The Holy Helpers

In amongst the major saints celebrated during June lie the feast days of two lesser-known saints. We’re unlikely to celebrate them, but most people will have heard of them. The two saints are St Elmo (whose feast day is 2nd June) and St Vitus (15th June). They were both popular mediæval saints and became associated with unrelated phenomena.

St Elmo (died c.303, possibly) was also known as Saint Erasmus of Formiæ, a part of Italy in which he

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St Elmo holding his entrails

was bishop. His life story appears to be that of a Syrian Bishop, Erasmus of Antioch, and there may never have been an historical St Elmo. The legend credits him with refusal to renounce Christ despite a number of gruesome tortures concluding with having his entrails wrapped around a windlass. Icons of St Elmo often show him holding the windlass (and entrails).

St Elmo’s fire is a blue glow emanating from tall, pointed structures (such as a ship’s mast) during a strong electric field in the atmosphere. It is an electrical discharge, and visually striking, and was thought to be a good omen by sailors. It was associated with St Elmo as he is a patron saint of sailors (and can also be called upon to protect against intestinal ailments.)

St Vitus (b. c290, d. c303) was a martyr from Sicily. He probably did exist, but our earliest record of him is just a note that he was venerated in his region. The legend about him grew up considerably later and involves him being tortured to death alongside his tutor and his nanny because he refused to turn away from Christ. He is still celebrated, although the tutor and nanny have been “de-sainted” as they appear to be fictional. He is popular in Slavic lands and his feast day is politically important in Serbia. He is a patron of actors and dancers and protector against animal attacks, lightning and oversleeping.

St Vitus’ dance (the neurological disorder Sydenham’s chorea, which causes involuntary movements superficially similar to dancing) because mediæval Germans and Latvians celebrated his feast by dancing in front of his statue.

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St Hildegard of Bingen

The 17th September marks the feast day of St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, Doctor of the Church, and founder of German scientific natural history, she was a remarkable woman.

Born to a family of the lesser nobility in what is now Germany, she was dedicated at birth to the Church and sent to a Benedictine monastery at the age of eight. She was placed into the care of an anchoress and given a rudimentary education. Taking vows at the age of fourteen, Hildegard was elected head of the community of nuns when she was thirty-eight and later moved her convent to Rupertsberg, near Bingen.

From early childhood Hildegard had seen visions, though she rarely spoke of them until, in 1141:

“It came to pass … when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…”

After seeking and receiving the approval of the Pope for her writings, Hildegard wrote three major works of visionary theology, musical compositions for liturgical use (and a musical morality play), works on natural medicine, commentaries, hagiography, sermons, poems and an invented language, the Lingua ignota. She left behind one of the largest collections of letters to survive from the Middle Ages, giving advice to Popes, Emperors, bishops, nuns and nobility.

Hildegard’s writing brought science, art and religion together to examine the nature of God, our duty of care for creation, and to free the downtrodden. There is a continuing interest in her from eco-theologians and, as she was an unusually powerful woman for her time, from feminists.

Hildegard of Bingen died on the 17th September 1179 and was made a Doctor of the Church in 2012.