If there’s one thing we Catholics are good at, it’s blessing things. You name it and we’ll probably bless it. We even have a whole day dedicated to the blessing of throats—the Feast of Saint Blaise, patron saint of throat illnesses. St. Blaise is one of those incredibly fascinating saints in that, while we know practically nothing about him, he’s wildly popular.
How DO we know about St. Blaise?
The first we ever hear of St. Blaise is in the notes of a doctor—Aëtius Amidenus—writing nearly a hundred years after Blaise’s death; he mentions the saint with regard to help with objects stuck in the throat. What we know about Blaise’s actual life comes from tradition and a book called The Acts of St. Blaise—written a few hundred years after Dr. Amidenus mentioned him in passing. While what we know is largely the stuff of legend, the Church doesn’t dismiss it entirely, given the long liturgical roots of devotion to St. Blaise.
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Where did the whole throat thing start?
Blaise is said to have lived in Armenia, where he became bishop of Sebastea, which became quite the destination spot. This was due largely to Blaise’s sanctity, Christian example and the many miraculous cures of body and spirit reportedly happening around him.
Okay, maybe it was mostly the miraculous cures.
Like many a martyr, Blaise was rounded up in a persecution—this one ordered by Emperor Licinius of Rome. On his way to jail, a woman whose son was choking on a fishbone placed the boy at Blaise’s feet, and…you guessed it! The boy was miraculously cured.
And the cures didn’t stop there. They mustn’t have. It’s not likely that people would stay so devoted to a saint who wasn’t holding up his end of the deal.
Even in today’s oh-so-practical world, people line up every St. Blaise Day to have a priest hold two criss-crossed candles above their heads or around their throats, asking protection from illness.
Apparently, St. Blaise’s trip to jail was a busy one. As the story goes, in addition to the woman whose son he helped, Blaise met another woman whose pig had been taken by a wolf. Blaise, known for having a way with animals, commanded the wolf to let the pig go, which it did. Maybe the wolf owed him a favor; tradition says that animals, as well as people, would come to Blaise for healing.
Whatever the reason, the woman, thankful for a successful hostage negotiation, brought Blaise two candles so he could have light in his jail cell. To this day, St. Blaise is often depicted holding two candles—and that woman’s gift, a gesture of appreciation, has become a gesture of supplication as our priests hold candles over us in prayer on the Feast of St. Blaise.
What else do we know about Saint Blaise?
Sources say that, in addition to being jailed, St. Blaise was also brutally tortured and later beheaded. The instruments of torture are said to have been steel combs resembling the combs used on wool; that connection led to St. Blaise being looked to as patron of those involved in the wool trade. One of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages, St. Blaise was also numbered among the Fourteen Holy Helpers—saints renowned for protecting people from dangers, especially various illness.
Our wish for you, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Blaise, is the same one you’ll hear at church when you get your throat blessed, “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”