C.S. Lewis once observed, ‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.’ In his little biographies of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assisi, G.K.Chesterton revelled in the sparkling individuality of both saints. Aquinas was the greatest philosopher of his time while Francis was a troubadour for Christ. Thomas a great bull of a man; Francis a scraggy fool of a man. Thomas was a restrained logician; Francis an extravagant poet. In their uniqueness, Aquinas and Francis display the magnificent full blooded humanity which every saint exhibits.
Chesterton and Lewis weren’t the only ones to be delighted by the variety of the saints. Writing to her prioress Thérèse of Lisieux said, ‘How different are the variety of ways through which the Lord leads souls!’ ‘Souls are more different than faces.’
Take three women who share her name: Theresa of Avila, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Teresa of Calcutta. They all wear a dull uniform and submit to a regime which seems designed to obliterate their individuality, yet each of them emerge as feisty, formidable and utterly unique individuals.
The saints are unique because they are ordinary people who have allowed an extraordinary power to bring them to their full potential. The saint is fascinating because she is the person she was created to be; and the more we become who we are, the less we will be like anybody else. The saint has no time for role models. She cannot spend time pretending to be someone else because she realises it is the work of a lifetime to become oneself.
While the saints are unique, they also complement one another. Threading through the life of every saint is a strand that links them to every other saint. Chesterton shows how Aquinas and Francis, despite their differences, complement one another and reflect the light of Christ back and forth. Thérèse makes a charming observation about how saints depend on one another spiritually. In heaven, she says,
‘all the Saints will be indebted to each other……who knows the joy we shall experience in beholding the glory of the great saints, and knowing that by a secret disposition of Providence we have contributed there unto…and do you not think that on their side the great saints, seeing what they owe to quite little souls, will love them with an incomparable love? Delightful and surprising will be the friendships found there—I am sure of it. The favoured companion of an Apostle or a great Doctor of the Church will perhaps be a young shepherd lad; and a simple little child may be the intimate friend of a
In the divine drama God creates a cast of heroes and children. The thought is echoed in the words of Pope Pius XI about Thérèse, ‘God created such giants of zeal and holiness as Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Behind these, on the far horizon, we catch a glimpse of Peter and Paul, of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Ambrose. But behold! The same heavenly Artist has secretly fashioned, with a love well nigh infinite, this maiden so modest, so humble—this child.’
Benedict also hints at the surprising complementarity in the communion of saints. For him the magnificent community of heaven is reflected in the monastic community on earth. The monks are not ranked according to social privilege, ability or age, but in a celestial sort of egalitarianism, they ‘take their places according to the time of their coming to the monastery, for example, one who has entered the monastery at the second hour is to know that he is junior to him who entered at the first, whatever his age or dignity.’ As in Thérèse’s picture, the young and old respect one another, so Benedict expects the younger monks to show an oriental type of courtesy to their elders: ‘Whenever the brethren meet one another, the junior should rise and seek a blessing of the elder.’ However the older monks should respect the younger because ‘the youthful Samuel and Daniel acted as judges over their elders,’ and in his chapter on summoning the brethren for counsel the older monks must listen respectfully to even the youngest monk for, ‘it is often to the youngest brother that the Lord reveals the best course.’
To study two saints together is to perceive three things: their unique personalities, their similarity to one another and the way their lives and teachings complement each other. When Saint Benedict and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux are studied together the contrast between their personalities is striking. One is an Italian patriarch of the sixth century, the other a bourgeois French girl at the end of the nineteenth. Benedict writes from the edge of the middle age. Thérèse writes from the edge of the modern age. Benedict writes a monastic rule, founds monasteries, rules as an abbot, is visited by royalty and dies an old man. Like a French Emily Dickinson, Thérèse hardly moves beyond her provincial family circle. She has a pious father, lives an enclosed life, writes poetry and a quaint biography, and dies a painful death at the age of twenty four. Like Aquinas and Francis, Benedict and Thérèse are radically different personalities; also like Aquinas and Francis, they complement one another in surprising and profound ways. Augustine wrote about the Scriptures that ‘the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old made manifest in the New.’ So it is with the writings of Thérèse and Benedict; the remarkable insights of Thérèse are hidden within Benedict’s simple monastic rule, and the universal wisdom of Benedict is made fully manifest in the writings of Thérèse. In the two of them Thérèse’s picture of the saints in heaven comes true, for in Thérèse and Benedict ‘a simple little child becomes the intimate friend of a patriarch.’
In ‘studying’ a saint one is never drawn only to their writings. The first attraction to any saint is to their unusual life. The saint’s teachings are nothing without their life because their writings and their life are one. As Gregory the Great said of Benedict, ‘he could not have written what he did not live’ and Hans Urs Von Balthasar says ‘Thérèse protected herself from ever writing any statement that she herself had not tested and that she was not translating into deeds as she was writing.’
Hagiograpny and biography are not the same thing. We do not study the life of a saint as we might read the story of a dead celebrity. We can’t study the story of a dead saint because there’s no such thing. The saint’s life is dynamic because in Christ the saint is still alive. Thérèse is famous for anticipating the great work she would do after her death, ‘I will spend my heaven doing good on earth,’ she said. We venerate the saints and ask for their intercession not because they have written fine words, nor because we think them especially powerful in heaven. Neither do we venerate the saints and ask for their intercession simply because they are holy and good. We venerate saints and ask for their help because they have become our friends. They may be friends, but they are exalted friends. We relate to the saints as we might to a member of the royal family who has come to call. We are fascinated by them because they are greater than us, but we’re more fascinated because they’re not greater than us. They might wear satin breeches, but they step into them one leg at a time. Because the saints are like us and unlike us they not only show us what we are but what we could be. Studying a saint therefore, is a work of devotion not diligence. It is a relationship, not a report. We study a saint not for the love of knowledge but for the knowledge of love.
This article is an excerpt from Fr Longenecker’s classic study St Benedict and St Therese–the Little Rule and the Little Way.. Learn more about the book here. Visit Fr Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com
image: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons