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Amethysts And Bishops' Rings

By William V. Rauscher

From early times, Bishops have worn a ring to denote their special office. The first tracing of a Bishop's ring is found about A.D. 610. At that time, Bishops' rings were always designed around a single stone, which was a ruby, an emerald, or a sapphire, and the stone was not engraved. Eventually, for mystical reasons, the stone used in most rings was an amethyst.

Bishops in the Diocese of New Jersey are no exception to this tradition, and many of these men have chosen to have the Diocesan Seal carved into the stone of their ring. A classic example of this type of ring was worn by the late New Jersey Bishop, Rt. Rev. Alfred L. Banyard (1908-1992).

The personal taste of some contemporary Bishops does not always follow tradition. Now the style they choose varies, but the ring's meaning remains the same. The selection of symbols in the ring is left to each individual Bishop, thereby making every ring unique.

The ring worn by the late New Jersey Bishop, Rt. Rev. Albert W. Van Duzer (1917-1999) was traditional. However, the large amethyst in his ring was not engraved, since it is now difficult to find gem carvers. On one side of Bishop Van Duzer's ring was the Bishop's staff; on the other side was a type of budded cross. The budded cross is commonly used as a design for processional crosses. The arms end in a trefoil design, which suggests the Trinity.

The ring worn by another retired New Jersey Bishop, Rt. Rev.Vincent K. Pettit, is made entirely of gold, and has no precious stone in it. The seal is carved in the top of Bishop Pettit's ring, with a Miter on one side and Agnus Dei symbol on the other. Retired diocesan Bishop Rt. Rev. G. P. Mellick Belshaw wears a ring that is also less traditional - smaller in size, without a gem, and with the diocesan seal engraved in the gold on top of the ring. The once Bishop of New Jersey, Rt. Rev. Joe Morris Doss, wore a ring designed in a more traditional motif, which he borrowed from the diocesan archives, and which was first worn by the late Diocesan Bishop, Rt. Rev. John Scarborough (1831-1914).

Still today the more common design of a Bishop's ring is an oval shaped amethyst, usually very large, with the diocesan seal engraved directly into the flat surface of the gem. In earlier times the ring was always worn on the middle finger of the Bishop's right hand. This ring was very visible when the Bishop raised his hand and gave the blessing, and helped to project its meaning to all who received Christ's power from heavenly realms. It was also a seal that could be pressed into warm wax, and used to imprint secret documents. Finally, it also served as a seal for official ecclesiastical functions like ordinations, consecrations, or when certificates were issued and sealed.

The Bishop's ring has always been fashioned of gold, and is usually very heavy. It represents a kind of communication link beyond the Bishop himself, and a lifelong union with the church. It radiates the special magnetic quality of Christ, whom the Bishop represents as a successor to the apostles. Gold symbolically represents the eternal worth of his office.

According to Josephus (A.D. 37-95), a kind of miraculous quality was presumed to be found in the stones of the breastplate worn by the high priest of the temple. In this breastplate were twelve stones, representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and arranged in four rows to represent the four seasons. So also was this quality supposed to be found in the Bishop's ring. In the high priest's breastplate, the amethyst was the ninth stone in the third row of the twelve stones or gems set into it. These stones also had additional meaning as the twelve angels who guard the gates of Paradise. The amethyst's luminous quality, its colorful play of light rays, and the theme of its meaning eventually became the reason for its selection as a "protective stone" worn by a Bishop. The violet color denoted not only his compassion, but also his power as a man of God.

This is also true of the Pectoral Cross that a Bishop wears about his neck, and which lies against his breast. The cross was originally a means of protection when the Bishop faced the people. It proclaimed his office as a successor to the Apostles, and was also thought to be a means of drawing spiritual energies for inner strength. Today it is a reminder to everyone of the power which resides in the cross, and is magnified by the gems it contains.

The amethyst was well known in ancient Egypt, and was respected as a stone of beauty and power throughout the Greek and Roman periods. In the last half of the tenth century, Andreas, Bishop of Caesarea, ascribed the twelve stones common to symbolic meaning to the various apostles. The amethyst signified Matthias.

The traditional oval shape of the stone in the Bishop's ring was suggested by St. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-220). The oval represents the simplified fish symbol without the extending lines. It is also a Nimbus, which in its shape is a form of radiation of glory. Symbolically the shape of the stone quietly speaks the phrase "God the Son."

Most people are familiar with the association of various gems to our birth dates. These stones vary by different cultures and times, but through the years there has been little change regarding the connection of the amethyst with the month of February, beginning on the 21st of this month, and ending on March 20th. According to ancient views of the Zodiac, gems like the amethyst not only had planetary influences, but they were even ascribed to certain days of the week, specific hours of the day and night, and special anniversaries. The amethyst was never considered a gem of the night; it was a stone of the dawn. The amethyst is ascribed to Wednesday, and to the hour of 8:00 a.m. of that day. It also signifies the seventeenth wedding anniversary. It is also believed if you wore the gem designated for the anniversary of the specific month and day or your birth, your ethereal vibrations would be heightened.

There is an old poem about the amethyst for those born in February under the ancient symbol of Pisces, the fish -

From passion and from care kept free,

Shall Pisces children ever be,

Who wear so all the world may see,

The Amethyst.

Historically, the purplish color of the amethyst was supposed to prevent drunkenness, and bring a sense of peace and devotion. It was Pliny who thought the Greek name Amethysos, "not drunken," or Amethyein, "to be immune from it," was so called because of the gem's similarity to the color of wine. It was not only a stone to help prevent alcoholic drunkenness, but to remind a Bishop not to become "drunk" with power, and to focus always on the Heavenly Kingdom.

The amethyst was also known as a deceiver in early times. Many ancient goblets were carved from large amethyst crystals because of the stone's purple color, so good wine could not be distinguished from wine that had been watered down.

In the Bible, we find this stone adorned the foundation walls of the New Jerusalem. "The foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones … the twelfth, an amethyst." (Revelation 21:19,20 KJV).

Another ancient belief is that the amethyst had the power to quiet any kind of passion; it was therefore once used to make rosaries. Since it does not show fire like a diamond or a fire opal, the amethyst is presumed to have a quiet effect, an almost serene quality, and a kind of regal stateliness.

In a special sense, every Bishop becomes the replacement for Judas, and he is chosen specifically for his spiritual qualities. As clear quartz of bluish-violet color, the amethyst is an appropriate gem for a Bishop to wear. The amethyst's meaning is deep and spiritual, and its history well documented through the ages. The ring is a reminder of the Bishop's office, and offers a ray of hope to Christian believers.

Every Bishop is invested with the Episcopal Ring, and it remains a part of his attire until his death. At that time if it is not passed on to another Bishop, or kept in the archives of the diocese, it is usually melted down or buried with the Bishop.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope's ring, called "The Fisherman's Ring," is usually a heavy gold seal with symbols. If gemstones are used, they are rubies, emeralds, or sapphires. Upon the Pope's death, the papal ring is broken into pieces. This act prevents the sealing of any pontifical papers prior to the election of a new Pope. A cheap duplicate of his ring might be seen on the Pope's body as he lies in state, but the pieces of the actual ring are normally buried with the Pontiff. A new ring is always created for a new Pope.

No relative, priest or deacon is entitled to wear a Bishop's ring, nor would it ever be sold lest it find its way into hands that would treat this sacred object as a curiosity or collector's item. The ecclesiastical authority invested in this historic symbol is reserved for a Bishop alone.