Christian history is permeated with stories and legends of saints and mysteries that defy explanation while they inspire and induce awe. A grand example involves the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe.
As the legend goes, the chapel was built under the direction of Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of the southwest, for the Loretto Sisters. The original designer died before the work was completed and left everyone scratching their head as to how he intended people to get to the choir loft with apparently little space to erect a staircase. The sisters prayed a novena to St Joseph, and on the ninth day a stranger appeared, who seemed to have built the solid wood (no nails or screws or metal fittings) staircase without visible means of support. The story grew that it was Joseph himself who answered the nuns’ prayers. This is the story that developed over the years. It continues to inspire today in the spiritual aesthetics of the chapel.
At the time it happened, it was likely that many people in Santa Fe, some associated with the chapel construction, knew who the real builder was. In his obituary, a French master woodworker by the name of Francois-Jean Rochas was referred to as the builder of the staircase. The legendary tale of St Joseph’s involvement actually grew up in later years. As far as the construction, architects have determined that, while it is ingenious in its construction, the spiral steps are built on sound and understood principles. None of these facts excludes Joseph’s influence on Rochas or that the staircase may be standing simply because God wills it. So the legend lives and dies and lives again in one fell swoop.
A Martyrology has been kept since the earliest days of the Christian ‘Way,’ although the accuracy of their stories has often been questioned. Some of the legendary tales of saints were created by Jacobus de Voragine, a priest and bishop, who in the thirteenth century composed The Golden Legend.
Although it is not included in Voragine’s anthology, there is no more mysterious legend than that of St Guthlac of Crowland. Much of what is known of this saint comes from his biography, written by St Felix the Monk around 740 (25 years after Guthlac’s death), and appears to be based in part on first hand knowledge of the legendary hermit.
Guthlac was of royal birth and became a great and respected warrior before he reached the age of twenty-four. At that time he abandoned his heritage and joined a monastery, where he began a spiritual communication with the apostle, St Bartholomew. The Lord’s disciple was known for facing down demons as described in The Golden Legend, and apparently guided Guthlac to the same line of work.
Two years after entering the abbey, on the Feast of St Bartholomew, the hermit journeyed to the Fen marshes of eastern England, an inhospitable wasteland. Demons lived in the swamps, and they spoke a dialect of Old English that Guthlac understood, having lived among early Britons. Felix described the monsters as ferocious, hairy, flame-vomiting beasts whose howling could be heard all the way from earth to the heavens.
At the same time he was confronted by these characters, Guthlac was also joined by angels of God and his beloved patron, Bartholomew. He relied on his skill as a warrior and the heavenly inspiration of his ‘good’ visitors to subdue the demons. Art that has developed in the construction of churches and abbeys over the years depicts Guthlac receiving weapons from Bartholomew and defeating the monsters.
When Guthlac entered the Fens, he located an island where he built a hut and lived an ascetic life of a hermit, fasting, almost entirely sustained on a daily portion of bread and swamp water. The region was then known as Croyland. It was there that he felt the attack of the demons on a rather frequent basis. Guthlac was determined to build an abbey on the site, and it is because of that, the demons relentlessly tried to drive him away. Because the angels and Bartholomew would not allow the hermit to be overtaken by the creatures, he was able to complete his mission. Croyland became a more welcoming place, and many guests came to Guthlac for counseling and prayer. His solid belief inspired sub-pagan people to find Christ.
Guthlac suffered from diseases such as ‘marsh fever,’ which were no doubt brought on by his living conditions, but he continued to move forward on his spiritual journey. According to Felix, the saint was a prophet and prophesied his own death. The biographer reports that in his last days, Guthlac spoke frequently with angels and made plans for his own funeral to be performed by his sister, St Pega. A year after his burial, Pega was inspired to move his body, and the corpse was found to be incorrupt. He was moved one more time, to the church that bears his name, and healing miracles have been reported from each of his gravesites.
Ancient history is littered with tales of demons from the Hebrews, the Babylonians, and the Sumerians, among others. Some describe giants who were measured in miles rather than inches and feet. In the Old Testament there are creatures known as Leviathan and Behemoth, who some have tried to explain away as a crocodile and a hippopotamus. Among the oldest writing known, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of struggles between gods and demons. And all of this was told before the Greeks introduced the western world to the gods of Mount Olympus.
It has long been the nature of humanity to find stories of inspiration and awe even if they had to make them up. The demons faced by St Guthlac were very real to him and to the believers of his legend. Citizens of Santa Fe wanted to believe a miracle created the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel and they allowed a story to be told that ignored some of the known facts.
As humans, we love to hear these stories and to feel the awe and inspiration take hold. We love to hear the triumph of being good even as we struggle with our own imperfection. Of this there is no greater story than THE true story of Jesus Christ who triumphed over death itself. It is the responsibility of every Christian to know that story and to tell it everywhere