Today is St. Ursula’s Day
I like St. Ursula. She’s the patron of teachers and students, her name means ‘bear,’ and seriously, I have my suspicions that she didn’t start out as a good Christian woman. After having made a pilgrimage in part to her ‘goldene kammer’ in St. Ursula’s basilica in Cologne, she’s become one of the spirits that I venerate fairly frequently. I was almost named Ursula after my paternal grandmother and there are many points of connection that I feel with the saint. Let me tell you her story.
According to Ursula’s hagiography, she was a princess who was sent by her father to a bridegroom on the continent. She traveled with a retinue of 11,000 virgins. She declared that before her marriage, she would make a pilgrimage across Europe, particularly to Rome where she persuaded the pope and at least one bishop to travel with her. They headed toward Cologne where they were set up on by Huns who beheaded everybody except for Ursula who was shot dead with arrows, all apparently in the late fourth century C.E. Personally, I’m dubious. Even the Catholics question the historical veracity of this legend, and for a number of reasons too much and too many to go into here!
The Basilica of St. Ursula contains the relics of Ursula and her virgins. Now, this basilica was built on a Roman Pagan burial ground. According to legend, Ursula started out with eleven female companions. People kept finding bones though, a lot of bones, of either gender and soon ‘eleven’ became ‘eleven thousand.’ The bone room, the ‘goldene kammer’ housing the relics truly is a powerful place, a holy place, and I envy the docent her job. We have the bones of dead Pagans arranged on all four walls in various patterns, occasionally spelling out words like ‘Maria, ora pro nobis’ (hard to see in the photo here) and receiving veneration, quite a bit of veneration as Ursula has become (along with the three kings whose relics also rest in Cologne, at the Kölner Dom) patron of the city.
(The above photo is mine, the little photo at the beginning of this article is not mine, but is from wikipedia, a fifth century fresco of ST. Ursula)
I think her chapel with all its bones was one of the favorite ossuaries that I had the pleasure of visiting last year. It was small – much smaller than I expected which made it particularly difficult to get a good photograph.
(this image is by Mary Ann Glass)
My travelling companion MAG said that it was very clearly feminine space – she was picking up on the presence of Ursula I think, and the reliquaries in the shape of female busts, and the statue of Ursula in the main part of the church.
(this photo is mine, of one of the reliquary busts)
We were watched the whole time we were in the bone room, but that was ok. The docent was a lovely woman who tried to be enormously helpful. She made sure we saw that the bones spelled out words and was otherwise unobtrusive.
(this photo is mine, of the bones which spelled out prayers. I couldn’t get back far enough because of the size of the room to get the full prayer in the shot but this gives one a sense)
The presence of this holy power was palpable.
(This is mine, of several of the skulls in one of the niches in the room. I love how they have ribbon over their faces, as though they are shy and hiding from the glance of the world)
It was a bit of a lesson for me that a spiritworker can’t go happily traipsing through these places without attracting the attention of those venerated there, and sometimes that leads to alliances being formed. I went to gawk at her bones and I came away with the expectation that I would continue to pay respect.
Personally, I tend to think Ursula started out as a local deity or demi-deity in the area (the bear connection is particularly potent for me), something not unheard of with popular “saints.” In the end, it doesn’t matter. She was receptive to my overtures and I have found her a strong and steady presence in my work. Today is her feast day. May she be well hailed.
Here is a prayer that I have adapted.
Holy saint Ursula who was strong,
Pray for us.
Fierce saint Ursula who was bold and courageous.
Pray for us.
Good saint Ursula, charismatic in your leadership,
firm in your purpose,
Pray for us.
You are remembered today
with your companions.
Let us be as fierce in our devotions
To our Gods and spirits
as you were in forging your way
across the land
and in facing death.
Saint Ursula, please
pray for us,
and be hailed.
(Holbein’s St. Ursula)