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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Monday, June 25, 2012

What a Headache

Dear Sister: I've been struck lately by severe headaches--the kind that are only gotten rid of by going to the emergency room and getting hooked up to IV painkillers. Coincidentally (literally--he went to the hospital in Cleveland at the same time I went to the hospital in DC) a friend of mine across the country is undergoing experimental brain surgery for his own crippling cluster headaches. I thought we could both use the intercession of a saint at this point, and found two names mentioned as patron saints for migraine suffers: St. Teresa of Avilla and St. Gemma Gelgani. Which has raised two questions in my mind: 1. Which one is it? St. Teresa or St. Gemma? And, more existentially, 2. Does it matter? I don't mean does praying for a saint's intercession work, because I know what you'll say about that. I mean, if I pray for the wrong saint's help, won't the saint I pray to still give me the hand up I need? Isn't that kind of part of their job definition? Or is it less effective if I invoke...I dunno...St. Joseph of Arimathea, who doesn't have any particular history with head or headaches than the headache sufferers official patron saint?


P.S. A third, half-facetious, half-serious question: 3. Will praying to the proper saint help us pay for our treatments? Insurance won't pay his $100,000 bill because the surgery is too experimental, and my own insurance has told me it won't pay for prescription refills in a timely manner.

Oh, you poor thing.  What a terrible hardship.

At the risk of giving you a headache, there is a third patron saint for headaches, St. Stephen, the first martyr.  He was killed by having rocks thrown at his head, so I think he's a very good choice.

There are several saints for specific problems in many cases. St. Francis of Assisi, because he preached to birds and squirrels and "Brother Wolf" is the patron saint of animals and animal lovers, but  so is St. Martin de Porres, because he was an amateur veterinarian. St. Rock is the patron saint of dogs and dog lovers and St. Gertrude is the patron saint of cats and cat lovers.  

St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, but so is St. Joseph.

So let's back this truck up a second an take a look at what the deal is with patron saints in the first place.  The idea of having a patron saint for something is that in some way the saint had to deal with the same problems that you have. St. Martha had that unfortunate incident where the disciples descended on her house and her sister wouldn't help her get dinner on the table for them all. That's why shes is the patron saint of cooks and waitresses. Sometimes the patronage is rather a leap.  A really big leap.  Like St. Blaise.  He is the patron saint of sore throats because he once blessed the throat of a young lad who was choking on a fishbone. So that makes perfect sense. But he is also the patron saint of knitters, because he was tortured with wool combers.  He never knitted a thing.  That's a bit of a....an extrapolation.

I can't figure out why St. Teresa of Avila would be the patron saint of headaches. I do not believe that she was a headache sufferer.  Perhaps one of our dear readers would know.  I suspect that she is the patron saint of headaches because she was one.  St. Teresa was put into the convent by her very strict father because she was a rebellious teenager. At that time, the nuns in the convent were often other rich girls who wore their veils as a fashion accessory and brought their jewelry, not for the convent to use to buy food, but to wear.

Teresa didn't take to nunness right away. And even when she did begin to embrace the religious life, she was still a bit of a "how do you solve a problem like Maria" type.  She didn't care much for praying, for one thing. Ironic, since what made her a Doctor of the Church eventually was what she had to say about prayer, among other things.

Even after all of her sighing and eye rolling about prayer, Teresa began having mystical experiences including visions and ecstasies and levitation.  She changed her mind about prayer.  And the convent. She didn't leave, she called for reform and founded the Discalced Carmelites.  She was not popular and faced the prospect of the Spanish Inquisition twice. That would be headache inducing, I suppose.

Meanwhile, St. Gemma spent most of her life really sick in bed. She did have debilitating headaches, but then, she had debilitating everything. She had a really miserable time of it.

Your dilemma is simply to pick the saint to which you feel the most connected, for whatever reason.  So no, it doesn't even matter if the saint has that patronage assigned to them.  Why do we pray for intercession at all?  We are asking the saints to pray for us, just the way we ask each other for prayers. The saints, however are right there in Heaven.  They have got to be just the best at praying. It absolutely astounds me that there are people who think that asking for saintly intercession is some kind of time waster.  I hope they don't go around asking other people to pray for them either, but that kind of logical consistency seems to escape them.

St. Joseph of Arimathea seems like a very good choice to help with the financial end of things! He did after all, swoop in and take care of business when everyone else was too stunned and impoverished to figure out what to do with Jesus' body.  The Infant of Prague is also a good choice.

Oh wait! there's here's another idea for the headache patron! You could go with St. Joseph! He has his own aspirin.


Leticia Austria said...

Hello, Sister! Isn't St Rita, of the thorn in the head, also a patron saint of headaches?

Anonymous said...

Sister MM, you often make me want to go to a Catholic church. :)

Laura said...

As a migraine sufferer, I have turned to Hildegard of Bingen. The following is quoted from this site: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/hildegarde.asp

The Most Distinguished Migraine Sufferer

It is now generally agreed that Hildegard suffered from migraine, and that her visions were a result of this condition. The way she describes her visions, the precursors, to visions, to debilitating aftereffects, point to classic symptoms of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual hallucinations may occur, the more common ones described are the "scotomata" which often follow perceptions of phosphenes in the visual field. Scintillating scotomata are also associated with areas of total blindness in the visual field, something Hildegard might have been describing when she spoke of points of intense light, and also the "extinguished stars." Migraine attacks are usually followed by sickness, paralysis, blindness-all reported by Hildegard, and when they pass, by a period of rebound and feeling better than before, a euphoria also described by her. Also, writes Oliver Sachs

"Among the strangest and most intense symptoms of migraine aura, and the most difficult of description and analysis, are the occurrences of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude... or its opposite. Such states are experienced, momentarily and occasionally,by everyone; their occurrence in migraine auras is marked by their overwhelming intensity and relatively long duration."

It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of this woman that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the word of God, and create so much with it.

Kira said...

I have a question, and I'm hoping wildly that this isn't disrespectful or wrong. I'm in the process of becoming Catholic and OH, I am wrong so often these days.
As I said, I'm becoming Catholic - finished RCIA and am waiting and praying for my husband's first marriage to be declared null so I can finally come home. During the RCIA process, one of the events that changed my thinking from "Oh, I suppose I can do this Catholic thing to make my husband happy" to "Oh please. Only say the word and my soul shall be healed. Please may I come home?" was a miscarriage. I lost my fifth child at four months gestation, and it all but broke me. I am still so very sad.
The day we found out she'd died, my husband and I went to the Adoration Chapel, a place I'd always felt very uncomfortable in. That day I was just so shocked and sad. I knelt and prayed and wept and shook. And then I looked up and realized that Jesus was there. Not like "I feel Him here," he WAS THERE, because he said he would be. Not because I deserved it or asked Him the right way, because He promised. It totally spun my thinking around on the Real Presence.
I told a friend about that, and she said, "You know what that was? That was your daughter, praying for you, and taking you by the hand into the Truth."
So this leads to my question. We named our daughter Eva. And since losing her has made this whole process of conversion so much more real and personal to me, I want to take Eva as my patron saint. From what I can tell, there was a Saint Eva, from the third century, who was a mother with four children, no less. But really, I mean it in gratitude for the life of my little one and what her loss has taught me about what really matters. Do you think that would be okay?
Thank you for what you do here. I'm a little scared of you, but much more grateful for your insight.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Hildegarde is a great choice. A personal story...I was staying at a retreat center and the rooms were named after saints. I was in "Hildegarde's Room." I had a migraine all throughout the retreat. Later, after the retreat, I wanted to do some research on Hildegarde, and I found that same page from Fordham about her and her headaches! I felt blessed in some way.

Kathy (not the other one) said...

St. Stephen, huh? I've always had a soft spot for St. Stephen. For one thing, my grandmother's birthday was on his feast day, Dec. 26th, which made it easier to both remember which day was his AND when her birthday was. My mother said his was the first feast day after Christmas because he was the first martyr, another thing that helped me remember it.

And though I was kind of joking about St. Joseph of Arimathea, using his name as a random example of a saint, it's good to know he might be helpful, since I've always had a soft spot for him, too, based on the story my mother told me as a child of him sticking his walking staff into the soil when he landed in England and it sprouting into a tree. A THORN tree, as it turns out (the Glastonbury Thorn, which blooms twice a year instead of the usual once), so if you want to stretch a point, you can connect him to headaches, too--thorn tree > Crown of Thorns > headaches.

So I think I'll go with those two. Hildegard has a lot going for her, but her main connection with headaches seems to be the migraine aura, which I don't have--it just HURTS! Though it might be worth seeing if she came up with any tips for a cure in her role as medic.

Thanks, Sister!

Kathy (not the other one) said...

P.S.: I don't know if this means anything, but the captcha word I needed to decipher to put up my last post was "ionaHos." Since Iona is one of the great Holy Isles of Christian history, home to St. Cuthbert and the probably birthplace of the Book of Kells, I found this rather ironic.

Sister Mary Margaret said...


I am a Catholic Sister who reads this blog. I was very touched by your story, and want you to know that ALL my sisters are offering their humble prayers for you for the next 30 days. We are so very sorry for the loss of your dear daughter. I know that Sister MM will agree that Eva is a lovely name, and your little girl is already in heaven waiting for the rest of her dear family to join her. God bless you. Please comment again so we'll all know how you're doing!
From all YOUR Sisters

Sister Mary Margaret said...

Kathy - one of our sisters is a doctor, who suffers from headaches. You might try doing some research on oxygen therapy. IMHO, it sure beats surgery. Also, I have had headaches (less severe than yours, I'm sure) and taking iron helps. If you are anemic (and please have your doctor do lab work to check for this) low iron can actually case headaches. I'm not a doctor, so I will do my best to explain this in simple, regular people terms: The iron in your blood is what enables it to "hold onto" the oxygen, and then delivers it throughout your body. If you don't have enough iron, your blood cells can't "hang onto" enough oxygen to make your cells happy. They are "oxygen starved." Drink enough water, too. Dehydration causes headaches. I hope this helps!

Kathy (not the other one) said...

Thanks for the tips, everybody. I go to the neurologist on Monday, and we'll see what s/he says.

Meanwhile, my friend Ray's experimental brain surgery for cluster headaches...failed. He posted this the other day: "Time to face the reality that the physical world is never going to go my way anymore, and I have been reading much about how some of the great saints handled extreme pain and debilitating illnesses. I intend to stay around this beautiful little Earth as long as I can, but the spiritual realm will now be my focus. I cannot help myself physically, but if I can help others through my journeys into faith, pain and love, I will endeavor to be the best debilitated person for God and for others that I can be." It made me cry.

guyd said...

Kathy, have Ray check his house for mold caused by an unseen water leak as that water caused mold can cause tremendous cluster headaches.

Ginny said...

I have had migraines for over 50 years, and it is good to know there are Saints just lining up to help me with them. thanks for this blog post.