Unknown Saints: the Example of Cosmas and Damian

The basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian with its wonderful (though much restored) mosaics is one of my favourite Roman churches, not least because whenever I have visited it, I seem to have been the only person there — a rare experience in Rome. We know quite a lot about its history but about the saints to whom it is dedicated nothing at all for certain, only that they existed. Pious tradition maintains that they were Arab physicians, reputedly twin brothers, who were martyred in Syria in the third century after a lifetime spent in the service of the poor. They are said to have treated people without payment and are honoured today as patrons of doctors, surgeons, and dentists and protectors of children. 

Tourists probably barely register any of this in their hurry to look at the mosaics and take one more photograph before moving on to the next site, but for those of us hundreds of miles away, there is time for reflection. The basilica and the saints who give it its name are a reminder of the hollowness of our contemporary celebrity culture. It is not necessary to be a ‘name’ to be great. It is necessary to ‘do’. For me, Cosmas and Damian epitomise ‘anonymous sanctity’. That is to say, they represent the thousands upon thousands of people who, through the ages and in our own day, speak powerfully of God through their holiness of life. Most of them are unknown to us or commemorated by an accident of history, as here, in a building in the Forum of Vespasian. But they are the Church, the Body of Christ, preachers of the gospel, doers of his word, not hearers only. As such, they are an inspiration and perhaps, sometimes, a check on our vanity and complacency. I suspect most of us can think of someone we’ve met who has radiated this quality of holiness, bundled us up in the love of God and tossed us back into the world a humbler and more hopeful person. I am glad to say that I have met many such, both in the monastery and outside.

It would be tempting to leave matters there, content with a beautiful thought about the holiness of others, but it won’t do. We must apply it personally, and that is much harder. To be an unknown saint is not only a huge honour, it is a vocation — yours and mine. How will we try to live it today?

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12 thoughts on “Unknown Saints: the Example of Cosmas and Damian”

  1. Again an inspiring blog, spoken with such a firm, no nonsense voice – yet radiating the true humility of a ‘doer’ . God Bless you and all your dear sisters. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you, dear Sister Catherine, for this thoughtful piece. As with Cosmas and Damian, there are many good and kind people in recent times who have performed near miracles for those less fortunate and go unrewarded. In fact, such people often shun recognition. They come from diverse backgrounds and have different faiths or, in some cases, none at all. They not only live out the Lord’s desire that we love our neighbours but also put this into constructive practice by their considerate and helping action.
    One such unsung person is Reverend Canon Pam Wilding, who lives in Knott End in Lancashire. Pam is a non stipendiary minister at St Oswald’s Parish Church in Preesall. She only came to this in retirement after having been a missionary in Kenya for over thirty years. This kind lady is a 24/7 pastoral minister, who belies her advanced years with the verve and joyful vigour she brings to others lives. And has continued to raise funds for and, until this year, gone out every year to Kenya to assist at her former mission.
    Pam was very caring to my late wife, Barbara, when we lived in Lancashire and attended St Oswald’s. Her pastoral care helped my wife through the chronic pain and distress of rheumatoid arthritis and pulmonary fibrosis. For that alone, l will always be so grateful. Pam devoted herself fully to her parishioners, the local populace and those she knew in Kenya.

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  3. In the convent school in Singapore where I was educated the nuns used to say that it was easy to be martyred by being dunked in boiling oil, or burnt at the stake. What was much more difficult was living our everyday lives with patience, trust and humility. Being unknown martyrs for Christ. Being unknown saints, as you so beautifully put it. I shall fail, but I will try. Thank you Sister.

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  4. Of course, those of us brought up on the Roman canon know them as part of that litany of the saints “…John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian…” This made me think of our mutual friend, whom I will not embarrass by mentioning by name but who certainly comes into the category of doer of the word. God bless her!

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  5. Dear Sister, your readers might like to know that Fra Angelico painted two series of images about the Saints Cosmas and Damien as part of altar pieces for San Marco and Annelena. Beautiful, lively little paintings depicting episodes from their lives, many of them now scattered in galleries around the world! (Masters of Italian Art: Gabrielle Bartz)

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  6. I suspect most of us can think of someone we’ve met who has radiated this quality of holiness, bundled us up in the love of God and tossed us back into the world a humbler and more hopeful person. I am glad to say that I have met many such, both in the monastery and outside……….YES, its you.

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