One of the most curious celebrations in the Catholic Church is the blessing of throats for St. Blaise’s memorial on February 3rd. I can recall as a small child being told about the blessing of throats and seeing it done at church. I sort of took it for granted, and as I grew up the majority of Catholics I met had at least heard of the practice. The Catholic Church has canonized hundreds of saints, and it seems like every day is the memorial or feast of someone, but very few have a tradition quite as widespread or commonly practiced (in my experience) as the blessing of throats. I’d never really given it much thought until this year when I felt a little nudge to learn a bit more.
Who Was St. Blaise?
The short version is this. We actually know very little about the life of St. Blaise. In fact, what we can say with confidence is that he was the Bishop of Sebastea, and that he was martyred in 316. A few other bits that come up fairly consistently about him are that he was born to a wealthy family, was raised Catholic, and became a bishop at a young age. Other than that, the things we know about him come from writings dated hundreds of years after his death. In terms of historicity, he’s a clear step up from St. Christopher, but he’s a bit legendary in his own right.
Why A Throat Blessing?
The blessing of throats comes from a story of St. Blaise healing a woman’s son from choking on a fishbone. The use of candles in the blessing recalls a story in which a woman sent St. Blaise candles while he was in prison so that he might be able to read Scripture. This act of gratitude was prompted by St. Blaise commanding a wolf to return to the woman her pig, which the wolf had stolen. In addition to healing throats, St. Blaise was known for healing animals and being able to command them.
I confess that as I learned this, there was a little skeptical voice in the back of my mind that said, “Hey, why do you care about a semi-legendary saint anyways? Your throat is fine, and we don’t even really know anything about the guy!” In an age of skepticism, it occurred to me that I am probably not the only one with that little voice and that the question may be worth answering. As I pondered and prayed, I discovered three reasons that I care about St. Blaise and the blessing of throats. You might be wondering the same, and I encourage you to pray about it. As a springboard of inspiration, I’ll share what came up in my prayer.
3 Reasons To Care About St. Blaise
1) He’s A Reminder Of What Is True And Good
First of all, saints like St. Blaise fly in the face of the modern critical mind, and I think there’s some value to that. It’s important to use the gift of reason that God has given us, but it’s also important to recognize that not all truth and not all value come through empirical study. The modern challenge is that on the whole society has forgotten that there are other means of knowing truth and other kinds of truth besides that which we can see and measure and experiment on. St. Blaise is not a strong historical figure that we have a lot of scientific evidence about; he doesn’t present us with that kind of truth. Just like the Church teaches 4 senses of scripture to help us understand different ways that truth is expressed in the Bible, the example of St. Blaise’s life, historical or legendary, teaches truth about Jesus Christ. His story teaches us about love and healing, and can inspire us to follow Christ more closely. These are good and true things to learn from the story of a saint, whether the specific moments of St. Blaise’s life were recorded in a way that modern society accepts or not. It is good to be reminded that there are true and good things outside the realm of scientific knowledge, and St. Blaise gives me that reminder. (A bit more of an in-depth look at his life and legend here)
2) He’s A Reminder That God Cares
To me, the blessing of the throats really drives home that God’s love is very real and very specific. I mean, throats? That’s pretty precise. Remembering St. Blaise and the blessing of throats strengthens me against a misunderstanding of God that is too abstract or distant. God isn’t a general benevolent force throwing down grace like confetti on the wind. He knows my name. He cares about my life. He cares about the well-being of my throat. Ours is a God who is up close and personal. He is in my business. He’s in yours too. Sometimes the notion creeps in that God only really cares about whether I’ve made the right decisions lately, like he’s keeping score on my life and that’s his number one role. That type of God probably doesn’t go out of his way to inspire devotion and prayer just for healthy throats. The God who does inspire the devotion we see to St. Blaise and the blessing of throats clearly cares, even in the nitty-gritty details of life. He’s the one who is by my side in it each and every day. That’s a reminder that I need, regardless of how my throat is feeling.
3) He’s A Reminder Of The Witness Of The Martyrs
This last one is admittedly not specific to St. Blaise, but it still struck me as I was thinking and praying about him. Very simply, I found it moving that St. Blaise was a martyr. While the lives and examples of the martyrs have always been profoundly powerful in the life of the church, I feel like in our modern age we need martyrs badly. We need people who stake their lives on the truth, not on status and influence. St. Blaise didn’t have a PR person. There was no spin doctor in the 3rd or 4th centuries helping him buff his image and working up scripts for him to make sure he came across just right to the desired demographic. He didn’t get likes, run polls, or count subscribers. He just told the plain truth of Christ to whoever would listen. When those in power didn’t like it, he stayed the course. He stayed true in his life and his words to what he knew to be right. There was no rebranding, no image adjustment, no softening the message to make those around him felt good about it. Simply faith in Christ. When he faced the final test of martyrdom (and torture before that), he stood firm. In a loud and fickle culture, the solidity of St. Blaise’s faith, and that of all the martyrs, is so powerful.
Hopefully, as you prepare and celebrate the Memorial of St. Blaise these thoughts will help lead you to a deeper and more fruitful celebration. Maybe the Holy Spirit has inspired some other reflections. I’d love to hear them, please post in the comments!
St. Blaise, pray for us!
Image: © Ralph Hammann – Wikimedia Commons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons