February is of course the shortest month but no less packed with important saints on the calendar.
We recently celebrated the feast of Ss. Cyril and Methodius (Feb. 14). These 9th century saints were biological brothers and also brothers in their respective monastic communities. The two great missionaries had a profound influence on bringing Christianity to what is now Eastern Europe, and so they are often called the “Apostles to the Slavs.” They were born in Greece and very well educated – one was even a philosophy professor. One became a bishop (that’s why the image here has one dressed in episcopal garb and the other in his monastic robes). One died young but the other continued his missionary work until old age. Although they both had a deep love of prayer and quiet contemplation – hence their desire to live as monks – they were tireless in their efforts to go out and make disciples of Christ. They did not save their great learning for work in a library, but used it to reach the common man.
One of their great accomplishments was to translate the Bible into the Slavic languages. They even invented the alphabet that became the forerunner to the modern Russian one so they could teach people to read it! One of their greatest innovations was to celebrate the divine liturgy (the Mass) in the local languages of the Slavic people rather than in Latin.
Back in their day, this was considered radical so they encountered fierce opposition from many of the officials in the Germanic empire in which they worked. One of them was even put in prison for his efforts! This is just one of countless examples of how much of the work of the saints was not appreciated in their own time – and often even meant persecution.
Early in the month (February 3) we celebrated the feast of St. Blaise. He was an ancient martyr whose story has mostly been lost to history. However, over time, a great devotion arose to pray through his intercession for healing, because he was known to have been given the gift of healing in the name of Christ. The ancient custom of blessing throats through his intercession on his feast day possibly grew out of a legend that his prayer saved a boy from choking to death on a fishbone, when no one else could save him.
We celebrated the feast of St. Scholastica on February 10th (5th and 6th century). The only parish I ever knew named after her was the neighboring parish to the one where I grew up as a boy in Detroit. That’s because it was staffed by Benedictine monks. St. Scholastica (whose name means “learned lady”) was the twin sister of St. Benedict, who is often credited with being the father of monasticism – the first saint to establish monasteries in their current form. Monasteries (or convents) are the homes for monks – men or women who wanted to devote their lives to prayer and work, separated from most worldly pursuits. Monks and nuns lived by a strict rule of life and discipline designed to enable them to grow in holiness and communion with God.
The most famous story of St. Scholastica revolves around that monastic rule. She was a nun in a convent neighboring the monastery of her brother Benedict. In traditional monastic life, according to the rule of St. Benedict, monks and nuns would take a vow of stability so that they would not leave their monastery except on the rarest of occasions. After an annual visit to his sister, then, Benedict wanted to return home for the night but Scholastica wanted him to stay. When he refused, she prayed to the Lord that they could continue their spiritual conversation, and a terrible storm came up that was so severe, that he could not travel. Apparently, the Lord knew that this time with his sister was more important than following his rule to the letter. As always, the Lord’s timing was perfect, because Scholastica died three days later. Benedict could see his sister’s convent from the window in his cell (the room of his monastery). He saw what looked like a dove flying up to heaven at the time of her death. He had her buried in his own grave at the monastery, so that when he later died, he and his sister could rest in peace together as they rested in the Lord in life.
Fast forward almost 500 years and we find another Benedictine monk saint who followed in the footsteps of the Father of Monasticism: Peter Damian. He suffered both grave personal hardships in his life and lived in a time of deep corruption and confusion in the Church, so he did not have an easy time of it. Orphaned as a very young boy, one of his brothers treated him abusively, almost as a slave, until he was rescued by another brother. He was a great scholar and was eventually named bishop and cardinal. Later, he was recognized as a “doctor of the Church” (a title reserved for her greatest teachers). He taught the Church to be devoted to the passion and suffering of Jesus Christ. He was fearless in his willingness to challenge those who were harming the Church in any way. For instance, he opposed those who were falsely claiming to be pope to gain the temporal power pontiffs then had. He persuaded the king of Germany not to divorce his wife. And he was not afraid to wade into the controversies of his time and challenge corruption head on. For example, when clergy gave in to immoral acts including homosexuality, he named names and demanded that they return to their vows.
Ss. Cyril, Methodius, Scholastica, and Peter Damian, pray for us!