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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