The lives of the Saints have been a source of transformation. Down the centuries these lives have changed other lives. What would have become of St. Ignatius of Loyola without his reading of books on holy men and women during his convalescence, or of Edith Stein without her all night reading of St. Teresa of Avila, or of Dorothy Day without her discovering The Story of a Soul?
Reading can make a saint. The problem is, however, that the worthier the book, more often than not, the duller the read. How many accounts of holiness have we begun with the best of intentions, only to fling them aside in a fit of boredom before we reach for something less beneficial but so much better written? One can only hope for the day when the New York Times bestsellers lists are full of books that make their readers better people rather than just better entertained.
With that in mind, it is fair to say that hagiography has not always been well served by writers. In fact, this is a genre in which the aspirations of authors have often outstripped their gift for storytelling and consequently stripped raw the patience of the reader. Lives of the holy that are presented as a seemingly endless stream of heroic and saintly acts from childhood onwards can leave the reader with a decided sense of inferiority and exasperation. Here, then, are a few suggestions of some good reads – in every sense.
The first choice for a summer read is the life story of a tramp. St. Benedict Labre was born in the north of France in 1748. He was also poorly educated, possibly suffered from some mental infirmity. He achieved nothing in the eyes of the world. His various attempts to enter monasteries and embark on religious life all failed. His attempts to find some settled form of life also failed. Yet, he is now a canonised saint. In fact, if ever you wanted a sign of contradiction to the pomp and glory of this world then look no further than this humble Frenchman – the patron saint of failures.
The 1952 biography by Agnes de la Gorce, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, is a beautifully poignant tribute to this man. The first thing one notices is how brief the book is. In contrast to biographies of statesmen and leaders, the ‘great and good’, whose lives can take multiple volumes, this itinerant’s existence lasts barely 200 pages. And yet, if one looks more closely at these pages a truth emerges. It is that, while the mighty from his own day have long since faded, this ‘failure’ is today more alive to the world than when he lived.
This is because the saints are different. Their lives touch other lives because they first touched the Source of life itself. In a mysterious way, we can feel closer to saints than to some of our contemporaries whom we meet in the flesh. This tells us something of a greater reality: what we see and hear is not the end, nor even the beginning for this will come when all around us is, at last, made new. Ultimately, it is of this future dispensation that the lives of the saints speak.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre must be a beautiful book in its original French; even in translation it is a moving read. De la Gorce tells the story of the saint’s life in an affecting way. The sadness, the rejections, the loneliness, the pervading sense of failure, Benedict’s awareness of never finding a home, and, consequently, of being outside the ordinary run of society – all of this is here. No portrait of a ‘plaster statute saint’, this is the portrayal of a complex man whose life, nevertheless, had a simple trajectory – to God. De la Gorce strikes the right balance between human pathos and a sense of the supernatural. In short, this is hagiography as it should be written.
A very different subject matter is to be found in George Weigel’s Witness to Hope: the Biography of Pope John Paul II. Published in 1999, this is a sprawling epic of a biography – it needs to be to capture something of the life of not just one of the greatest popes of modern times but one of the greatest lives of the 20th Century. The real miracle here is how Weigel manages to condense the late pope’s life into just under 1000 pages. And, yet, this is no mere compressed recounting of events. It is a full exploration of the life and times of Karol Józef Wojtyła told with the verve and pace of well-written narrative – for an example of this, try the chapter recounting the events surrounding the 1981 assassination attempt.
Interestingly, the publication of Witness to Hope came at the time when the genre of narrative non-fiction was coming to prominence. This was a genre that would, shortly after, come to dominate bestseller lists with true stories told with the skill and imagination more readily found in fiction. If Catholics have the best stories of all — the lives of the saints — then narrative non-fiction is a genre in which Catholic writers should excel not just as a means of encouraging their co-religionists but also as a way of penetrating the consciousness of the wider society. In effect, well-written hagiography should form part of the New Evangelisation.
The next three books all have one thing in common. The authors had direct experience of the saints about whom they wrote. They saw people who were later declared saints, spoke to them, looked at their faces, watched their reactions, noted their traits. These books, then, are as much spiritual autobiography as they are biography; the combination makes for interesting reading. Perhaps, we should not be surprised that this approach works so well. In essence, is this not what the Gospels are?
The first of these books comes from the 17th Century. It is The Spirit of Saint Francis de Sales by his friend, the Bishop of Belley, Jean Pierre Camus. It is a charming read. The author is a man who is as good a friend as he is an observer of his friend. In addition, he has a writer’s ‘nose’ for a good tale, and in the world of de Sales he has plenty of stories from which to chose. Whether dealing with the vain or the scrupulous, the deluded or the proud, the bad or the mad, these encounters and the observations made are never less than edifying, as edifying as one suspects the friendship between the two men was.
Next is a more recent work, Dream and Your Dreams Will Fall Short. This is the memoir of Pedro Casciaro. Published in 1991, it tells of how, in 1930s Madrid, the author encounters a young priest who had just started an obscure religious movement called Opus Dei. Thereafter, St. Josemaría Escrivá is seen through the eyes of this initially worldly young man who gradually starts to feel drawn to the priest and his vision of sanctity in the ordinariness of everyday life. This is no ‘chamber piece’, though, of religious discussion and theological debate. Soon, the world around them is shattered by the sound of gunfire, bomb-blasts and the carnage of the Spanish Civil War. Thereafter, we have a story of survival, and escape. We also have Casciaro’s observations of a saint under real pressure. In a time of persecution with the continual threat of death, Escrivá tries to foster the divinely inspired, but then novel, universal call to sanctity. Through it all, there is the narrator’s deepening faith in spite of the various sufferings, or, is it because of what is happening? You decide.
The last book is topical because the saint in question, Mother Teresa, is about to be canonised later this year. Something Beautiful for God is the 1971 account of the meeting of the polymath Malcolm Muggeridge with the nun. It is written in the highly literary prose style one expects from the Englishman. This proves a curious juxtaposition to what is being described. To the initial amazement of the author, the then unknown Albanian nun lifts the dying from the streets of Calcutta so as to bring them to a place where, washed and dressed, they await death surrounded by a love they rarely knew in life. In the Calcutta of the 1970s, we have an example of the Gospel Beatitudes. The meek shall inherit the earth, but what we didn’t suspect is that they would attract so many through the witness of their lives. For Malcolm Muggeridge, this journalistic assignment was a turning point. Things were never to be the same again. As in all the best stories, it was as if, thereafter, ‘journey’s end’ came into sight, and, with it: ‘home’. Eventually, Muggeridge converted to the Catholic faith. His encounter with the future saint on the streets of Calcutta with the destitute all around her, he cited as the catalyst for this conversion.
This summer, in place of reaching for the ‘latest’ blockbuster, pause for just a moment, and, perhaps, instead reach for something from the shelves that speaks not just of the present day but of the eternal now, and of those who glimpsed it.