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Fighting, Flying, and Self-Flagellation: 3 Saints and their Unusual Miracles

On October 10th, 2020, in the Italian town of Assisi, a young man named Carlo Acutis was beatified in a ceremony conducted by Pope Francis. Carlo was only 15-years-old at the time of his death from Leukemia in 2006 and was, by all accounts, a thoroughly lovely lad - volunteering in soup kitchens and using his pocket money to buy sleeping bags for homeless people (in contrast, when I was 15 I was syphoning vodka out of the bottle in my mam's kitchen).

Beatification, if you don't know, it is essentially a recognition by the Catholic church that an especially holy person has ascended into Heaven and may be called upon to intercede on behalf of living individuals through prayer. It’s also the penultimate step on the road toward sainthood and typically occurs at least five years after the person’s death and only after a verified miracle has been attributed to them. Beatification has actually become a relatively common practice in the Catholic church in recent years, with over 1300 beatifications presided over by Pope John Paul II alone and 134 performed by Pope Francis since he took office in 2013.

Good for Carlo right? Like thousands of people before him, he's now well on his way to sainthood. So what's the big deal?

The big deal, Mr. Judgypants, is that the reason for Carlo's beatification is somewhat unique because it was due in large part to his work cataloguing miracles online. This has led some people to dub him “The Patron Saint of the Internet” and the “first millennial saint” (how long until boomers start complaining that millennials have destroyed the sainthood industry?).

I'm not here to discuss Carlo's holiness or complain about the maligning of millennials, but this story has gotten me thinking a lot about sainthood (not for myself, I’m a monster – see previous vodka comment) more specifically, I've been thinking about the miracles they were purported to have performed. For the vast majority of saints, these miracles were healing-related. For example, Carlo’s first Vatican-acknowledged miracle came in 2013 when he interceded to cure a Brazilian boy who was suffering from a rare pancreatic disease. But in some cases, their miracles are…well, let’s just say they are a bit more entertaining.

So for your reading pleasure, here are three of my favourite saints and their highly unusual miracles:

St. Columcille vs. The Loch Ness Monster

St. Columcille, often Latinized as St. Columba, was a 6th-century Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity to Scotland. He’s also one of the three patron saints of Ireland along with St. Patrick and St. Brigid.

Columcille was born in Garten in what is now Co. Donegal in 521 CE and entered the priesthood at the age of 20. Within 10 years, he had founded around 30 monasteries. Despite his personal holiness, he was known for having a bad temper and, in 563 CE, he was accused of starting a war between two Irish tribes resulting in the death of Prince Curnan of Connaught. As a result, Columcille was banished by the High-King and sentenced to never see Ireland again. He went into exile in Scotland along with 12 companions and settled on the island of Iona where he founded his most famous monastery and lived out his years writing hymns and manuscripts - over 300 by some counts.

“That’s all well and good,” I hear you cry, “But get to Nessie already!” (my, aren't we demanding today?).

According to 7th-century biographer St. Adamnan in his book, The Life of St. Columba, the encounter with the mythical lake monster went down like this:

One day, St. Columcille was standing at the banks of the River Ness, which flows out of Loch Ness (funnily enough), and was trying to figure out how to cross to the other side. While he was pondering the issue, he encountered a group of Picts - the native people of Scotland - who were burying one of their number. They told Columcille that they had been attacked by a monstrous “water beast” while swimming in the river. Upon hearing their story, Columcille laid his staff across the dead man’s chest and instantly he rose again, alive and healthy.

You’d think raising the dead was enough work for one day, but no - Columcille had a plan up his voluminous sleeve. He asked one of his companions, a monk by the name of Brother Lugne Mocumin to swim across the river and bring back a small boat moored on the other side. This sounds like kind of a dick move on Columcille's part since he knows there's a water beast right there but he obviously knew that Lugne was hard as nails. Without a second thought, the monk stripped off and jumped into the river. Alerted by the sound of Br. Lugne splashing about, Nessie raced toward him ready to chomp down.

The bystanders began to cry and shout, hoping to warn Lugne about his impending death-by-monster. Only Columcille remained unruffled. As the monster closed in on his hapless companion, Columcille stepped forward and made the sign of the cross while invoking the name of the Lord. Then, in a commanding voice, said “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass.” Uh, I mean, "You will go no further!" Immediately, the monster turned its tail and fled. Now that the river was safe, Columcille and his companions were free to cross to the other side unharmed.

There you have it folks - Nessie is Catholic Church-approved. Perhaps the reason it’s so rare to spot the poor beastie these days is because St. Columcille was a little too good at his job?

St. Christina the Astonishing (was Metal AF)

Christina Mirabilis was born in the town of Brusthem, Belgium in 1150. When she was 21-years old, she reportedly suffered a seizure and died, but her story doesn’t end there (she’s Christina the Amazing, not Christina the Pretty Average after all). During her funeral, her body suddenly rose from the coffin and “soared to the top of the church”. The priest ordered her to come down (which is such a ridiculous image) and when she did, she reported that she had been brought to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by a group of angels who then offered her the choice to remain in Heaven or go back to earth and perform penance to deliver souls from Purgatory. After the horrors she had witnessed, Christina agreed to return to Earth and do her part to help sinners get into Heaven.

She renounced all material comforts and lived in extreme destitution, seeking every opportunity to make herself fucking miserable through the practice of “extreme penance”, which is just as horrible as it sounds. Here are just some of the horrific situations Christina willingly put herself through:

  • Intentionally throwing herself into fires and staying there for extended periods of time, shrieking and wailing

  • Allowing herself to be attacked by dogs

  • Purposely running through thickets of thorn bushes

  • Immersing herself in a river in winter and staying in the frigid water for hours or days at a time

  • Allowing herself to be sucked into the wheels of watermills and getting churned around

Honestly, being friends with Christina must have been exhausting, but after each and every incident she would emerge unscathed. Christina’s actions actually led to her being incarcerated twice and after the second time, it seemed she finally got the message. Upon her release, she entered the Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sint-Truiden, where she eventually died of natural causes at the ripe old age of 74. Truly astonishing

St. Joseph of Cupertino - Why Walk When You Can Fly?

St. Joseph of Cupertino was born in the town of Cupertino (again, funnily enough) right down in the boot-heel of Italy. Every account I came across saw fit to mention how…um...”slow” he was (or “remarkably unclever” according to Wikipedia – ouch). He apparently spent his childhood and adolescent years wandering around, mouth agape, generally getting in everyone's way. He was also purported to have experienced ecstatic visions since early childhood which frequently made him the object of scorn. We shouldn’t feel too sorry for ol’ Joe though – apparently, he had quite the temper and was generally pretty unliked by his friends and family.

By the time he was eighteen, he was back living at home with his mother after trying and failing to become a shoemaker, a Franciscan monk, and a Capuchin monk (he actually lasted eight months in the Capuchin monastery but was booted out for continually forgetting to do what he was told). Finally, his mother managed to get him accepted as a servant at a Conventual Franciscan monastery where he was in charge of taking care of the horses.

After a few years of mucking out horse dung, Joseph had impressed the friars enough with his humility and devotion to be allowed to join their order. On 28 March 1628, he was ordained as a priest and moved to Gravina, a town in the Puglia region where he would spend the next 15 years. It was also around this time that Joseph’s religious ecstasies began to escalate – not only was he experiencing religious visions, but the dude began to fly.

Joseph actually experienced so many episodes of levitation during prayer – around 70 cases were recorded during his beatification process – that nowadays he’s regarded as the patron saint of aviators and astronauts. (Side note: saint’s patronages can get really weird and specific and probably deserve a whole post to themselves!). Sometimes his ecstatic episodes would last for hours and if one happened to occur in the middle of mass, Joseph would float around for a while and then simply pick the service up right where he left off. You have to wonder whether the congregation just had to sit there and wait for him to come back down to Earth or...?

My favourite levitation story though, has to be is this one:

One Christmas Eve the Saint invited some shepherds to join in celebrating the birth of the Saviour. When they started to play bagpipes and flutes, the Saint let out a cry of joy and flew a considerable distance through the air to the high altar. He remained in his rapture about a quarter of an hour. Although he was in the air leaning over several lighted candles, his garments were not affected.

I mean, who among us has not been thrown into religious rapture by a good bagpiping?

It wasn’t all fun and games though, Joseph was actually considered so disruptive by Church authorities that he was banned from taking part in public gatherings and was forcibly confined to a small cell and because flight was so closely associated with witchcraft, he was investigated by the Inquisition (bet he didn’t expect that). At their command, he was transferred from one monastery to another all around Italy for almost 20 years before finally being allowed to return to a Conventual Monastery in Osimo where he died in 1663, aged 60.

There you have it, three of my favourite saintly miracles. If you’re thinking of pursuing an afterlife in sainthood, check out this infographic we made explaining all the steps that need to happen to get you there:

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