Tuesday, December 04, 2012

`Mistress of All Excessive Motions'

About five years ago, during my first tenure at Rice University, my boss gave me a votive candle in honor of Santa Barbara. Grocery stores in Houston stock shelves with them, often in the same aisle as bug spray and motor oil. It’s a glass cylinder filled almost to the brim with red wax and wrapped in a plastic label with a picture of the saint wearing a crenellated crown and holding a sword. Printed on it is a prayer in English and Spanish, the opening of which I cherish: “Oh Lord, keep away the wicked miserable people who lurk in the shadows seeking to harm me.” My prayer, so far, has been answered.
My boss saved the candle and gave it to me a second time when I returned to Rice last year. Except for the telephone, it’s the only object on my desk, and because my office is decorated monastically, Santa Barbara gets a lot of attention from visitors. She is the patron saint of artillerymen, specifically the U.S. Army Field Artillery, and of gunsmiths and miners, and others who work with explosives. She is venerated by the devout whose jobs make them vulnerable to sudden violent death. She is the patron saint of the Italian Navy. G.K. Chesterton composed “The Ballad of Saint Barbara” and the Australian poet A.D. Hope gave us “Hymn to Saint Barbara,” which begins:
“Mistress of all excessive motions,
Things that go crash and clang and boom,
Fireworks and rockets and explosions,
The drum-roll of the Day of Doom,
Patron of wreckers and ship-breakers,
Of gun-layers and bombardiers,
Of miners, sappers, boilermakers
And astronauts and engineers.”
Today, Dec. 4, is the Feast Day of Saint Barbara.

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