… church history. We continue with our series by Ruth Tucker, and we want to know (as well) your best believe-it-or-not church history story.
Now Ruth Tucker:
When Saint Bruno in his younger years was studying in Paris the city was caught up in a sea of mourning. A renowned monastic scholar, much admired for his holy life, had died. But as the funeral cortege proceeded to the tomb, the dead scholar rose out of the coffin and cried out, “By God’s righteous judgment, I am accursed.” Utterly astounded, the officiating clerics delay the funeral until the following day. But the same shocking episode occurs again, and still again, the day after. So terrified—and convicted of sin—is Bruno that he goes straightaway into the desert to meditate and soon thereafter in 1084 founds the Carthusians, a cloistered order of monks and nuns.
Thus, begins my Introduction to Parade of Faith.
Sometimes the believe-it-or-not stories arise in the midst of partisan politics. [Hey, did you hear about the fistfight between Hillary and Bill in the middle of Times Square?] Life was little different in the 4th century. The followers of Arias and Athanasius did as much partisan political battle as theological, and spreading fake news was all part of the game. Following a synod in Tyre in 335, a decade after the Council of Nicaea, the tide had turned toward Arius, Athanasius having been exiled to Gaul.
It was then Saturday, and . . . going out of the imperial palace . . . [Arius] paraded proudly through the midst of the city. . . . [Then] a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels. . . . Soon a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations ,his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death.
On September 14, 1224, while praying on the mountain of Verna, Saint Francis receives the stigmata—the very wounds of the crucified Christ. Dear Francis, we would have loved you as much—maybe more—had you not mimicked the nail prints of Jesus. You spoke your marriage vows to Lady Poverty and were kind to all those little creatures, raccoons and skunks included. No need for fantastic miracles.
Catherine of Siena was a nail-print copycat as were many others. But she had a claim that was more stunning than the stigmata. As with other women religious, she was married to Jesus, wearing his wedding ring—a ring that was in the news in recent years when. Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on her to a General Audience of the Catholic Church, reminding his listeners that in 1970, Pope Paul VI had declared Catherine a Doctor of the Church. Then Benedict related one of her mystical experiences, at which time the Virgin Mary gave her “a splendid ring,” while Jesus stood by beseeching her “to keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven.”
I write the following in Extraordinary Women of Christian History:
Benedict’s reference to a “splendid ring” that “was visible to her alone” on the surface sounds like an ordinary saint story. What he surely knew but did not elucidate was that Catherine’s splendid ring was actually the holy foreskin of Jesus. Doctor Catherine, however, did not originate the idea of such an object. Her visionary Holy Prepuce was a popular medieval relic that was kept safe and certified authentic by a number of Catholic Churches.
We all know about believe-it-or-not tales of the desert monks, especially Saint Simeon Stylites who sat on a pillar for two decades. Less known is the account of the desert sex addict, Saint Mary of Egypt. I will tell her story at a later date, perhaps combining it with that of Jerome who, while in the desert, fantasized about bevies of naked women. John Wesley likewise had some female fantasies and a very unfortunate emotional attachment, all the while often preaching and traveling by horseback sixteen hours a day. That’s another future topic.
His mother Susanna, a home-schooler who gave birth to nineteen children, is also a fascinating character, as are John’s siblings. Besides a full house of living people, Old Jeffry made his abode upstairs. Susanna sometimes wrote to John how this ghost was rattling around in the attic at night. That, however, is hardly a believe-it-or-not story, at least for me. For years after we put our beloved Rafiki down, I often heard her whine and whistle at night. Figure that out.
One last tale. Evangelist William Tennent emigrated from Scotland in 1718, settling in the colony of Pennsylvania. Here he founded the Log College where generations of farm boys were trained as evangelists. He’s a cool guy. But then a weird—and unbelievable—thing happens. He awakens in the dead of night realizing the toes on one foot are missing, apparently not feeling a thing until all five toes had been removed. His explanation? “Snatched by the Devil.” Such a claim, I suppose, could be covered up by wearing shoes, but why would anyone tell such a tale? Surely not to be regarded a saintly person as seems to be the case in many of these stories. Nor, would it seem to be an object lesson for others—unless to say that if they are faithful evangelists they, too, might have their toes snatched in the night.