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 This is because holiness is never ‘outdated,’ and no matter when someone lived, and no matter how little we know about the details of their lives, holiness is always pertinent.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
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Heart Speaks to Heart