When considering saints who are regarded as ‘hidden’ the first one who may come to mind is St. Joseph. He is one of the most important saints, but in reality little is known of him. There are literally scores of other seemingly hidden saints, who were indeed holy in their own right, but who have been obscured by lack of historical information about them. Their vagueness seems to be due to either the passage of time or the strange stories which abounded about them which contributed to making their lives seem less pertinent to modern people. Whatever the reasons, it is generally the case that unless we stumble across their stories, we may not even know these saints existed in the first place. But when we do become aware of them, we have to accept that all we can ever know is that at some point in time they were important to a particular community, a great blessing to many, making enough impact that they were considered holy. Such it is with St. Nathalan of Aberdeen, Scotland, sometimes called St. Nauchlan. This man is so obscure that even his name seems to be unclear, something which is probably more about translation than it is about accurate details. But one thing is sure: St. Nathalan was real, was indeed holy, and after many centuries is still affecting people today, even if only in a small way. This is because holiness is never ‘outdated,’ and no matter when someone lived, and no matter how little we know about the details of their lives, holiness is always pertinent.
Having never heard of him before, St. Nathalan came to my attention during recent travel. We happened to be in the small town of Ballater in the Scottish Highlands and wanted to find a church where we could attend Sunday Mass; enter St. Nathalan Roman Catholic Church. Given the small size of the church building, it was fairly obvious that we were visitors. However, the welcome was sincerely warm, both from the pastor and from the parishioners who were gathering there. The liturgy was reverent, prayerful, and definitely intimate; in fact, it was an outstanding experience of humble, heartfelt worship. After Mass I asked the pastor about St. Nathalan and he said with a chuckle that he really did not know much about him. In his defense, I can now see why he may not have known much: no one really does. The ensuing search for the story of St. Nathalan, with reflection upon the importance of knowing who he may have been, led to some insights about the impact holiness has upon a community, especially when the people need help. The first insight is that quite often the needed help comes from the grassroots, from a ‘local’ who rises to the occasion for love of God and His people. Second is that God’s call to holiness is meant for everyone. In other words, though our own times seem rather desperate and fraught with growing dangers both within the church and without, there are holy ones ‘out there’ who are working to bring the Gospel into the light. But perhaps - (with apologies to Walt Kelly and his Pogo comic strip) - “he is us!” * Without a doubt, we need to accept that we might be the one God is calling to make a difference. And finally, it is helpful to know who Nathalan was because he can act as an inspiration toward our own response to God’s call.
Briefly, St. Nathalan lived during the 7th century, born to a noble family in Tullich, Aberdeenshire. We do not know exactly when he was born, but he died around 678 A.D.; his feast is celebrated on January 28. He was known to have been pious from his youth, and was no stranger to manual labor in the fields. He was generous with the corn he grew, giving what he had to the poor. However, legend has it that one day Nathalan said something which he immediately deemed offensive to God, and in order to show his sorrow, took on as a self-inflicted penance a walking pilgrimage to Rome with one arm bound by a chain, locked to one of his legs. It is said that he threw the key to the lock into the River Dee, (which runs through Ballater, by the way.) When Nathalan hobbled into Rome he bought a fish to eat from the market, and yes, the key to the lock was found inside the fish, at which point he felt like God had released him from his penance. Nathalan was eventually made a bishop, no doubt because his reputation for piety and generosity was made known to the pope. He returned to Scotland and led the people, built many churches, had many miracles attributed to him, and died as a figure beloved to the people of Aberdeenshire and Deeside.
While some of that seems far-fetched, it is important to realize that legends about the saints do not take away from the truth which inspires them. It is easy for us to dismiss these stories with a roll of our eyes, and in the process dismiss the saint along with the story. But instead of getting caught up in the details, it is important that we read between the lines, looking more deeply at the truths about the saint hidden within. The stories are not meant to turn these people into magical, and thus unbelievable, figures; rather, they are exaggerations, representing the holiness of the saint as experienced by the people. Exaggeration and hyperbole have always been part of our spiritual heritage. It was a technique employed in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Jewish people were well acquainted with this technique, as were the first Christians. For example, when Jesus said that “if our right hand leads us to sin we should cut it off,” (Matthew 5:30) He was not advocating self-mutilation; He did not mean that because we are imperfect only one-handed people would enter the Kingdom! What He meant was to identify and then cut out all of the behaviors which lead us into sin and away from God. When teaching, as Jesus was doing in the example, exaggeration can drive home a point. Therefore we should not be surprised when we come across ancient stories about the holy ones that contain hard to believe events or situations. What we need to do is reflect upon the symbols used and try to find the truth contained within it. As applied to St. Nathalan, it seems that he was a man of piety who engaged in some self-discipline which inspired others to emulate him. Perhaps he ‘chained up’ some bad habits with which he struggled, or set an example by living simply because he gave so much away. Whatever it was, the people acclaimed him as holy, and since there was no formal procedure for canonization at that time, it would explain why so little detail remains about the lives of so many holy, yet obscure saints. **
In that light, we should strive for holiness quietly and without self-aggrandizement. Our acts of mercy and working for justice should lead to humility; true acts of charity are not stoked by ego or about self. What we do is for others, and ultimately all our works, are our response of love to God. Thus, our focus is never upon ourselves, and simultaneously, is never off Him. If we aspire to be true disciples, and if our desire for holiness is not for acclaim, but that “He must increase and I must decrease”, if we seek only to glorify God that we might bring His love to others to alleviate suffering and be present to those in need, if we hunger to bring His light into the darkness: the best way to do it is quietly, recognizing that it is simply not about us. And if what we do does attract attention, as it did for saints like Nathalan, then we are to pray for the humility to keep steady in our work without letting the attention become a temptation away from God and into the arena of self. To help the church heal from some of the wounds within it, to help bring change both into our church and to the world, or to attract people to the Lord, is to do so with authenticity and true devotion. It is our example which will speak to others.
So let us respond to the Holy Spirit as did St. Nathalan, serving the Lord with gladness and glorifying Him with our lives. If we fall into obscurity after our lives are over, so be it; what matters is that the world is left a better place for our having been in it. Anyhow, in God’s eyes not a single one of us is ever obscure. He has every hair of our heads counted, and His love for us never wavers. Therefore, we can thank and praise Him for the holy ones like St. Nathalan who continue to inspire us despite how little we know of them. They remind us that in every era and culture, holiness is always pertinent.
May we find inspiration in the lives of the hidden saints such as St. Nathalan and may we continue to turn to them, asking their intercession! May the holy ones from every era, nation, and culture assist us in our efforts to bring healing and hope to the poor, lost, and wounded among us! May we seek to learn more about the saints of past times, applying what we learn to our lives as imitators of Christ! May we seek to make God known and loved through our works in order to glorify Him, avoiding the temptation for self-glorification! May we continually turn to the Holy Spirit to lead us closer to God in our desire to grow in love for Him! And may we never cease to desire to grow into holiness, according to the call we have received from God! Let us continue to meet in the Sacred Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post will be July 1.
* This reference is to a famous comic strip which was written by the cartoonist Walt Kelly for Earth Day 1971 in which the main character, Pogo, was lamenting pollution in a forest. You can view the comic at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip)#/media/File:Pogo_-_Earth_Day_1971_poster.jpg
More can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip)
** Considering our 2000+ years as a Church, canonization as we know it began rather recently in Church history: the process which is not the same as, but similar to the one used today, began in the 16th century, more or less. In the early ages of the Church, saints were declared mostly due to local acclaim because the people who knew them had the best sense of these men and women. Often a local bishop would approve of it, but eventually the Pope was deemed the proper spiritual authority to grant approval. As the Church grew and more candidates for canonization grew, the Church realized a need to regulate canonization, with accurate evidence of holiness, and so it became a more elaborate process.
More on Saint Nathalan: http://catholicsaints.info/blessed-nathalan-of-aberdeen/
1. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, attributed to Blessed Fra Angelico, 1423-24): I chose to begin with this since there are myriads of Blesseds and Saints who are both known and unknown, therefore it seemed appropriate to begin with a depiction of the cloud of witnesses, as described in Hebrews 12:1. You can learn a bit more at https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/probably-by-fra-angelico-the-forerunners-of-christ-with-saints-and-martyrs
2. Statue of St. Nathalan which is on the church in Ballater: This is not one of my photos. I never actually saw this when we were at St. Nathalan in Ballater because it was raining and so we could not really spend time looking at the exterior of the building, but now I wish I had. However, this photo is a good depiction of him, given that there are no paintings that would be accurate likenesses, anyhow.
3. The Island of Mull, my photo: I chose this photo because this is typical in much of Scotland. The scene is humble, beautiful, and peaceful, a reminder of what life may have been like during the time of St. Nathalan.
4. Another of my photos, the Dee River near Ballater: We were hiking in the area and came across this spot on the river. It seemed appropriate to the story of Nathalan throwing the key in the Dee and miraculously finding it in the fish he bought in Rome, as explained above.
5. Bluebell Wood, painted by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson: This is exactly how we experienced the ubiquitous bluebells all over Scotland, including some of the islands. They are humble little flowers, yet their presence changes everything around them. We should emulate them!
6. Icon, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: This seemed quite appropriate for the end of the post because Mary was the most humble of saints, even as Mother of God. She always points people to Jesus and was content to pray in intercession for Him throughout His ministry, and continues to intercede for us today. Jesus gave her to us as Mother of the Church when He was on the cross, and it was she who was at the center of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. She is an excellent example of the humility which we should strive for. For more go to: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-blessed-virgin-mary-mother-of-the-church-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Having recently traveled to places in which sheep are more populous than people, it is no wonder that it led to reflection upon images of sheep in the Scriptures. This progressed to thoughts of Jesus as the Lamb of God, an oft-made reference to Him in our worship, and what that title means both in terms of His identity and in understanding our relationship with Him. The term ‘Lamb of God’ can be said to derive from a description of Jesus by John, the author of the Book of Revelation. (Rev 5) It was meant as a symbolic way to describe the Risen Christ: He is the Paschal Lamb, the One slain to save us from sin and death. But the term actually originates with a different John, namely St. John the Baptist. When the Baptist pointed to Jesus, referring to Him as the Lamb of God, one who “takes away the sin of the world,” he was inaugurating the ministry for which Jesus came, (John 1:29-34), whereas in Revelation, the author is recognizing its fulfillment. In both cases it is abundantly clear that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that there is no other. It is interesting to note, however, that during His life Jesus never referred to Himself as a lamb, but rather, referred to His people as such; we are the sheep He came to tend and Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads the people of His flock lovingly and with great care. (John 10) Therefore, as I viewed so many sheep in the fields during our travels, it became clearer that as His followers (according to Jesus’ own description), all of us are lambs of God. We are not lambs in the same way Jesus is The Lamb, but nonetheless we are lambs of God, a realization which is actually rather comforting.
The thought that we are lambs of God is natural considering that the Scriptures are full of passages likening the people to sheep lovingly shepherded by God. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Psalm 23 which begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” There are also numerous examples in the writings of the prophets. Most notable is this one from Isaiah: “Like a shepherd He feeds his flock; in His arms He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 41:11) And also a familiar, though long, passage is found in Ezekiel 34 in which the prophet warns the people to be careful not to fall into the clutches of false shepherds, but that in remaining close to God they will find safety: “I myself will pasture my sheep …” and then, “You, my sheep, you are the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.” (Ez. 34:15; 31). The sheer number of references such as these indicates that being our Shepherd is a role God delights in.
It makes sense, then, that Jesus would continue to use this image, expressing the concept clearly and at length when He says that He is the Good Shepherd. (John 10) While this particular passage describes His relationship with us beautifully, in John's Gospel Jesus also reveals that He is both One with the Father and the Spirit, and that He shares our human nature, like us in all things except sin. This is the mystery contained in His role as Lamb of God. As if to drive it home, at the end of John’s Gospel our relationship with Jesus as Good Shepherd is emphasized in His last encounter with Peter before His ascension. As He entrusted leadership of the Church to Peter, He made sure Peter understood that he was to act as shepherd in Jesus’ stead by tending His sheep. Jesus said this to Peter three times until Peter truly got the message that he needed to love the way Jesus does in order to step into His shoes, so to speak. Thus, our leaders are meant to be shepherds, acting as Christ would act and that is how we ought to pray for them.
We often characterize sheep as stupid animals, and while there is some truth to this, it would be a mistake to simply stay with that one description, and worse still, to attempt to apply it to ourselves. Rather, the image of God’s people as sheep refers more to passivity and trust. If one observes sheep even for a little while, it becomes obvious that they submit to the instructions of the shepherd because they trust His care. Sheep also do a lot of eating, and while that might sound like a silly comment, it does suggest that we are wise to apply the concept of eating to reflection upon the teachings offered by God as given through the promptings of the Holy Spirit; chewing on the Word, particularly the Gospels, is how we grow in holiness. And it almost goes without saying that we consume the very Body and Blood of Jesus, a type of eating which we should do regularly and to which we have access daily. Yes, God intends for us to do a lot of eating!
Perhaps this year as we celebrate the Feasts of the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost we can reflect upon these events by pondering how the Holy Spirit – (described by Jesus as our Advocate) – acts as a Shepherd, and how we are the sheep of His flock. As lambs of God, we must not forget to call upon the Holy Spirit regularly. Therefore, it is a good idea to ‘chew on’ what it means to live as lambs of God in light of the action of the Spirit. First we might consider that as His people we are one flock, not many, though the flock is diverse. This diversity should be regarded as a gift; our flock consists of many different peoples, cultures, nationalities, generational groups, economic systems and the like. In this regard, we are really no different than the group gathered on the day of Pentecost as described in the Acts of the Apostles. They were “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs….” (AA 1:9-11) and yet each one heard the message of the apostles clearly in their own language. This conveys the same meaning today: the message of God is not meant to be obscure nor is it meant for only a few, but is meant for everyone to hear clearly and openly. God wants us to know that all of His lambs are loved, that all have been offered salvation, and that the same Holy Spirit will guide us as one people, one flock, if we will listen and accept the guidance.
As lambs of God, we are wise to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, to learn to hear His shepherd’s voice in the Scriptures, through our prayer, and through the events of our lives. This requires that we listen intently, and most especially, that we also learn to listen to one another with respect and love, always regarding what leads us closer to God and avoiding that which moves us away. The Shepherd desires that we lead others to Him, too, and so our example as the lambs in His flock is imperative in order to help others come to know His love also. Our example and our words are how we evangelize, thus acting as the apostles did on that first Pentecost, something we can do with the same enthusiasm and joy given by the same Spirit. Our loving response, our works of mercy, our attempts at working for justice, our desire to live courageously in a world increasingly contemptuous toward Christian living, and our desire to grow in holiness, are all dependent on the aid of the Holy Spirit who continues to guide us until the day when Jesus, the Lamb of God, returns to bring all of His people into the Kingdom eternally.
Therefore, let us reflect upon our role as lambs of God, accepting that we are not perfect, that the world can be dangerous, and as a result we are always in need of the Shepherd to guide us. Our prayer aided by His grace can empower us to embrace one another as fellow members of one flock, working together as the Shepherd intends. We do not want to be like the lambs that wander off and get lost, meandering without finding the comfort, guidance, and love only He can offer. But if we do embrace our place as lambs of God, we will find great freedom and the security of knowing that no matter what happens, no matter what the challenges or how greatly we might suffer along the way, we are never far from the Shepherd who is at our side and who will lead us home.
May we embrace our status as lambs of God, rejoicing that we belong to so loving a Shepherd! May we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives anew! May we learn to discern by listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd and then following His prompting! May we trust that God, our true Shepherd, always has our best interests in mind! May our example lead others to identify themselves as lambs of God, offering their lives to the care of the Shepherd! And at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, may the Lamb of God bring us home with Him in the joy and peace which only He can give! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post June 17.
1. I took this photo of the original painting, Saint John the Baptist, by the Dutch painter Hendrick Bloemaert (1624), while traveling to Scotland recently. The painting hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, a marvelous place in which one can spend a lot of time. This work served as the inspiration for this entry, so it was fitting to begin with it. Not only do I love the youthful portrayal of John, but it shows him pointing to the Lamb of God, who is shown to be Jesus by the rough stick cross he is holding with the Lamb.
2. One of my photos: Hebradean lambs with their mothers. If you look closely at the top right corner, you will notice one of the lambs is drinking from its mother's milk. The lambing season had just ended when we were in Scotland and so lambs were abounding everywhere, (and literally a-bounding, as they are quite playful). Seeing lambs, ewes, and rams everywhere was the secondary inspiration for this entry.
3. The icon El Buen Pastor, written by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I have prayed often with a small copy of this icon, so it is a favorite. It seemed perfect for this spot in the entry because it shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd accompanied by one of His sheep, knocking on the door as an invitation to whoever is within to become one of His flock. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/el-buen-pastor-188-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Farmhouse at Nuenen, by Vincent van Gogh (1885). This work is from an earlier period in the development of the distinctive style we identify with the last few years of van Gogh's life. You will notice that there are no sheep in the painting. In fact, the woman seems to be petting her cow, and there is a chicken nearby, but nothing even resembling a sheep. But this painting actually connects to the one which follows: it shows the trust of the cow for its caretaker and it points out that not all are the same in the flock. Our flock is made up of a diverse group, all dependent upon the Shepherd with whom we have a relationship of love. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/6-farmhouse-in-nuenen-vincent-van-gogh.html
5. Day of Pentecost, by Rebecca Brogan. First of all, I loved this painting the moment I stumbled upon it while searching for a Pentecost image. But what truly sold me was that in trying to track down the painter, the link which I found was jtbarts.com. I came to discover that it was an acronym for "John The Baptist Artworks." If that did not give me a sense of confirmation, nothing will! I do love how the Holy Spirit works. Check out Brogan's works at https://jtbarts.com/
6. Another of my photos: Gorse bush with its bright flowers. Gorse are all over Scotland and seem to blanket the hillsides, creating a blaze of yellow. It is just fantastic to see this color everywhere; it speaks to me of joy....perhaps the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
7. This is one of my photos: a couple of wee lambs, as the Scots might say. These little guys were alternating between eating and running, playful as they could be. They seemed appropriate to finish out this entry, as they are a reminder that we grow into spiritual adulthood, but we should remain child-like in our trust in the Shepherd and never lose sight of the joy of being a member of the flock of the Lord.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart