There is just too much to tell about this month’s saint so let’s start with the one thing no Catholic can resist, a gift shop. If you are a fan of St. Bernadette of Lourdes, you probably own a little plastic bottle of miraculous healing water. Mine is shaped like the Virgin Mary and was given to me by some friends who once made a pilgrimage to Lourdes and bought it just in case they needed an emergency present. Apparently, the emergency present custom goes way back. Centuries before the citizens of Lourdes launched the bottled miracle water industry, there were these little clay jars:
They once held healing waters (or oils), too. In the fourth century, pilgrims to the monastery of St. Menas near Alexandria, Egypt, would bring the jars home to their sick relatives and friends. They must have been a dime a dozen once upon an ancient time because archaeologists have unearthed them all over Europe: in Germany, France, Italy, and Croatia. Some have been found as far away as Sudan and Jerusalem, as well.
The jars bear the likeness of St. Menas the martyr and two very significant camels.
Just as with St. Bernadette, it all started with Our Lady. The year was 285. The place Egypt. A sorrowful woman knelt before an icon of Our Lady and prayed to have a child. She heard the word, Amen. So when a son was born he was named Mena. Menas’s parents not only liked jumbles, they were staunch Christians. Menas followed in his parents’ footsteps. First, he followed his father’s marching footsteps as a soldier but soon gave up his military career because the Roman authorities were persecuting Christians. Then he followed the ascetic devotions of his parents and went to live on a mountain in the desert. (Some sources say mountain; others say desert.)
As a hermit in this mountainous desert, Menas saw a vision representing three crowns. One represented celibacy, another asceticism, and a third martyrdom. Celibacy – check, asceticism – check ... . In a burst of zeal, Menas departed immediately to the nearest city to check off the last box. He arrived during a pagan festival which he loudly denounced. He proclaimed his faith in Christ as savior. He was tortured and beheaded. Many people listened to his message and some even followed him into martyrdom.
This is where the camels come in. Literally.
After his martyrdom, in A.D. 304, his executioners attempted to burn his body. They were unsuccessful. Some Christians smuggled the relic onto the back of a camel and made for the desert. At a well near Lake Mariout, the camel stopped in his sandy tracks and refused to go farther. There, St. Menas was buried. Later, there were miraculous healings on the spot. People also started invoking St. Menas as a patron saint of soldiers. Cue: second camel. A certain ruler dug up his body to keep as a relic while invoking St. Menas to help him win a battle. He won but refused to return the body to its original burial place. A second camel was dispatched to take it to Alexandria instead. But when it got to the well by Lake Mariout, it stopped, too.
St. Menas’s burial site became a popular place of pilgrimage. As the years stretched on, St. Menas would sometimes be forgotten, then remembered again and invoked as a soldier. The Middle Ages saw renewed interest. In the 20th century, he made a stunning comeback as the Scourge of Nazis.
I’m thinking a clay Menas jar would complement my plastic Mary bottle perfectly. But alas! All known copies are now locked and alarmed behind glass at the Louvre and other such places. Menas would say it’s not the vessel that counts, it’s what’s inside. Just as the clay vessel bore healing water to those in need, he bore Christ. In fact, it is in this way that this saint with a funny name may be familiar to you after all. Historians now suggest that St. Christopher (Christ bearer) and Menas are one and the same. His feast day is Nov. 11, which also happens to be Veterans Day.