"Pulling a patron" from the holy cards
For a while, as each year wound down, a friend of mine would ask me if I would like her to “pull a patron” for me — a spiritual guide and teacher for the upcoming year. She had an impressive stack of holy cards, and if you wanted, she would randomly pull one for you, and that saint would then become your “patron” for the year.
“Saint Titus!” she served up one year.
Really , I thought. A guy about whom almost nothing is known? Great.
“Saint Julianna!” came the following year’s missive, and I sighed. It came as no surprise at all to me that the year in which my doctor pronounced me “menopausal,” my friend drew for me St. Gerard Majella who is, among other things, the patron of expectant women.
“Perhaps,” another friend suggested, “he is meant to console you as you enter your dotage. He’ll help you ease into becoming a crone.”
My earthly friends are a constant comfort to me.
Although my enthusiasm for the practice was lukewarm, I would nevertheless begin each year by whispering a few shy words to my new patron, by way of introduction, but — lacking a sense of connection — things never moved much beyond prayerful flirtation. My patron saint and I would drift apart by year’s end, just in time for my friend to offer to pull a new one for me.
A cloistered Dominican nun set me to rights about the practice. Relating the belief that “the saint chooses you,” she asked me if I had “prior to the pulling” prayed that the proper patron be guided my way. “But the prayer is more for you, for your awareness,” she said. “Those patrons you could not relate to earlier, had appropriate connections; you just weren’t open to them.”
That year, before my patron was pulled, I did whisper up a prayer — one asking for my own openness toward whatever name ended up on my e-mail box, regardless of his or her story.
In the year 2010: St. Philip Neri!
Well. To me, another obscure saint. I knew nothing of Philip Neri beyond the fact that he was “cheerful” and the founder of a preaching order. “Well, all right,” I said to him, “let’s do this, dear Philip; if you’re my patron, teach me what you know …”
What Philip — who dreamed of being a missionary and ended up serving the mission-state that Rome itself had become — taught me was how very much I did not know. I had not planned to make such a presumptuous or brazen request, but the words were on my lips without thought. Each day it was the addendum to all of my petitions on behalf of my family, my friends, my nation: “St. Philip Neri, teach me what you know.”
In September of that year — unplanned, and due to that prayer, or so I believe— I found myself in Rome. I was determined not to sleep my first night without visiting the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, commonly known as Chiesa Nuova , where Philip’s incorruptible remains are entombed. Discovering our lodgings were very near his Oratory, I could almost hear Philip laughing; he had given me no excuses to slack off.
I lumbered, exhausted, into his chapel and quietly wept in gratitude, thinking, I am not sure how or why, but here I am! A few minutes later Mass began — a quiet Mass of deep intimacy. In all my life, in all of my travels, I have never felt as perfectly placed as I did in that small marble chapel — a sense that I was, for once in my life, precisely where I was meant to be. When I returned to Rome — again unexpectedly, only months later — it was to his crypt chapel that I ventured, daily, for Mass, always with that same sense of homecoming and welcome.
And Philip, called the “apostle of Rome” was all over that city. I kept crashing into him — in a building he’d visited, a church he’d founded, in a name crossing my line of vision. He gave us an incredible tour — one that is still teaching my husband and me many things about ourselves and God and the church.
Saint Bernard has written, “The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them. … We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness.”
I can only agree. Opening up to my patron has been deeply rewarding and sometimes confounding. As 2010 drew to a close, though determined to maintain my friendship with St. Philip, I nevertheless prayed for a new patron and was rewarded with St. Catherine of Siena, who for most of that year intimidated me into stupid silence. Eventually, though, I began to glean her workings in my heart and life; she is more subtle than Philip, but a thorough teacher.
I could go on, but I’ll stop here and acknowledge that my Dominican friend was correct; I now understand the connections those earlier patrons were trying to make with me, and I regret shrugging them off so easily. They are the “great cloud of witnesses” who understand all that we cannot, while we reside here on earth. To ask to be taught what they know no longer seems to me a brazen or presumptuous request.
Rather, it seems like the beginning of wisdom.
This article was first published in First Things on November 1, 2011, and is reprinted here with kind permission.