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January-February 2015

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The Power and Sacrifice of the Weather Saints

Weather and religion have long been closely linked. Many of the miracles and wonders associated with the world's great religions have their roots in unusual and often bizarre weather. This is seen in the incredible and sometimes deadly sacrifices that people have made for their faith. In particular, because the Christian faith of Catholicism has been in existence for such a long time, a very large number of spectacular men and women have lived—and died—in sacrifice for their church. Through the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, these exemplary people have been accorded a high status, and indeed, many Catholics through the history of their church have venerated these particular men and women who lived lives of extraordinary virtue. These people, who are termed “saints,” are often heroic examples of moral virtues—sacrifice, kindness, and forgiveness—as well as theological virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. And many of these saints are irrevocably linked to weather.

Originally the veneration of saints was simply done by the members of their local church or the Christians in the region where they lived, who were familiar with the given saint's good deeds. Over time, the Catholic Church formalized the practice through a process called “canonization,” by which such admirable people could be recognized as saints by all Catholics. For example, many are familiar with the modern Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in the later twentieth century and who is in the process of full canonization as a saint by the Catholic Church.

One of the requirements for modern canonization is the formal proof of miracles performed by or in the name of the possible saint after his or her death. However, early saints in the Catholic Church were accepted for canonization without this proof. Many of these early saints were particularly venerated on the basis of their steadfast devotion to their faith—and the manner of their death. Often their sometimes gruesome demise led to these saints' close linkage—or patronage—to a particular aspect of nature, such as drought, storms, hail, or lightning. One might refer to these particular sanctified individuals as the “weather saints.”

Saint Barbara: A Dark Ages Version of “Janie's Got a Gun”?

Barbara Dioscorus, or Saint Barbara, is probably the best known of the “weather saints.” She is frequently invoked as the patron saint against lightning, thunderstorms, and fire, and consequently by analogy, is also the Catholic protector of artillerymen and miners. How did she get such notoriety with regard to weather? Interestingly, legend states it was actually nothing that she accomplished during her brief life; instead her weather fame arose due to how her tragically short life was avenged.

Around 300 CE, according to the legend, Barbara was the only child of an important pagan father who lived, some authorities state, in Heliopolis in Egypt or, others say, in Nicomedia in Turkey. Whatever the actual city was, the legends agree that Barbara's father became enraged beyond modern comprehension when his daughter converted to Christianity without his permission. In complete disgust, he handed her over to the local authorities, and she underwent brutal and hideous torture (a common story element of the early saints).

Miraculously, she didn't recant her new faith of Christianity. Finally, frustrated at her stubbornness, the authorities sentenced her to be beheaded—and, incredibly, her own enraged father decided to personally carry out Barbara's death sentence. And here is when weather enters into the story.

Immediately after her decapitation, Jehovah Himself issued His own stern judgment—against the father! A spear of heavenly fire from the skies blasted Barbara's father, and the man fell dead to the ground. The divine instrument of Barbara's vengeance—lightning—sealed his fate, and the heavenly fire at the same time welded Saint Barbara's link to lightning for all of history. In the Greek and present Roman calendars, the feast of Saint Barbara falls on December 4. So meteorologists might want to celebrate December 4 as “lightning day”!

The Stormy Arms of Saint Eurosia

According to tradition, the young princess Dobroslava was born into the family of a duke of Bohemia but orphaned at a very young age. When she was adopted by the succeeding duke, she converted to the Christian faith and took the name “Eurosia,” which is the Greek rendition of her Slavic name and translates as “eloquent.” In 880, Pope John VIII ordered the duke to present his daughter as a possible spouse for the son of the king of Pamplona in Spain, the heir to the throne of Aragon and Navarre.

As the young 16-year-old and her entourage crossed the Pyrenees into Spain, the plan was that she would meet her future husband at the small town of Jaca. However, at this time, war had broken out between the Spanish Christians and the invading Moors from Africa. According to legend, a Moorish captain named Aben Lupo learned of the Pope's plans for Eurosia and decided to disrupt them by stealing the girl for himself.

The Moorish captain led a raiding party into the mountains and attacked the young would-be princess's retinue. Initially, Eurosia's bodyguards managed to fight off the raiders allowing the girl to flee into the mountains. But Lupo and his raiders pursued the young girl and captured her.

Perhaps to prevent Eurosia from escaping again, the Moorish captain then monstrously ordered her hands and feet cut off. And this is where weather enters the story—the armless girl was given divinely powerful fists of lightning.

On her knees without hands or feet, Eurosia called down the fires of heaven, and a lightning bolt struck near the party, terrifying the raiders. Lupo then ordered the girl to be beheaded. But—as with Saint Barbara—just as the order was carried out, a tremendous storm of furious hail, blasting rain, brilliant lightning, deafening thunder, and high winds slashed through the area. A powerful voice echoed out of the storm: “The gift is given to quell the storms, wherever her name is invoked.” Not surprisingly, the Moors fled in terror.

Saint Eurosia's feast day is June 25, and Eurosia has become the patron saint of Jaca. Not surprisingly, Saint Eurosia's name is often invoked against storms, lightning, and hail.

Saint Swithin and His Uncomfortable Re-Burial

Saint Swithin (or as some say, Swithun) led a rather unspectacular life for a saint. Not a bad life, simply not very dramatic: no stoning, no impalement, no draw-and-quartering. The quiet man was born in Wessex, England, was raised in an abbey, and eventually became Bishop of Winchester. His relative lack of importance is demonstrated by the fact that Swithin is hardly mentioned in any major document of his own time. So why has Saint Swithin become such a potent figure in English weather lore, such that his saint's day of July 15 is noted every year across the British Isles?

His linkage to the weather arose oddly enough due to his humble burial request. When Bishop Swithin died in July of 862 CE, he had petitioned to be buried in the churchyard outside of Winchester Cathedral, where “passers by might tread on his grave and where the rain from the eaves might fall on it.” And, following his wishes, he was initially laid to rest just outside the west door of the Old Minster (Winchester Cathedral).

But, to his apparent heavenly displeasure, his body was not to remain at rest.

Bishop Ethelwold deemed it unworthy for such an important religious figure—a full Bishop after all—to be buried outside of the Cathedral when all of Swithin's predecessors had been buried inside the majestic church. Therefore, on July 15, 971 CE, on order of the Bishop, monks dug up Swithin's remains in order to move them in a more elegant shrine in the cathedral. However, Swithin apparently did not approve of the change, for abruptly the weather turned cloudy, then stormy. The ferocious wind and violent rains continued to blow for the next 10, then 20, then 30, and finally 40 full days after the disinterment. Obviously, the storm was a rather spectacular sign of Swithin's displeasure.

This legend of incredible rain led to a folklore tradition (similar to that of Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog's Day in the United States) that persists to this day. The saying across England still today is that if it rains on Saint Swithin's Day (July 15, the day of his re-interment, not his death), it will rain for the next 40 days.

Saint Swithun's day, if thou dost rain, For forty days it will remain; Saint Swithun's day, if thou be fair, For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.

Even by Elizabethan times, the saying was well-known through England. Noted playwright and poet Ben Jonson wrote in Every Man Out of His Humour (1599): “O here, ‘Saint Swithin's, the 15 day, variable weather, for the most part rain,’ good! ‘for the most part rain! Why it should rain 40 days after, now, more or less.’”

Still today, the BBC makes a point in its July 15 weather forecasts to comment on the saint. For example, in 2012, the UK Press Association noted, “Much of the UK is likely to see a mostly dry St Swithin's Day—but that does not mean the weather is set fair for the coming weeks, forecasters warn.”

With such popular interest, noted meteorologist and my good friend Philip Eden, of the Telegraph, wrote a piece a few years ago discussing the amount of truth in the old saying. He found, unfortunately, that for the greater portion of England, the annual prophecy associated with the venerable saint, to use a poor pun, simply didn't hold water. In recent history, only a single year—1985—came close to fulfilling the saying when 30 of the next 40 days after a wet Saint Swithin's Day had rain.

So how and why did the saying grow to such folklore status? Eden said that sayings like this were created at a time when such meteorological knowledge as was commonly known could be passed down from generation to generation in an easily memorable form, at a time when ordinary folk could neither read nor write

But, Eden did note, there is a small grain of truth in the idea of summer persistence in weather starting around July 15. He wrote that near that time each year, the weather around Great Britain often becomes locked into a persistent weather pattern (with the jet stream either pushing storms into the British Isles or diverting storm around them)—a persistent pattern that only changes when autumnal influences begin to appear in late August. And, he concluded, that idea is one with which “modern climatologists would largely agree.”

Saint Scholastica: “Can You Hear Me Now?”

One of the most honored of European saints is Saint Benedict, whose importance lies in his establishment of a set of monasteries across Italy and, more importantly, the creation of such an honorable set of rules for his monks that most religious communities founded throughout the Middle Ages adopted it. But this venerable saint also had an equally knowledgeable and spiritual twin sister named Scholastica.

We learn of Scholastica in the writings of Saint Gregory the Great, who wrote that she was a nun and an able leader in her own right of a convent near Benedict's abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. Saint Gregory said that while Scholastica was incredibly devoted spiritually, she also was apparently committed to maintaining a close family relationship with her brother. Legend has it that she would, once a year, leave her convent to visit her brother at a place near his abbey. For that whole day, they would worship together and discuss sacred texts and issues.

On one of her annual visits, the conversation and prayer proved so stimulating that, when the two broke for dinner with some of Benedict's fellow monks, they continued to talk and discuss spiritual issues even long after dinner was concluded and darkness fell. The hour grew late, but the conversation was so thought-provoking that Scholastica finally pleaded with her twin brother, “I beg you. Do not leave me this night so that we may talk until morning more about the joys of heavenly life.”

But Benedict, the respected leader of an order of monks with some of his brethren present, simply couldn't spend an evening outside of the monastery, let alone with a woman, even if she was his own sister. So he responded, “What are you talking about, my sister? Under no circumstances can I stay outside my cell.”

At these words of refusal, Scholastica quietly folded her hands and put them upon the table. Leaning down over the table, she put her head on her hands in a silent prayer to God and wept.

When she raised her head from the table, outside there broke forth such a powerful thunderstorm blazing with brilliant lightning and thunder and such a flood of rain that neither Benedict nor his monastic brothers could safely venture outside.

Now with this sudden and violent turn of the heavens, Benedict became quite irritated, for it was obvious that he would have to break his monastic vow to be in his cell that night—and it seemed without question that his dear Scholastica was the cause of this calamity. He complained to his sister, “May God have mercy on you, my sister. Why have you done this?”

Scholastica replied softly, “See, I asked you, and you would not listen to me. So I asked my Lord, and he has listened to me. Now then, go, if you can. Leave me, and go back to the monastery.”

But with the fierce storm continuing to rage unrelentingly outside, Benedict was forced to stay—and, according to Saint Gregory the Great, it happened that “they spent the whole night together in vigil, and during their holy conversation about the spiritual life they found fulfillment for themselves in their relationship with one another.”

Scholastica's story then takes a poignant turn. The next day after the divinely called storm, she returned back to her own convent while Benedict went back to his monastery. But three days later, Benedict looked up at the sky and saw the soul of his sister in the form of a dove heading upward to heaven. Realizing that she had passed away, the venerated saint then sent people at once to bring her body back to his monastery and to be put it in a tomb which he had actually prepared for himself. And, as Saint Gregory the Great phrased it, “So it happened that even the tomb could not separate the bodies of these two who were always of one mind in God.”

Saint Scholastica's day is February 10. The revered woman is now considered the patron saint of nuns and convulsive children, and, of course, her name is invoked against storms and rain.

Saint Vitus: Escaping Torture by Divine Storm

Storms are often a critical part of a saint's mystic. As we've seen, the ability to raise or turn a storm is often considered evidence of divine intervention. Such is the case of Saint Vitus, a boy saint who, legend has it, was the only son of a powerful Roman senator from Sicily, Italy, around 300 CE. As the heir of a wealthy and influential Roman patrician, young Vitus was reared and taught by servants. In particular, Vitus's education was primarily the product of two very learned and devout people, his tutor, Modestus, and his nurse, Crescentia, who was also the wife of Modestus.

At the time of the Emperor Diocletian, when legend has it that this story occurred, the servant couple had been converted to the new and upstart religion of Christianity—and had inspired the young boy to do the same. Enraged, Vitus's senator father had them brought before the chief Roman administrator of Sicily, a man named Valerian. The Roman administrator tried to shake the trio of their new faith, but the three escaped the Inquisition-like tactics of Valerian and eventually fled to Rome.

In the capital of the Empire, the trio survived in anonymity until the call was put out for a healer for the young ailing son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. In answer to the call, the young Vitus proved the healing power of his new faith when he was able to draw out an evil demon spirit from the Emperor's stricken son. But the good deed would backfire on the youth and his two companions. When the Roman priests tried to force Vitus to perform a sacrifice in praise of the Roman gods for his miraculous cure of the Emperor's son, the Christian healer refused. And that refusal—apparent confirmation of the rumors that the young Vitus was a sorcerer—led to torture for Vitus and his two companions.

Legend has it (with parallels to the biblical story in Daniel) that Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia were first thrown into the den of a hungry lion, but the beast didn't attack. Instead it merely licked Vitus with playful affection. Next, the trio was thrown into a huge cauldron of molten lead (or perhaps boiling oil). According to legend, when Vitus was tossed into the oil, his tormentors also threw a rooster into the seething oil with him as part of a pagan ritual against sorcery. As a sidelight, that is the reason for a rooster becoming a symbol for Vitus and led to Vitus's subsequent patronage and protection against oversleeping.

So where does weather enter into Vitus's story?

During their last torture (perhaps the burning oil), it is said that an immense storm suddenly developed over the Roman capital. A multitude of lightning strikes speared the city—and, in particular, struck a number of Roman temples! At this point, one version of the legend states, the torturers realized the divine power associated with the three prisoners and freed them. Subsequently, an angel descended from heaven and guided the trio of saints to safety in Lucania in southern Italy.

On the other side of the coin, in Roman writings, since lightning was considered an instrument of divine powers, where lightning struck could be a blessing as well as a curse. For example, in Rome, when a tomb was struck by lightning, that tomb—and its inhabitant—were considered particularly blessed by divine favor. Those tombs upon which such electrifying favor was bestowed include that of Julia, the daughter of Caesar; that of Lycurgus, a Spartan legislator; and the tomb of the poet Euripides. As Plutarch wrote concerning Lycurgus, “It is reported that when his bones were brought home to Sparta, his tomb was [struck by] lightning, an accident which befell no eminent person but himself and Euripides, who was buried at Arethusa in Macedonia; and it may serve that poet's admirers as a testimony in his favor, that he had in this the same fate with that holy man and favorite of the gods.”

But it is not surprising that Vitus's divinely called lightning might have struck the temples. Throughout history, churches and temples have appeared to be selectively hit by lightning—simply because they were often the tallest buildings in the area. Indeed, by the 1500s, the practice of ringing church bells had become established as a means of dispersing lightning and protecting the church and its parishioners. As a result, many bells from this time bear the inscription “Fulgura Frango” (“I break up the lightning”). Of course, ringing metal bells posed a certain danger to the bell-ringer. A scholar wrote an interesting treatise published in Munich in 1784 on the subject, entitled “A Proof that the Ringing of Bells During Thunderstorms May Be More Dangerous Than Useful.” This medieval source stated that in 33 years, he had noted that lightning had struck 386 church towers and killed 103 bell-ringers.

Nevertheless, legend has it that the divine favor of Saint Vitus was most aptly demonstrated by the destruction of the Roman temples by lightning, and so his name is often invoked against lightning. In paintings, Saint Vitus is often depicted as a boy with a rooster and a cauldron.

Saint Dunstan's Cold Shoulder to Cider

Saint Dunstan was an Archbishop of Canterbury who became known more for his legendary exploits against the Devil than his real and valuable service to the Church in England in the 10th century. In actual fact, Dunstan started as a rich and sophisticated youngster who quickly became a favorite in the royal court, but that attention soon led to trouble. Because of his popularity at court, enemies managed first to have him banished from the court with charges of magic and witchcraft. Even as he rode away, they caught up with him, beat him up, and tossed him in a pond. After this episode, he was persuaded by his uncle, the Bishop of Winchester, to enter monastic life and become a Benedictine. He embarked upon a period of building and reform, even including his royal patrons in his reformations. In his later years, he was the most powerful churchman in the land—but still with many enemies who said he practiced black magic.

Yet the attributes that have attracted attention to the saint for centuries have been the legends of his extraordinary struggles against the Devil. The greatest story was during a time when he purportedly worked as a metal smith. Once, when tempted by the Devil disguised as a nubile young woman dancing before him, Dunstan grabbed a set of heated tongs and set them to the Devil's nose. When the devil began to roar and cry, Dunstan held the tongs fast until far into night, and only eventually let the demon go with a final wail of pain. Consequently, Dunstan is considered to be the patron saint of armorers, goldsmiths, locksmiths, and jewelers.

After his death in 10th century, the following folk rhyme began to be heard throughout the English countryside:

St Dunstan, as the story goes, Once pull'd the devil by the nose With red-hot tongs, which made him roar, That he was heard three miles or more.

But weather-wise, there is a more direct relation between Saint Dunstan and the elements. His saint's day is May 19, and many people believe that day and the days around it will be associated with an easterly blast of cold due to an interesting deal that Dunstan made with the Devil.

The story goes that Dunstan—in his pre-saint days as a practitioner of magic and witchcraft—entered into a pact with the Devil. At that time, Dunstan was a great brewer of beer, but his profits had started to falter due to the growing popularity of another drink. The rival beverage to Dunstan's beer was cider, made from apple trees. So Dunstan reasoned that if he could entice the Devil to blight the apple crop with a killing frost in May of each year by selling his soul, it would be so much the better for brewers of beer across England.

So, the legend goes, the future saint sold his soul to the Devil with the promise that the dark one would ensure that three or more frosts would occur between May 18 and May 23, thereby hurting the apple harvest and cider production. And, according to legend, even with the later fiery nose-nip incident, the Devil has maintained his part of the bargain to this very day with many a frost occurring in Britain in late May.

Torturing Dead Saints?

In the accounts of the saints so far, we've seen that many of the Catholic saints suffered incredible pain and indignity in their lives. But seldom do we hear of something vicious happening to them after their death. But just a situation happened during a major drought in Italy in 1893 where the desperately dry conditions led to a rather odd disrespect of the venerable saints long after their deaths!

According the scientific journal Nature, the infamous “spring drought” of 1893 is listed as one of the most severe dry spells on record in Europe. In London, England, for example, there was a 114-day period commencing on February 28 where the total rainfall for the city was only 1.09 inches, and in some parts of the country, no rain fell in the whole month of April. The drought was equally bad across Europe. In Sicily, Italy, by the start of May 1893, the drought was well into its sixth month, and food was becoming scarce. The increasingly desperate conditions led to what might today be called a “crisis of faith.”

Eventually, the despairing people began to place the blame for the continuing and vicious drought on their long-dead patron saints, and therefore those saints had to be punished! And punished they were. Over the dry course of the spring of 1893, most of the revered images of the saints in Italy were banished from their normal places of prominence in the church. For example, at Palermo, the parishioners rather unceremoniously dumped a statute of Saint Joseph into an outside garden so that the saint could gain a firsthand view for himself just how bad the drought was. They vowed to leave him there baking in the hot sun until it rained.

Other saints were punished like naughty children by turning the statutes so that their faces were to the wall. Others were stripped of their beautiful robes, or were exiled far from their parishes. Still others were ridiculed and insulted, even dunked in horse ponds. At Caltanisetta, a statute of Saint Michael the Archangel—greatest of the angels!—had his golden wings torn off and replaced with wings of pasteboard. The Archangel's costly purple mantel was cast away, and a rough peasant's clout was wrapped about him instead. The patron saint of Licata, Saint Angelo, fared even worse, for his statute was left naked—devoid of any garments at all. Then the statue was put in irons and threatened with drowning or hanging. The desperate people angrily yelled “rain or rope!” as they shook their fists in his face.

Perhaps this desperation is related to the ceremonies that occurred in several villages of Navarre, as retold by Frazer. When a drought threatened the area, prayers for rain were offered to Saint Peter, and by way of enforcing these prayers, the villagers carried the image of the sacred saint in procession to the river, where the faithful demanded—repeatedly!—that the saint reconsider his obstinacy and grant their simple prayers. If, after all that, the saint still was stubbornly inflicting the drought, they plunged him in the water. They did this all, despite the vigorous objections of the clergy, who pleaded that “a simple caution or admonition administered to the image would produce an equally good effect.”

The brilliant French astronomer and chronicler of the weird and unusual, Flammarion, wrote about Saint Eutropéus, the patron saint of Vieux-Beausset near Toulon, France. According to Flammarion, the saint held the power to bring rain when he pleased. One day in May in the late 1800s, the keeper of the hermitage where the ancient statue of the saint was housed, removed the statute down from his pedestal, put him in the doorway, and “began to belabor him with blows. A passer-by, astonished to see what he was about, asked the reason. ‘Oh! my good sir,’ replied the sacristan, ‘If I did not treat him this way, I could do nothing with him.’” The astronomer wryly noted that, “Soon after this, rain fell, and the crops were saved.”

In another instance, Saint Simon related in his memoirs that, at the siege of Namur, France, in 1695, it rained so heavily on Saint Midard's Day (the French equivalent of Saint Swithin's Day discussed earlier) that the soldiers became infuriated because that downpour foretold another 40 days of rain. They turned their anger against the saint, and burned every image and picture of him that they could find!

And, finally, sometimes even if it isn't the image of a saint, the severe mistreatment of religious symbols can rectify what some think of as a problem. As example, on July 15, 1899, near Albertville, in Savoy, France, newspapers of the area noted that the priest of Thénésol blessed a new cross. Why did a new cross have to be placed at Thénésol? It was because the old cross had been burned by the inhabitants of the neighboring commune of Scythenex. The residents of Scythenex had believed the old Thénésol cross had worked too well for their rival community. They thought that it had too effectively kept hail from the commune of Mercury-Grermilly, in which it stood, which was not to Scythenex's advantage. So a group of men from Scythenex had gone to the church and burned the ill-mannered cross to the ground.

The Cords of Saint Francis

It might seem a bit odd that the patron saint of all animals—a humble and inoffensive hermit monk such as Saint Francis—has come to be associated with hurricanes, the largest and worst storms on the planet. Yet every year, particularly in the Caribbean, prayers are offered to the gentle Saint Francis for the prevention of, and protection from, those deadly tropical storms called hurricanes.

Although commonly regarded as the most humble of all saints, Francis was born the son of a very wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, Italy, and was brought up with all of the trappings of wealth, power, and influence. As he grew up into a young man, his life included wild parties and debauchery. At 20, he joined his fellow countrymen in an attack of a neighboring town and even prepared himself for joining the military as part of the Fourth Crusade. But when he was only one day's journey from his home, he experienced a divine vision that told him to return home. And so he did.

Over the next few years, he slowly changed his lifestyle, giving up the rich clothing and foods. He fasted for a long period of time in a cave, asking for guidance from God. More and more he sought to associate himself with the less fortunate. Indeed, one day while riding through the countryside, the young man came face to face with a leper. Francis—who had for most of his life lived such an extravagant lifestyle—nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of the leper.

Not long after this episode, Francis was praying at a small, forsaken, wayside chapel near his hometown, when he heard a voice telling him, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which is falling into ruin.” Taking this command literally as referring to the wrecked chapel in which he had been praying, Francis immediately went to his father's shop, grabbed some of the fabrics, and rode to a nearby market. There he not only sold the cloth but even his own horse. However, when he returned, the destitute priest of the small chapel actually refused the handsome offering. Francis, in utter disdain, threw the money at him.

As one can imagine, Francis's father was upset by his son's strange actions. He dragged his son before the bishop and in front of the whole town demanded that Francis return the money and then renounce all rights as his heir. The bishop responded that Francis could return the money to his father with the comment that God would provide for the church.

Francis again took the words literally. He returned all of the money he had received for his father's wares and then stripped off all his clothes—clothes that his father had given him—and returned them as well. He wanted to have nothing of his father's. Wearing nothing but castoff rags, Francis then went away to live in the woods. There he quickly lost what little he still had when he was set upon and brutalized by robbers who left him naked and in a snow drift. The injured and freezing Francis crawled to a nearby monastery, recovered, and worked there for a time as a scullion. After a while, Francis obtained from a friend a pilgrim's cloak, girdle, and staff.

Then one morning in 1208, Francis heard a mass where the Gospel reading was devoted to how the disciples of Jesus Christ were to possess neither gold nor silver—not even shoes or a staff, and they were to exhort sinners to repent and announce the coming Kingdom of God. The literal-minded Francis took these words as if spoken directly to himself, and so immediately after that Mass, he threw away his shoes, cloak, and even his pilgrim staff. He clothed himself in a coarse woolen tunic, the type of clothing then worn by only the poorest of peasants, and tied it round him with a simple knotted rope.

And it is that knotted rope which ties the humble and devoted Saint Francis to hurricanes. The Cord of Saint Francis is a short length of rope with three knots with three turns apiece. Traditionally it was often hung in people's homes in the Caribbean as a protection during the hurricane season. If ropes weren't available, knots would be tied in the dried fronds of palms that had been blessed on Palm Sunday. The ropes were considered the binding symbols for the winds of a hurricane. West Indies' sailing tradition stated that if sailors untied the first knot of the Cord of Saint Francis, the winds would pick up but only moderately. Winds of “half a gale” resulted from untying the second knot. If all three knots were untied, winds of hurricane strength were produced.

In addition to the Cords, prayers to Saint Francis were supposedly especially effective during hurricane season, late summer and fall, in the Caribbean. Indeed, the descendants of West African slaves would tie up bundles of certain leaves under their rafters to avert hurricanes. In the mystical Congo cult, “Saint Francis of the Hurricane,” or Tata Pandu Kimbunilahas, is considered a deity of great power … and his symbol is a knotted scourge. Even today, some well-known tropical meteorologists have followed (tongue-in-cheek) island traditions with annual “hurricane supplication” parties to ward off the ravages of a coming hurricane season.

Weather and the Saints

Fundamentally, the incredible stories of these “weather saints” continue to prove that man has long maintained not only a deep fascination with the extraordinary power of weather, but has also irrevocably linked it to some of the important and devoted people of Christian history.

RANDY CERVENY is a president's professor of geographical sciences at Arizona State University, and a contributing editor of Weatherwise.

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