A Fishbone Athwart My Throat

Through the intercession of Saint Blase, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness.

The blessing of throats on today’s Feast of St Blase is, like me, a revert to Catholicism, a childhood custom now wandering back into the Church after a time away. And am I ever delighted. The tradition of having throats blessed by touching them with two candles (themselves blessed yesterday, on Candlemas) joined to form a cross is one of my earliest memories of Catholic piety, met with mingled hope and fear. The hope stemmed from my trust that the intercession of St Blase would curtail my frequently recurring bouts of tonsillitis and strep, the fear from an early and unexplained fire phobia (I thought, at first, that those candles poised beneath my pigtails were going to be LIT). And though my throat troubles weren’t banished until I underwent a tonsillectomy at the age of 22, by which time the throat blessing custom had passed into quaint disuse, I had fond memories of the sensory delights of the blessing–the cool touch and warm scent of beeswax, the whispered prayer for deliverance from all that ailed me.

St Blase (I’ll use the official spelling, even though Blaise is much more common–to the disgust of my friends Brian and Donna who can’t manage to convince anyone that their son is not named the French word for bored) was an Armenian physician, bishop, and martyr who got his reputation for laryngology by removing a fishbone stuck in the throat of a choking child. As miracles go, not such a big deal–not nearly as impressive, for example, as Blase’s other specialty, miraculously healing the wild animals who surrounded the cave to which he had retreated when the contention between a countercultural faith and a repressive state had gotten too hot to handle. Found there by hunters, Blase eventually returned to his see and was martyred by being torn asunder with iron wool-carding combs (he gets heavenly patronage of wool-growers for that, in the supremely ironic way these things are assigned).

It’s the saintly Heimlich for which Blase is remembered, though. The Golden Legend, that medieval treasure trove of let’s-just-make-this-stuff-up hagiography, describes the scene charmingly:

There was a woman that had a son dying, in whose throat was the bone of a fish athwart, which estrangled him, and she brought him tofore his feet, praying that he would make her son whole.

The Golden Legend also numbers Blase among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a collection of colorful heroes (including Sts Christopher, Barbara, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, Denis of Paris, and others) invoked for assistance against the Black Plague, a couple of whom famously served as Jeanne D’Arc’s heavenly recruiting officers.

But my delight in the resurgence of Blase is not rooted in nostalgia and legend alone. Today I am wrestling with a bone of a fish athwart my own throat, estrangling me. It’s the inability, cough and gag as I may, to find a way to speak to any side of the church-state ruckus that has erupted this week, with the announcement of the Susan G Komen Foundation’s intention to stop providing grants to Planned Parenthood [Ed Note: Five minutes after I posted this, SGK announced they were reversing their decision and continuing PP funding, which changes only my support, not the issue], following hard on the heels of a Catholic challenge to the HHS mandate to provide free contraceptive services as part of preventive health coverage. As Max Lindenman points out, the shaky consensus that seemed to have been forming on the latter issue is temporary and artificial at best and most likely illusory; there’s not even a hint of it on the former issue. The “sides” on these questions, which are perfect storms of my already-conflicted hot buttons of Catholicism and sexuality and women’s issues and politics, are each so monolithic and exclusive of the other that this week has been, for me, like living the trash compactor scene in Star Wars. The walls are closing in on the little band of us here in the middle, knee-deep in garbage. I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Chewy.

The bone athwart my throat is faith. The faith I have wandered back to and have to take seriously (or why wander back at all?) requires me to make choices rooted in an informed conscience and live those choices in a divided and divisive public arena–even when, like St Blase and in the words of Walt Whitman, 

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained;

I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied–not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago . . . 

But I live among humans, and love them, and hate not being able to talk to them. What estrangles me is not being able to say that I support the move to provide a conscience exemption to the HHS mandate without being heard to say that I hope to repeal Obamacare and want poor women, all women to be kept barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen. It’s not being able to say that I had supported the Komen decision to defund Planned Parenthood [Ed. Note: Since rescinded] without being heard to say that I want poor women to die of breast cancer. It’s not being able to say that I love being a Catholic without being heard to say that I think women are lesser creatures, sex is an abomination, and LGBTQ folks should be interned in reeducation camps.
On the other hand, it’s not being able to say that I’m a Democrat and will always be a Democrat without being heard to say I’m a godless babykiller. It’s not being able to say that I think social justice is a central part of the Gospel (Jesus talked a whole lot more about the mandate to serve the needs of the least among us than he did about any of the other things we call Christian values) without being heard to say that I’m a bleeding heart socialist who hates rich people. It’s not being able to say that I think sexuality is a much broader, deeper, wider, holier gift than the Church narrowly defines it without being heard to say I’m a pro-abort Catholic In Name Only.
Here’s what I can cough out around the fishbone. My friends, I think there has to be a way to be a liberal Catholic, and it has to involve more than simply ignoring everything the Church teaches. I think we can disagree and not have to unfriend one another on Facebook or impugn one another’s doctrinal orthodoxy and/or commitment to liberal social principles. But that can’t happen unless we find a way to stop the walls from closing in, and find a space in the middle to examine in candor and humility not just the other side’s position, but our own.
For that very great miracle, I’m petitioning the other saint whose feast is celebrated today. Ansgar, the Apostle of the North, was a German Benedictine bishop who persisted, against all odds and very real danger, in bringing together the Christians and the pagans of Scandinavia. He did it using only a gift for calm, reasoned, compassionate conversation. As Charles H. Robinson says in his Introduction the The Life of Anskar,

Ansgar lived in an age when small regard was paid to conscientious objectors, whether in the sphere of religion, or politics, but unlike other notable missionaries of later date such as . . . Francis Xavier in India, he made no attempt to invoke the aid of the civil power in order to overcome opposition to his teaching or even to protect his own life. . . . His attitude in regard to the use of force corresponded rather with that of Raymond Lull, who wrote: “They think they can conquer by force of arms: it seems to me that the victory can be won in no other way than as thou, O Lord Christ, did seek to win it, by love and prayer and self-sacrifice.”

Ansgar, like Blase, was a miraculous healer, and here too he used only his ability to speak words of comfort and consolation. As I struggle with the fishbone in my throat, I remember that even in the Hindu wellness system the throat chakra, or energy center, is blocked when the truth becomes impossible to speak. And my prayer today is for Blase to deliver us all from that estranglement, so that, like Ansgar, we may bring healing with the right words.

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