I love finding quirky connections between seemingly unrelated things. So this weekend when I was at the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival in Lexington, I was thrilled when I found a set of wool combs named after St. Blaise. He’s the patron saint of wool workers, and he is frequently represented holding a wool comb. The gruesome connection he had to wool combs is that he was tortured with one before he was beheaded. Showing saints with the means of their execution perhaps echoes the reverence we have for the crucifix.
I came home and did some more research on St. Blaise, a fourth-century Armenian bishop. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, revered in the Middle Ages for their intercession as a protection against a variety of ailments and dangers. I knew that Blaise’s specialty was throat ailments, which is why throats are blessed on his feast day, February 3. He is also invoked for the protection of wild and domestic animals, having convinced a wolf to let go of the pig he was carrying. The grateful pig farmer is said to have brought Blaise two wax candles as light for his hermitage. Another legend says that when the governor’s hunters came to carry him off to be executed, they found him praying in his cave surrounded by bears, lions and wolves. Quite the bodyguard!
Reading about the saints, especially the more obscure ones from the earliest centuries of Christianity, can be like reading fairy tales, with much the same sense of underlying meanings, morals and lessons. I grew up with some of these stories and discovered others later. Many of the tales and legends that grew up in the years after St. Francis have more legend than fact about them. Chaucer, Dante, and the other great regional poets of the Middle Ages drew heavily on such tales.
Catholicism has the ability to absorb and embellish so much of our cultures, our lives, our imagination. So while I’m spinning the wool that I’ve combed, I can reflect on St. Blaise and all the holy men and women who have lived and worked and worshiped through the centuries. I might spend the summer researching all the saints connected to textile crafts.