Saints & Seekers
It seems that even the best of us—namely, the saints—are not free from sexual temptation. There are numerous ways to avoid temptation, but sometimes we forget the most obvious one: fleeing from it, or, when it won’t leave, forcefully driving it away. This is illustrated by two stories about two very well-known saints: St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. Thomas Aquinas—two saints who usually do not come to mind when we think of sexual temptation (unlike say, St. Augustine).
In his Life of St. Benedict, Pope Gregory recounts how St. Benedict once was “assaulted with such a terrible temptation of the flesh, as he never felt the like in all his life.” Suddenly, the saint’s mind was filled with the memory of a “certain woman … which some time he had seen.” The mere memory of her “mightily inflame[d]” him with desire for her. Then, just as soon as he had been nearly overcome with passion, God intervened. Here is how Pope Gregory describes it:
But, suddenly assisted with God’s grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, did inwardly burn in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire.…
Sibling bickering, it seems, does not stop even when both brother and sister are saints. The year was 547 AD and St. Benedict of Nursia—yes, that St. Benedict, for whom the Benedictines are named—was having a rare once-a-year visit with his sister, St. Scholastica. As the day neared end, St. Benedict wanted to return to his abbey, but St. Scholastica pleaded with him to stay so they could keep talking. What did she do when St. Benedict refused? She did what any offended sister might do: she cried. Except when this saint cried, it poured—quite literally.
[F]or the holy Nun, resting her head upon her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears upon the table, that she drew the clear air to a watery sky, so that after the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed: and her prayer and the rain did so meet together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began, so that in one and the very same instant, she lifted up her head and brought down the rain. The man of God, seeing that he could not by reason of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return back to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain of his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” to whom she answered: “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me, I have desired our good Lord, and he hath vouchsafed to grant my petition: wherefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.”
And so they stayed up reportedly talking about heaven.…
Ezekiel 22:30 tells us of God’s search for a single man who would stand in the breach of the wall—someone to stand between the Lord and his destruction of Jerusalem, which had become morally and spiritually dilapidated. None was found.
But Church history offers us up examples of saints who stood in the breach, so to speak—saints who seemed to be all that there was that stood between the Church and spiritual disaster. One of the best examples of this is St. Catherine of Siena. It’s no exaggeration to say that her labors to end the Western Schism—in which the Catholic world was torn between two popes between the late 1300s and early 1400s—sent her to her deathbed. At one point, while praying for the divided Church, St. Catherine felt as if the entire bark of St. Peter— a term for the Church—was resting on her shoulders as she was praying at his grave. Here is how one of her biographers describes it:
She kneels there, a little, thin, white-robed figure; the two great black eyes are burning, the deadly pale face is luminous, the delicate lips of the slightly protruding mouth move softly in prayer, like leaves quivering in a slight puff of wind. The tiny folding hands are like the motionless flame of a candle upon the altar; her whole figure is white and luminous and aflame like a blessed candle. Her women friends are kneeling by her side; they are praying too, but always watching anxiously over their beloved spiritual mother, la dolce venerabile Mamma.…
Yesterday, I wrote about how one of the marks of greatness among the saints is their submission to the authority of the Church, particularly the Pope—and how this can be a source of spiritual inspiration and empowerment. This is exemplified by St. Francis, a saint who is much admired outside of the Church. As historian Warren Carroll has written:
St. Francis’ preaching was marked by love of Christ and the Church and his fellow-man, by Christian joy, by the cheerful embracing of complete poverty, by a profound respect for the clergy, above all by total fidelity to orthodox doctrine. This full combination before had never been seen since the earliest days of the church.
However, the benefits of submission to Church authority were not always as obvious as they were at the Fourth Lateran Council, mentioned in yesterday’s post. St. Francis’ commitment to Church authority was put to the test when St. Francis was charged with drafting a new rule for the order that he had founded, which had reportedly swelled by the thousands in short order. St. Francis was insistent that the rule contain an allusion to Jesus’ command to his disciples that they “take nothing with them as they go out and preach.” This was the touchstone of the Franciscan commitment to living by begging. But church authorities ruled that this had become impractical, forcing St. Francis to accept a revised rule, in which the language had been dropped out.…
We sometimes think of St. Francis, who is arguably one of the best known and most beloved saints, as a solitary radical—wandering out in the woods to preach to the birds or crossing enemy lines in the midst of the crusade. We think of his encounters with God, when he was touched most deeply in his heart, as profoundly private moments. To be sure, this might be the case with his reception of the stigmata or when he heard the voice on the cross.
But there was another side to the saint.
It was November 1215 and the Fourth Lateran Council was underway. In his opening remarks, Pope Innocent III recalled Ezekiel 9, where the prophet envisions a linen-clad man who went throughout Jerusalem, marking the foreheads of those who lamented the sins of their city. The letter was a Tau, which is reportedly cross-shaped. This speech had a profound impact on St. Francis, according to historian Warren Carroll:
St. Francis was moved to his soul by these words of the Vicar of Christ. For the rest of his life he made the letter Tau the emblem of his order, using it as a signature, placing it upon his door and his writings.
One thing that marks saints like St. Francis apart from the modern notion of the individual hero is that they achieved their greatness in the context of a community, in submission to and deference to the historic authority of the Church.…
Worldliness, a U.S. theologian once wrote, makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. Perhaps nowhere else is the strangeness of righteousness more apparent than in the lives and works of the saints. Think of St. Francis of Assisi, who renounced worldly goods by stripping naked in a public square, preached to the birds, and attempted to convert an Egyptian sultan in the middle of a crusade. Or, his contemporary, St. Dominic, who tried—twice—to sell himself into slavery to free prisoners held by Muslim invaders. Or, to take yet another example, St. Catherine of Siena, the mystic who lived on communion wafers, scolded popes, and labored to the end the Western Schism in the final years of her short life.
These saints are the unlikeliest of what the world, in its limited vocabulary, might call heroes. They had no money or power. They sought neither fame nor glory. They did not make names for themselves as inventors, explorers, warriors, scientists, or artists—although some of them may have happened to also be those things. What’s more, they did not hesitate to associate with the lowliest of their societies—the outcasts, the untouchables, and the least fortunate. For St. Francis, it was the lepers; for St. Catherine, the victims of the Black Plague.
And yet, they were among the most powerful and influential figures of their time. This was due not to their individual genius, hard work, or dumb luck. Instead, they were great because of God.…