In my last post I have hinted to this new regular series, in which I will explore (largely for my benefit) the life and significance of the saints in the liturgical calendar for the UK (with a bonus for a US saint that I really like).
January, while not feast-light, seems to have just a few saints, although some heavy weight ones, whose feast is celebrated (there are several saints for each day of the year but not all are celebrated specifically in the Mass). Most feasts this month celebrate events: the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus and the Conversion of Saint Paul. While they offer us inspiration through the characters moving in them (the wise men following a sign in complete faith, Mary pondering all things in her heart, the Holy Parents escaping to Egypt in faith, the humility of St John the Baptist and how redemption is really possible to literally everyone no matter how evil their deeds and how dark their heart), I will only look in details at the individual saints. In the way we look up to people in our lives, celebrities or otherwise, we can look at their lives and relate them to our own, or maybe just don’t get the hype. We’re all different and we all relate to different things and that’s okay, even though the Church often feels like a clique where some saints are loved by everyone and others are the wallflowers despite how God loved them (and us) all equally.
Mary, the Holy Mother
1st of January
The misguided belief that Catholics worship Mary founds some support in the sheer number of feasts dedicated to her and the kind of dogmas that relate to them. However, Mary as the Mother of the God Incarnate is one we can all agree on. Celebrated on the 1st of January, this feast looks in particular at Mary through the lenses of motherhood. In the past I wrote a guest post on the subject of why she is my favourite woman of the Bible even though what looks like her biggest attribute was something that I, as a single and childless woman, could not relate to, because her defining quality is not motherhood but her faith in God’s promise, and motherhood only followed from that. As I am still childless, and still unmarried, the calling of Mary as mother is not something I can identify with. I still relate to my mother as a daughter, and so it is with Mary.
St Elizabeth Ann Seton
4th of January
I’ve first encountered the first US-born saint through a Regnum Christi online retreat years ago. She was born into the society you would be familiar with if you read Edith Wharton’s novels, although a slightly earlier version than the one she wrote about: upper-class New York. She gave up her entire world by becoming a Catholic, and as a young widow she went on to found a religious order (based on the rule of St Vincent de Paul) that founded schools and orphanages, and to which 6 more orders can trace back their origin.
Her life was difficult and lonely, something that also mine has been in the past, although never to such an extent, but she persevered in pursuing the will of God through the desert like a 19th century Job. Her strength of character, great charity and nurturing nature are what coloured the short-ish life she lived (dying at 46) even down to our times (she was only canonised in 1975). I admire her because I find it easy to love when the cost is bearable, and too often fail to speak up just to keep the peace in the family, but she willingly made herself an outcast because truly she knew deep down that God was all she needed and that God was what she truly had forever.
21st of January
Agnes, a teenager from a wealthy Roman family, virgin and martyr, died for her love of Jesus on the 21st of January 304. Numerous legends surround her life, most of which revolve around her chastity. As a woman in 21st century London, which is a highly sexualised society where even among practising Catholics you are hard-pressed to find many who haven’t struggled at some point with that, or people who altogether are open about their disregard for Church teachings on the matter when asking you out, I can relate to the pressure she is said to have faced in some of the versions, but in particular I can relate to being betrayed by people who wanted to damage her. Not being resentful for it has been a really hard thing, and in that I could use being more like St Agnes.
St Francis de Sales
24th of January
Another saint of noble birth (while there are plenty with more humble backgrounds, I think there is a theme in the sheer number of people who gave up privilege to follow Christ). His motto is non-excidet, which means he will not fail. Like all men of the age of his situation, he had a humanistic education and had a personal crisis when involved in a theological discussion on predestination. He was delivered from it and the illness that followed to become a prolific spiritual writer and enthusiastic evangelist in an area that saw the birth of Calvinism. It goes without saying that he is the patron saint of writers, and that I relate to him not only because he knew the depths of doubt that come with intellectual pursuits such as my own, but also because he anticipated the vision of Vatican II for lay people, and his devotion to Mary as an example of the kind of faith we should all have as individuals. He was the provost of an Oratorian community too, and like St Philip Neri and other figures linked to the order he is one of my favourite saints.
Sts Timothy and Titus
26th of January
Both close to St Paul, missionaries together, their lives are a reflection of the life of the early church. Timothy was the son of a mixed marriage and therefore illegitimate in the eyes of the Jews, while Titus was a gentile, but the Church makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile as all are one in Christ Jesus. They also show us how much friendship grounded in the Gospel was key to the life of the early church, through what Paul said to and of them in his letters. Little is known of them beyond that, but they are an example of godly friendship that I can look up to when fashioning the friendships in my life.
St Thomas Aquinas
28th of January
One of the intellectual heavyweights to be credited for curing me of my girlish atheism, a Dominican friar and Doctor of the Church known in particular for the Summa Theologiae and his embracing of Aristotle at a time that still saw his ideas as dangerous and Plato as the only (philosophical) way. He was a prolific writer in all matters that can be founded upon theology, and whose influence comes down to us even in things like libertarian theories around the autonomy of the individual. It will surprise no one to know that his pursuit of knowledge and truth is what makes me look up to him and why he is one of my favourite saints. I could talk about him for hours.