Blessed Kateri is remembered for her love of nature — she was known to spend time in the forests making and leaving behind simple crosses out of sticks to remind those who saw them of Christ. Her symbols are the turtle — for her tribe — and the lily. Although she had been scarred by the smallpox that had killed her family, after her death many witnesses recorded how her face became smooth and unblemished in death. That and her state of consecrated virginity led to the link to the lily.
Blessed Kateri is not the only saint known by a flower symbol. Nor is she the only one known by a lily.
Virgin saints are often shown with white attire for purity or wearing a crown of flowers, especially lilies. St. Anthony of Padua is shown with a lily for his purity. St. Joseph, the chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary, is also depicted holding a lily. And lilies are also a symbol of Mary herself.
Roses, no thorns?
Most commonly associated with Mary, however, is the rose. Yet this “queen of flowers” is associated with many saints:
- St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who promised a shower of roses from heaven, is one of the best known.
- But there is also St. Rose of Lima, who wore a wreath of roses to camouflage the crown of thorns she also wore.
- Elizabeth of Hungary, Queen of Thuriginia, often smuggled food for the poor. She is shown with roses that appeared in her cloak when she was surprised in her work by her husband.
- Rita of Cascia, saint of the impossible, is shown with roses because she asked for a rose and figs from her old family garden as she lay on her deathbed. Even though it was winter, the roses bloomed and the figs were ripe.
- Roses and fruit are also a symbol of the fourth century martyr: St. Dorothy. Legend says that, as she was led off to execution, a young man named Theophilus taunted her and asked for flowers from her garden. After her death, an angel appeared to Theophilus with three apples and three roses and a request that he meet Dorothy in the garden. Theophilus converted.
- Not only female saints rate roses. St. Francis of Assisi is said to have jumped into a rosebush so the thorns would distract him from temptation.
- And St. Juan Diego’s cloak (tilma) was filled with roses that Our Lady of Guadalupe caused to bloom in winter.
Then there are other flower saints.
More of the garden
- While its flowers are small, the shamrock is associated with St. Patrick, the apostle of Ireland.
- The apostle of Germany, St. Boniface, is associated with oak trees. When this missionary saint came across an impending human sacrifice taking place at the base of an ancient oak, legend says Boniface intervened and chopped down the oak with one blow. At the base of the oak grew an evergreen sapling, which Boniface used as a tool to speak about the eternal light of Christ. (He’s linked with Christmas trees, too.)
- A contemporary and supporter of the eighth century Boniface was Pope St. Zachary. This Benedictine monk was able to bring peace to Italy when he established a treaty with the Lombards. Because of his peace efforts, Zachary is associated with the symbols of doves and olive tree branches.
- Another saint of trees is St. Zenobius of Florence. This fourth century saint had many miracles associated with him during life. And after his death, as his coffin was carried to the Florence cathedral, it brushed up against a dead tree along the route. That tree — an elm by tradition — burst into full leaf.
So why do we symbolize saints with plants and followers? Pope Benedict XVI explained some of that on All Saints Day in 2008: “Visiting a botanical nursery garden, one is amazed by the variety of plants and flowers… A similar feeling of wonder strikes us when we consider the spectacle of sainthood: the world appears to us as a ‘garden,’ where the Spirit of God has given life with admirable imagination to a multitude of men and women saints, of every age and social condition, of every language, people and culture.”
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; katerishrine.com; vatican.va; catholic.org; catholictradition.org; catholicenchange.com; holyspiritinteractive.net; saints.Sqpn.com.