Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's That on Your Head?

On Wednesday we went to have our throats blessed. This Catholic ritual is one I remember clearly from my childhood. Every year on the feast day of St. Blaise, our teachers would march us into church for the annual blessing of throats. The priest, holding two consecrated candles in a crossed position at your throat, would utter the following blessing: "Per intercessionem S. Blasii liberet to Deus a malo gutteris et a qouvis alio malo." ("May God, at the intercession of St. Blaise, preserve you from throat troubles and every other evil.") Today the blessing was spoken in English since the church long ago abandoned Latin, a mistake in my opinion, but Pope John XXIII disagreed. Anyhow, since my wife tells me I eat too fast, I'm hoping the blessing of my throat will prevent the need for a Heimlich maneuver somewhere down the road.

I didn't know much about St. Blaise so I looked him up. According to legend, Blaise was a Catholic bishop in the city of Sebastea, Armenia, in 316. He, worked hard to encourage the spiritual and physical health of his people, but as a result of religious persecution, was forced to flee to the back country. There he lived as a hermit in solitude and prayer, but made friends with the wild animals. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the amphitheater stumbled upon Blaise’s cave. They were first surprised and then frightened. The bishop was kneeling in prayer surrounded by patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears. As the hunters hauled Blaise off to prison, a mother came with her young son who had a fish bone lodged in his throat. At Blaise’s command the child was able to cough up the bone. This act established St. Blaise as the protector of throats. Ah ah, don't thank me, it's what I do.

Another church ritual I remember is the annual dispensing of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned. The ashes are mixed with oil and used by the priest who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the congregants. The priest then recites the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." As kids we didn't think much about the cross of ashes on our heads since everybody had one, but I remember when I got older and went to work, I got some funny looks on the subway.

We had other religious traditions we followed like the wearing of the "scapular". A scapular (from Latin, scapula, "shoulder") is a religious pendant of cloth worn under the clothing, which is usually adorned with the picture of a saint as a part of Roman Catholic devotion. Scapulars have their historical origins in larger, tunic-like garments that were once worn by Roman Catholic monks, and later adapted for the use of the Roman Catholic laity. Reduced versions of these scapulars are worn by lay persons with a connection to a particular religious order. By far the most common scapular is the Brown Scapular of Mount Carmel. I wore one that my Aunt Anna gave me. She was the head of the local Mount Carmel Sodality at Our Lady of Loretto church. It got grungy after me wearing it to too many basketball games and my mother threw it out.

Another ritual they took us out of school for was to perform the "Stations of the Cross". (I don't know how we ever learned anything with all the time we spent in church.) Also known as the "Via Delarosa" the Stations of the Cross are a series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ. Each scene corresponded to a particular incident that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus. The object is to pass from station to station (there are 14 in all) saying certain prayers at each, and to meditate on each incident in turn. I can remember so clearly the beautiful marble recreations of the Stations of the Cross mounted around the perimeter of Our Lady of Lourdes church. I think there was a reward for performing the Stations...probably a plenary indulgence. Mine probably expired.


One of the things that always impressed me about Catholicism was the rituals. The pomp, the costumes, the smell of incense, the chanting, and the gravity with which the priests conducted these ceremonies had a powerful influence on me as a child. Because of that, I feel at home in church, and although I might wish for less singing and speedier homilies, I do find peace there.


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1 comment:

The Whiner said...

They used to take us to St Charles for the same things. I was terrified at throat blessing thing...Those candles at my throat seemed so medeival. I know whenever I've gone to a Protestant service, they're just so...casual. The Rev. will just start talking and people stand up to make announcements. Much too chaotic...I like knowing what's coming next.