marijuana, as St. Canute has evolved into the Spanish patron saint of cannabis.

Below is the aftermath of Tjugondag Knut from our place (we celebrated on Epiphany Day instead).