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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Catholic Science

I think I mentioned once that Sister Mary Fiacre was once in the circus. She was an aerialist when she was very young. Circus arrows led her to the religious life. Yesterday, when I was discussing patron saints it occurred to me that St. Wilgefortis could well be her patron saint. Every circus has a bearded lady, does it not?

Sister St. Aloysius is aggravated by the story of St. Wilgefortis. I can't say as I blame her. I feel the same way about St. Christopher.

To recap, St Wilgefortis was about to be married off to some terrible man that her father wanted her to marry. St. Wilgefortis prayed to get out of it and woke up with a beard, which did the trick. Then her father was so angry he had her crucified.


Sister St. Aloysius just doesn't believe that St. Wilgefortis woke up with a beard. I think sometimes women do wake up with beards, after they turn 5o. But St. Wilgefortis was a young woman, so I have to concede that it's likely that the story of St. Wilgefortis is only a legend.

The Catholic Church concurs and took St. Wilgefortis off the calendar of saints some time ago. In fact, there is a Jesuit priest who thinks he knows how the whole story got started. In Lucca, Italy, there is a crucifix that is wearing a dress. I mean Jesus is dressed in a robe. It is a famous cross over there. It even had, at one time, a silver bottom, for when people kiss the foot of the cross on Good Friday. The point is that, if you want to believe there is a St. Wilgefortis, then this cross could be a girl with silver shoes. A bearded girl with silver shoes. But the theory is that this crucifix became confused with the story of St. Wilgefortis.

Works for me! That is, until I read this scientific theory.

It turns out that people who are anorexic grow beards. More specifically, their poor bodies, trying to figure out what in the world to do to keep them alive, grow a silky downy kind of hair to try to keep them warm, since they have no food to burn to keep them warm.

I'm not making this up. Someone published a paper about it.

Left out of the story of St. Wilgefortis when it is usually told, is that the beard did not actually grow overnight. In fact, St. Wilgefortis was in such a state about her pending nuptials that she stopped eating. She was fasting. She could have been fasting for quite some time, which over time, would have had the same effect as if she were anorexic. So she grew some hair.

St. Wilgefortis rides again! It's not the means of the miracle. It's the timing.

We won't have to switch Sister Mary Fiacre over to St. John Bosco, the other patron saint of circus performers.


melroska said...

your blog is great! your writing is fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I had a girlfriend who became aneorexic. Hugging her was like hugging a stepladder, but I didn't notice any beard.

Anonymous said...


This is off topic, and it's been a long time since you've mentioned it, but you were right about zinc and cotton hankies. They saved my nose during a recent cold. Thanks for all the great advice, big and small.


Anonymous said...

The beard thing is completely true. In fact, really, really ill anorexics are covered in hair. Many of them wear it as a badge of honor. They are very messed up in the head and need many prayers. But I have seen girls in facilities compete to see who can grow the hair first.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how this sits with your Catholic sensibilities,

But -- has anyone ever considered that perhaps poor St. Wilgefortis was *ahem* a hermaphrodite,

and simply hit puberty, and the testoserone kicked in?

Which might explain why St. Wilgefortis wasn't keen on marrying....

Hermaphraditism occurs in nature, and in humans as well.

Anonymous said...

The hair that grows on the body of starving people (including anorexics) is called lanugo, and it is very fine. It would look nothing like beard hair and would appear all over the body, not just on the face.

That doesn't mean it's impossible that lanugo started the legend. We all know how stories get modified and exaggerated when they are retold over and over!

Terry Nelson said...

You are hysterical - in a good way. So well written.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it happens quite a bit with woman with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). One of the symptoms is Hirsutism, which is male hair patterns on woman. About 10% of women have some type of PCOS. Alas, I have it with the weird hair patterns. I heard about this Saint and thought it might be a sign from God for me to enter religious life! Ha! Thank God for laser hair removal.