A Day to Honor
December fourth is the feast day of Saint Barbara. There is a
vivid legend about this obscure saint. Apparently, Saint Barbara was a
maiden of great beauty whose father locked her in a tower to remove her
from many ardent suitors who were not to his liking. He also wanted keep
her from indulging in a habit of constantly helping the poor.
Barbara's father was devoted to the Greco-Roman religious system.
As such, he especially wanted keep her from talking to any followers of a
new religion that he saw as dangerous. He was worried that she might
convert. The new religion, Christianity, was beginning to nibble at the
margins of Roman society. At that time, it had been mainly taken up by the
poor and downtrodden. Barbara's father was a rich merchant who had
contempt for this scruffy movement. Beyond his personal prejudice was the
political reality that any association with the outlawed religion would
hurt his grain business.
Barbara spent years in the tower. She got her food and laundry by
way of a basket on a rope. Her father began bringing suitors of his
choosing but by then Barbara had lost all interest in marriage. One day, a
stranger put a book in the basket from which Barbara learned about the new
religion. Barbara so longed to know more about Christianity that she grew
ill. Her father sent for a doctor and when the healer arrived, the father
in his agitation, did not ask what kind of doctor this was. He was, in
fact, a priest -- a doctor of the soul. Barbara asked the priest many
questions and received baptism.
Shortly thereafter, the father had to go away from their home on a
journey. Barbara asked the men who worked on the estate to make a third
window in her tower. As she was their employer's daughter, they complied.
When the father returned and asked the meaning of the third window,
Barbara told him that she had converted to Christianity and wanted to have
three windows to be reminded of the three names for God. This bit of
remodeling earned Barbara the honor of becoming the patron saint of
The rest of the story is harrowing. The father told her she must
renounce her new faith or die. When she refused, he betrayed her to the
Roman authorities who tortured her but were unable to get her to give up her beliefs. They even tried to shame her by parading her through town naked. The angels sent a convenient fog that completely hid her.
Eventually, they ordered her father to kill her. He tried to end her life by a variety of horrific means, but she slipped to safety again and again -- becoming more radiant and holy each time she affirmed her faith. Finally, he grabbed her beautiful long hair and beheaded her. At that moment, bright flames flew out of her body. A moment later, lightning struck the father and killed him.
Because of her father's fate, her name is invoked in prayers of
protection from lightning. As an extension of this, she has become the
patron of gunners, miners, and others who work with explosives. An odd
aspect of this role is that she has been taken as patron saint by others
who use firearms, including bandits, thugs and other criminal types.
Caribbean practitioners of the Yoruba traditions from Africa use
Saint Barbara as a stand-in for Shango. This divinity transcends gender
and represents the strong sacred energies of determination and commitment.
Those seeking accomplishment in competitive arenas where strong will is
required often invoke Shango in the form of Saint Barbara. The powers of
nature are available to those who align themselves with this guiding
principle. Images of Shango in Africa are shown with a thunderbolt over
the head. Illumination is one of the promised rewards of steadfast
devotion to such deities.
The City of Santa Barbara got its name from the early Spanish
navigator Juan Cabrillo. On December fourth, the great explorer stopped at
a particularly lovely place on the California coast. He chose to name the
spot after the patron of that day, Saint Barbara. The island and channel
of the same name also got their designations on this occasion. It is
fitting that a body of ocean bears her name, as Saint Barbara is also the
patron saint of mariners.
The mythic tale is a variation on the Rapunzel motif. On any holy
card of Saint Barbara, the picture is a woman with a tower. The story can
be read as an allegory for life's journey. There are times when we may
feel as if we are locked away in a tower. This is when we are somehow
removed from what would be most fulfilling. We may have hidden ourselves
away out of a fear of getting caught up in a passionate cause.
There are other ways that we might be like Saint Barbara. It can
take considerable initiative simply to find our deepest beliefs. It takes
additional commitment to develop effective ways to express those values.
Both parts of such a project require enormous tenacity.
Life serves up plenty of opposition to maintaining an inner life.
Holding onto a vision calls for powerful resolve. Still, if we are
dedicated, the vitality of the soul somehow manages to endure through many
dangers. This survival sometimes involves seemingly miraculous assistance.
At the end of this journey, like Saint Barbara, we will die. If, like her,
we have been strong and loyal to what we find to be true and beautiful, it
will have been a good life.
Santa Barbara News-Press,
November 30, 1997