Saint Anthony And Lost Things


What strange faith I have in Saint Anthony.  Any belief that I picked up from being raised Catholic now flickers like a spent votive candle within the gloomy cathedral of my disbelief, and yet somehow I still pray to the patron saint of lost things.

Numerous miracles verified Anthony of Padua’s holiness. He reattached an amputated arm; he shielded a crowd of faithful from rain; when heretics wouldn’t heed him, he preached instead to the fish, and they raised their noses out of the river to listen; his tongue remained pink and uncorrupted thirty years after his death. By comparison, the incident that established him as the patron saint of lost things seems a lesser miracle: Anthony couldn’t find his prayer book, he prayed, and the novice who had stolen the psalter promptly returned it. Yet as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost.”  Given the potency and prevalence of lost things, how could they not overrun all other responsibilities in his saintly job description?

I envision a vast ledger book with a mile-high spine cataloging the resting place of lost things. An army of cherubs turns each massive page with its lists of lost treasures, lost pets, lost luggage, lost cities, lost languages, lost civilizations, lost species. Anthony, CEO of this Cosmic Lost and Found, often hears from me regarding my car keys, wallet, and cell phone—those objects that seem like appendages of myself until I carelessly set them down somewhere. My petitions are often whispered between knitted brow and curses. Without fail, as soon as my words take flight, something loosens in my mind, I look more closely over spaces already scoured or I simply remember where I set them.

I pray too for others sometimes, such as when my friend Phil lost his wedding ring. His office was next to mine. I first saw a handwritten note about the ring taped beside the sink in the men’s bathroom, and then he sent out an email to everyone at the university. “It’s a simple gold band, all I could afford in 1992 during my salad days of graduate school, so it has more sentimental than actual value,” he wrote. “I rigorously interrogated my cats and threatened to withhold the tuna until they presented the ring, but they continue to act as if nothing has happened.”

Soon afterward, I leaned into Phil’s door and asked about the ring. “It must have fallen off my finger.  I just looked down, and it was gone,” he told me. I offered sympathy, and the conversation drifted, as it often did, to books we were reading.

I remember praying to Saint Anthony on the way back to my office. Had I known that it was cancer treatment that had thinned Phil’s finger, that this would be one of the last times I would see him, I would have prayed more sincerely, offering to forfeit all future help with lost car keys so that my friend could get his ring back. But he had kept his illness to himself, so my prayer was hurriedly muttered in the hallway.

Certainly there is an entry in Saint Anthony’s book for where this ring landed: the grime beneath blackberry bushes, a mud puddle in an alley, the bottom of a steam grate, the catch of a drain pipe, someone’s pocket. A gentle whisper from beyond could have helped us find this ring. It seems a reasonable solace for a dying man and his family.

With this unanswered prayer, I learned more from Phil about the art of losing than I ever have from praying to Saint Anthony. Rather than abandoning my prayers entirely, I am now forming a new one out of my own doubts: Where might I find the same grace when I encounter such a loss? I caught a glimpse of it once, just outside the window, as slanting rays of the evening sun illuminated a wild splay of raindrops. Yet glance away for a moment—which I did—and it is gone.

Justin Wadland is the author of Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound (OSU Press, June 2014). He works as a librarian and occasionally teaches at the University of Washington Tacoma. Only recently has he become comfortable with calling himself a Zen Catholic, but he's still figuring out what that means.