January 24 – Xenia of Petersburg; Francis de Sales

Icon of Xenia of Petersburg. Date and iconographer unknownXenia of Petersburg, Fool for Christ* (ca. 1731–1803) is one of the most famous and popular saints of Russia. Xenia married a dashing army officer (and an Orthodox reader), and when he died suddenly and young, she was distraught. Fearing he might have unconfessed sins, she put on his clothes, called herself by his name, and went about doing good deeds. This fooled 10% of the most severely nearsighted people in town, until she opened her mouth. But she was so kind, nobody cared. Except her husband’s family, who tried to get her declared incompetent on the grounds that selling all you have and giving it to the poor is crazy (hence the “Fool for Christ” appellation). Clearly they hadn’t read all the saints’ lives on the Onion Dome. Or maybe they had. I suppose actually they thought she was a “nutjob” for Christ, but that’s not a Russian word and hadn’t been invented yet, anyway.

She spent her days wandering the streets with the homeless, and her nights praying at the Smolensk cemetery. (I’m assuming she slept crepuscularly.) Before long, workers building a church in the cemetery would come to the building in the morning to find hundreds of bricks already atop the scaffolding. Knowing that the rats in that part of Petersburg, although large, were incapable of such a feat, two of them (workers, not rats) lay in wait one night to spy on the site. Crazy, huh? You’ll never guess who was moving the bricks up the ladder. Go on. Guess.

One day it is said she walked through the streets calling, “Blini! Blini tomorrow! All of Russia will bake blini tomorrow!” Blini were (are?) associated with funerals and mourning, and sure enough, the next day Empress Catherine II died, and all Russia mourned (except the people who didn’t like her) and baked blini (except the people who didn’t like them). Her prayers are invoked by those needing jobs or spouses (or a spouse with a job), those who fear or suffer loss by fire, and those who misplace their kids[1]. She was officially recognized as a saint in 1988.

Painting of Francis de Sales by Giovanni Battista Lucini, 1665.Francis de Sales (1567–1622) was born into a noble family and sent to all the best schools. He had an existential crisis one day arising from a discussion about theology (back when people actually cared enough about theology that they could get existential crises from it[2]). The crisis ended when he prayed to the Virgin Mary at the Church of St. Étienne de Grès in Paris (fifth arrondissement‎). In short order he became a tertiary* of the Minim Order (friars measuring 1/60th of a dram).

He obtained a double PhD in law and religion from Padua, and his father had already lined up a position and a wealthy heiress for him, but he became a priest instead, and ultimately (after a passage of time) the Bishop of Geneva. At the time Geneva had been taken over by Calvinists in much the same way that Haight-Ashbury was taken over by hippies in 1967, and the see was in exile in Savoy (where pigs do amazing things). He evangelized among the Protestants, and obtained a reputation as a spellbinding preacher (in my experience an oxymoron but, hey, he was a saint), as a friend of the poor, as a mystic, and as “something of” an ascetic. (One struggles to guess what the latter means. Wore hairshirts on Wednesdays and Fridays? Carried one link of a heavy chain? Ate water and bread, but with butter?) He died of a stroke while visiting Lyon in the entourage of the Duke of Savoy.

A ton of schools are named after him as well as an atoll in the Seychelles (how cool is that?), and he is the patron of confessors, deaf people, any number of dioceses, and Champdepraz, Italy (q.v.). He also wrote a number of books, treatises, and letters, primarily on spiritual formation, most famously the Introduction to the Devout Life. (Whose devout life, I could not discover.) He is thus quite reasonably also the patron of authors, educators, journalists, teachers, writers, and the Catholic press, all of whom by all accounts could certainly use a good patron saint.

[1] “Honey, I misplaced the kids.” “Have you looked under the sofa cushions?”
[2] I mean normal people, not seminarians.