COLUMN: Listening to a saint and his deer

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I’m not that religious of a person but I have an attraction to the lives of saints. I guess that’s a Catholic practice but for me reading about the lives of courageous people who fought and struggled for their faith goes beyond denomination.

There’s plenty the saints can teach us – about overcoming hardships, holding fast to faith in trying times and refusing to sacrifice what we judge most dear, even when it’s hard.

I’ve been reading about the lives of saints the last few months through my share of difficulties; a parent battling cancer, a friendship or two in tatters and a battle with a mini midlife crisis that’s had me questioning what’s most important in life and juggling everything from family and friends to faith and the joys and pitfalls of work.

Nov. 3 was the feast day of St. Hubert and there are plenty of people with that last name who should learn about the patron saint popular in Belgium and France.

St. Hubert is pictured as a hunter standing next to a stag, basically a deer. The deer has a cross or crucifix between its antlers.

Growing up, I used to go to Mass at St. Augustine Church every Christmas Eve and I used to stare at the large statue of St. Hubert perched on the wall. I wondered why he was standing next to a deer and why the animal had a cross growing from his head.

According to the saint’s biography, Hubert was born the son of a duke and was sent as a youth to a mayor’s palace, where his suave nature and apparent good looks led to popularity and status. Hubert enjoyed life and a myriad of fun pursuits, among them hunting. But life, as it often does, gave Hubert a dose of hardship. His wife died during childbirth and Hubert, in an effort to escape grief, withdrew into a forest and did little except hunt.

According to the story, it was on Good Friday morning, when others were in church, that Hubert set out with his bow in pursuit of a trophy deer. Finding it, the animal turned and before Hubert could get of a shot, he saw a crucifix between its antlers.

With the surprising vision came an ominous message that no doubt sank deep into his soul.

“Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.”

Hubert dismounted from his horse, prostrated himself asked what God wanted of him. Hubert went off and found religious guidance from a man named Lambert. Hubert later became a bishop and was proclaimed a saint.

Images of Hubert abound in Belgium and parts of France and the story of the deer led him to become a patron saint of hunters.

I think of the story whenever I see the statue and wonder if God finds times in our life, sometimes the most difficult of ones, to call us to amend our conduct, to do penance for our wrongdoing and set off on a fresh course, or perhaps to renew a path we’d ventured off of.

This Friday is the feast day of another of my favorite saints, Catherine of Alexandria.

According to the traditional story, Catherine was the daughter of a pagan governor of the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Converted to Christianity as a teenager, she reportedly tried to convince the Roman emperor of her day, Maximinus Daia, that it was wrong for him to persecute Christians.

The emperor would not listen but Catherine found success in converting the emperor’s wife and a good number of pagan philosophers. Unable to convince Catherine to denounce her beliefs, the emperor imprisoned Catherine and eventually had her condemned to death. Sentenced to be tortured on a wheel, she reportedly touched the instrument of her death and broke it. She was then beheaded.

Catherine and Hubert were among the saints whose intercession was most often sought in the Middle Ages and Catherine reportedly appeared to another woman, a young Joan of Arc, setting her off on the path to saintdom and fame. Of course, Joan was burned at the stake, too.

As with the story of many of saints, it’s unclear how much of the stories of Hubert and Catherine are true and how much is pious legend. Nevertheless, the message to us can be one of faith. What in our life needs changed? What do we need to rid ourselves of? What do we fear and why?

In my case, the stories of the saints inspire and bolster my personal faith. They remind me of the need for change and forgiveness, both asking for it and granting it to others.

Efforts to amend my life are under way, as they should be with all of us.