St. Barbara — the Patron Saint of Things That Go Boom
‘She is risen for all the humble, she has heard the conquered calling, St. Barbara of the Gunners, with her hand upon the gun.’ —G.K. Chesterton
I’ve never hidden my admiration of the saints and especially strong women saints. Just like the religious sisters we had in elementary school, the tougher the better. I have no need for saints who tell me about their “feelings.” I don’t want a saint who’s bright and chipper. I want the ones who don’t back down in the face of overwhelming odds, like St. Clare of Assisi did when she stood up to an army of invading Muslims, holding the Blessed Sacrament aloft. I like saints like St. Olga, who invite trouble while smiling with rows of sharp teeth and a gleam in her eye.
St. Barbara was a third-century martyr. Historians have determined that she lived in Heliopolis Phoenicia (present-day Baalbek, Lebanon). She was the daughter of a rich pagan named Dioscorus who kept her locked in a tower to preserve her innocence from the world. In the tower built for her, her father had originally intended two windows. She added a third in honor of the Blessed Trinity. On his return, when Barbara refused to marry the suitor her father chose, she admitted her devotion to Christ. True to form, Dioscorus brought his daughter to Martinianus, prefect of the province, who had her tortured. Barbara suffered greatly but, miraculously, her wounds healed every morning upon waking. Threatened with lit torches, they went out each time they were brought close to her flesh.
Finally, in a fit of pagan fury, Martinianus sentenced her to death by beheading on Dec. 4, 267. Dioscorus was all too eager to assist. She died at his hands but as the man walked home in the rain, he was struck by lightning and died.
St. Barbara is what theologians call a “tough cookie.” As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, Barbara is also venerated by an impressive array of people with dangerous jobs including: armorers, architects, artillerymen, firemen, gunsmiths, marksmen, gun owners, geologists, spelunkers, miners, sappers, tunneling engineers, lightning, chemical engineers and prisoners.
On top of that, Virginia National Guard field artillery soldiers, U.S. Army and Marine Corps Field and Air Defense Artillery, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation Ordnancemen, the U.K. Royal Navy’s Gunnery Branch, British Royal artillery, RAF Armorers and Royal Engineers, the Irish Artillery Corps, the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery, Spanish Military Artillerymen, Canadian Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians (EOD), Canadian Air Force Armorers, Royal Canadian Artillery, Canadian Military Field Engineers, Royal Canadian Navy Weapons Engineering Technicians, Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation, Russian Missile Strategic Forces, the New Zealand Gunners Branch, Royal New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps and the Greek Army Artillery Corps all claim Barbara as their patron saint.
Considering how Barbara’s father died, she is frequently called upon to protect against lightning strikes and other sudden and unexpected deaths — like volcanic eruptions, as she did with Mount Etna on May 27, 1780.
Dangers aside, Barbara is also the patroness of mathematicians. I haven’t figured out why, but I’m not going to question her expertise or experience. But if someone is exploding in anger when confronted with a calculus problem, they’ve got more problems than just long division.
Like St. Joseph, Barbara is invoked in a blessed death — she offers help against the danger of dying without Confession or the Extreme Unction.
Her iconography usually depicts a three-windowed tower, palm, chalice, lightning or a couple of canons. The latter is certainly unique in saint iconography.
G. K. Chesterton wrote the delightful poem, The Ballad of St. Barbara, by interweaving the saint’s legend with the narrative of the artillery barrages that helped win the First Battle of the Marne.
Considering how dangerous munitions are, Spanish, Italian and French seamen placed the storage room that held munitions on their boats under the protection of St. Barbara. In fact, in those navies, the munitions room is called santabárbara (Spanish), Santa Barbara (Italian) and Sainte-Barbe (French).
Even the name of barbiturates is derived from St. Barbara. In 1864, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer (no relation to that Bayer) struggled to coin a name for a compound he discovered. An artilleryman whom he met celebrating the feast of Saint Barbara recommended the saint’s name. Von Baeyer took him up on it and called the chemical barbituric acid — the parent compound of barbiturates from which barbiturates are derived.
St. Barbara is more than just a military patron saint. She instructs the faithful on the strength of our convictions. She demonstrates that regardless of how we live our lives, God can bring unexpected events and people into them. And though Catholics don’t openly discuss this anymore, Barbara also reminds us that some of us might be called upon to be martyrs for the faith. Either way, St. Barbara serves to remind us life is fleeting and we must be expect the unexpected from the God of Surprises.
Prayer to St. Barbara
The Archdiocese for the Military Services offers the Faithful a prayer to St. Barbara:
St. Barbara, you are stronger than the tower of a fortress and the fury of hurricanes. Do not let lightning hit me, thunder frighten me or the roar of canons jolt my courage or bravery. Stay always by my side so that I may confront all the storms and battles of my life with my head held high and a serene countenance. Winning all the struggles, may I, aware of doing my duty, be grateful to you, my protector, and render thanks to God, the Creator of heaven, earth and nature who has the power to dominate the fury of the storm and to mitigate the cruelty of war. St. Barbara, pray for us. Amen.
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St. Barbara Cookies Recipe
There’s a Lebanese custom to make little St. Barbara cookies in the shape of cannonballs. (I know. It’s adorable.) Here’s a recipe the entire family can help out with.
- 1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts, pecans and/or hazelnuts
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1/3 cup light olive oil
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon orange juice
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- Preheat the oven to 350°F
- Sift the flour into a large bowl.
- Add the light olive oil, sugar and butter to a mixing bowl and blend the ingredients.
- As you mix the above ingredients, blend in the baking soda, baking powder, orange juice and zest.
- Ask one your little helpers to slowly add the flour as you stir.
- Shape the dough into 1-inch small balls and arrange them onto an ungreased baking sheet.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden.
- Remove the cookies and cool them on a pastry rack.
- In an uncovered saucepan on low heat, combine the 3/4 cup sugar, honey and 1/2 cup water, bring to a gentle boil for 5 minutes.
- Using 2 forks, dip each cooked cookie into the syrup.
- Sprinkle with crushed nuts.