The Advent and Christmas seasons can be times less of anticipation and joy and more of dread and depression. From the challenges of dealing with relatives to paying bills to coping with the winter blues, the holidays pose severe problems for many people.
The saints, of course, are always there to help us deal with the stress of everyday life, and they are especially present for us when we need them most. There is always a saint who has dealt with similar problems in his or her own life, and the saints stand ready as friends to provide a heavenly perspective on stress reduction and also to point us in the true direction we should be headed in the midst of the holiday “blahs.” As St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina recommended, “Pray, hope and don’t worry!” Here are a few saints for dealing with holiday stress.
Safe and secure
Start, of course, with St. Joseph. A humble carpenter from Nazareth, Joseph stands as one of our sure guides for dealing with family stress around Christmas. Consider the task he was given — and accepted — from God, embracing an important role in the plan of salvation. But it also entailed protecting the Holy Family from the violent plans of King Herod, fleeing his own home for the safety of Egypt and then, after returning, helping to raise Jesus. Little wonder, then, Joseph is honored as the patron of families and also protector of the Church. If God turned to him for the daily care of Mary and his Son, how much help can he be to us when encountering family squabbles and stress? As Pope Benedict XVI said of him in 2005, “He is the model of the ‘just’ man (Mt 1:19), who in perfect sympathy with his spouse, welcomes the Son of God made man and guards over his human growth. For this reason, the days leading up to Christmas are as good a time as ever to establish a sort of spiritual conversation with St. Joseph, because he helps us to live to the full this great mystery of faith.”
The Advent and Christmas seasons are times of heightened charity for Christians. And sometimes that is not encouraged by our own families. St. Zedislava Lemberk certainly encountered that. The daughter of Czech nobles, she was forced to marry the count of Lemberk, and the couple had four children. Devoted to the poor and the suffering, Zedislava received chronic abuse from her husband, especially when she invited the hungry and homeless into their house. Finally, her exasperated husband learned that she had given a bed to a fever-stricken beggar and stormed up the stairs to expel the unwelcome visitor. When he pulled back the covers, however, the beggar was not there. Instead, the count found a crucifix. Filled with remorse, he forever after supported her charitable efforts, and after her death in 1252, he beheld a vision of her in glory.
But sometimes, too, we can give in to the stress and allow the winter gloom to wrap around us. At such a moment, turn to St. Catherine of Genoa. The daughter of Genoese nobles, she married a young aristocrat who turned out to be a great disappointment. He was unfaithful, unsuccessful and violent, and Catherine succumbed to depression and despair and fell away from the faith. Finally, in 1473, she went to confession and was stunned by a profound vision of God’s love and her own sinfulness. Returning home, she led her husband to a new life of prayer and the sacraments, and the two of them devoted their lives to the care of the poor and the sick. He died in 1497, and she became Franciscan tertiary before her own death in 1510. Her writings were a great inspiration to such future saints as Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales.
Keeping the peace
And if you think you have problems with squabbling and difficult relatives at the Christmas table, you should consider St. Elizabeth of Portugal. A Spanish princess from Aragon, she was given in marriage to King Denis of Portugal and served as a dedicated peacemaker in the kingdom. When civil war erupted between her husband and their son Alfonso (the future King Alfonso IV), Elizabeth rode out on a mule between the two armies and forced them to stop their feud. She did it again years later when, near death in 1336, she marched between the troops of her son and King Alfonso XI of Castile and berated them both with a motherly plea for peace.
But what about the terrible stress of welcoming endless guests during the holidays? Well, St. Martha is the patron of cooks and hospitality. In the Gospels (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11:1-54; and Jn 12:1-9), we read about three visits that Jesus makes to Bethany, near Jerusalem, to Martha and Mary. While Martha serves, Mary listens to Jesus. As Luke writes, “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her’” (Lk 10:40-42). Our Lord might be speaking to us. As we rush around focusing on meals and parties, we can lose sight of what is most important: Him. And when Jesus returns, as described in John’s Gospel, Martha affirms her belief in Christ as the Messiah, and then she does what she does best — she serves happily while Lazarus, recently raised from the dead by Christ, “was one of those reclining at table with him” (Jn 12:2).
Still stressed? Then perhaps you might turn to the beloved Padre Pio (d. 1968). Catholics have for many years appreciated his deep insights dealing with stress and anxiety, so much so that organizations, such as the Catholic Enquiry Office in London, England, have begun calling him a patron saint of stress relief. Padre Pio received the stigmata of Christ and was given the ability of reading the spiritual state of those who came to him for help. He sat for many hours on end in the confessional listening to the sins of those who came from around the world to see him and hear his counsel for their lives. In the midst of all of that, he remained firm in his great maxim, “Pray, hope and don’t worry.” And he would often add, “Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
Meditating on mysteries
Finally, there is our sure and certain hope in times of stress, especially during the holidays, in the Virgin Mary, who gave her fiat — who said “yes” to God — and became Mother of the Redeemer. We started with Joseph, one part of the Holy Family, and finish with the Blessed Mother. When faced with overwhelming stress, use the Rosary and meditate on the Joyful Mysteries. Ask Our Mother for her comfort. She will be there. As Pope Blessed John Paul II once taught, “From Mary we learn to surrender to God’s will in all things. From Mary we learn to trust even when all hope seems gone. From Mary we learn to love Christ her Son and the Son of God!”
Matthew Bunson is editor of The Catholic Almanac (OSV, $32.95) and The Catholic Answer magazine.