Saint Oran of Iona

I first learned the legend of St. Oran of Iona in Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Trigger Warnings. In short, Oran accompanied Saint Columba to the tiny Scottish island of Iona to spread Christianity to Scotland in the year 563. On Iona the group was trying to build a chapel, but every morning they would return to the build site to find that their previous day’s work had been disassembled overnight. The solution, possibly according to God, possibly according to Columba, which was to bury a person alive underneath the foundations of the building in order to appease whatever supernatural forces were de-constructing it. Oran consented to be buried in the chapel foundations (although I wonder how enthusiastic that consent really was, or if this was more of a “voluntold” scenario).

Sure enough, once Oran had been buried alive, the construction of the chapel was able to progress as normal. It is here that the legend begins to fork off into different versions. Maybe Oran himself poked his head out of the stones one day, or possibly Columba and the other missionaries checked on him after a few days to see how dead he was (?), but however he came to face his colleagues, he uttered something along the lines of “God is not as you imagine. There is no Hell as you suppose, nor Heaven that people talk about.” Upon hearing these utterances, Columba either directed that Oran be hastily re-buried before he could say more, or directed that he be re-buried in consecrated ground. (Apparently a chapel foundation is not technically consecrated ground? I don’t know.)

At some point along the line, maybe because he consented to martyring himself for a building, Oran was canonized into sainthood. According to his wikipedia page, Oran had also built churches in Ireland over a multi-decade career before going to Iona, but other sources I’ve seen dispute whether that is the same Oran. St. Oran’s chapel still stands on Iona today (although I believe that is not the chapel under which he was buried, but rather he’s under the Abbey), and the surrounding cemetery is named in his honor as well. Apparently they buried Scottish kings in that cemetery for a few centuries.

Iona today is known as the birthplace of Celtic Christianity in Scotland, which seems to me to be splitting hairs a bit, but fine. In more recent history, the island has been regarded by British occultists as a thin place, where the veil between worlds is … thin … and it is easier to communicate with the Other Side. Adding to the mystere, in 1929 occultist Norah (sometimes called Netta) Fornario died on Iona while there for explicit occult study purposes. I’m in the middle of reading Death on Iona, a book about her death, right now, but I’m pretty sure the author comes to the conclusion that she died of exposure, not of “BLACK MAGIC” or “EVIL,” as her fellow occultists of the day feared.

Death on Iona, self-published by Ben Oakley but very well-researched and interesting, has yet to explicitly draw the connection between St. Oran’s posthumous outburst and the occultist fascination with the island of Iona, but, like, that’s gotta be part of it, right? That’s the basis of my fascination, and I’m not an occultist, I’m just a pagan and a dabbler with some Catholic Baggage. You’re telling me a Catholic Saint’s last words were telling those around him that God, Heaven, and Hell aren’t what everyone thought they were, and he was immediately re-buried before he could expand on those points? Hell yeah I would like to go meditate in that abbey and attempt to commune. Hell, let’s get a pedulum out, go nuts.

But what’s interesting to me, years after first learning about St. Oran from Mr. Gaiman, is how little stuff there actually is for the saint. Catholics love a knick-knack. They love a candle, a medallion, a pendant, a little set of prayer beads. If you’ve ever been to an abbey or monastery that sells things to the public, they likely have a gift shop chock full of knick-knacks. I still carry a little St. Christopher clip in my car, transferred over from the camry handed down from my grandfather, because St. Christopher protects travelers and I may not be Catholic anymore but I’ll be damned if I toss out Gramps’s protective knick-knack.

(Full disclosure there is also a small hedgehog stuffed toy, dubbed “the lucky hedgehog” by Gramps for reasons I will probably never know, and that also Does Not Leave the Car)

But there’s no knick-knacks for our boy Oran. He had a stone cross that stood at the Iona Abbey for a long time until it mostly disintegrated, and you can get pendants of the other crosses that stood or stand at the abbey, but not St. Oran’s. No medallions or pendants like you get with your A-list and some B-list saints, like Michael and Brigid and Anthony and Christopher. Not even a little plastic figurine to bury to help sell your house, like St. Joseph can do for you.

If you know anything about the Catholic Church, it seems reasonable to designate this as an intentional downplaying of St. Oran. (A coverup??? you say. By THEE Catholic Church??? you say. Well I never!!!) We wouldn’t want any youngins coming across a St. Oran medal in the cathedral gift shop and doing some research. We certainly wouldn’t want anyone to pick St. Oran as their confirmation saint! (I would absolutely have tried to pick St. Oran as my confirmation saint, but instead I dropped out.) But the Celts have a long and proud history of twisting christianity to their preferences, and it does suprise me that no cheeky silversmiths (at least that I can find on the internet) are making St. Oran medals or crosses for cheeky young Doubters to wear to gram’s house for Easter dinner because their mothers won’t let them tell gram they’re heretics. There’s a market here! I don’t even have any grandmothers still alive but I am a cheeky young Doubter who would like to venerate St. Oran a little!

At this point I feel my best bet is to start a Cult of St. Oran, or maybe an Oranian (Oranine? Oranese?) Secular Order, and we will have interesting theological discussions, and eventually we will catch some talented artisans who will make us the covertly anti-Catholic knick knacks we (I) so desire. So, uh, more to come on that, I guess. Watch this space.