Every one loved St Bridget. Even the sunbeams liked to be near her. One day an April shower came on, and, as she entered her cell, she flung her wet cloak over a sunbeam shining through the window, thinking it was a wooden beam. The bright ray willingly held up her mantle hour after hour, but at last the sun set, and the sunbeam was anxious to be gone too. So it begged that Bridget would come and take her cloak. She came quickly . . . and lifting down her cloak, said, “I thank thee, gentle friend; but haste away now, for the sun is set, and unless thou go fast thou wilt never come up with him!” In an instant the sunbeam had vanished into the night.
I wish I could say I remember laughing when I first read that story in The Children’s Book of Saints, published in 1940 and reprinted six times before the 1952 edition that I still have on my shelves. The truth is, I cannot. But I can remember how much I hated such pious twaddle when I was a child. Reading those tales was a turn-off. If that was what saints were like, I didn’t want them anywhere near me—and I certainly didn’t ever want to be one, which seemed to require a skill that I had no wish to cultivate: the ability to roll the eyes heavenward, with the face fixed in a simpering grin.
So, when last year I was asked to write a book about them, I was hesitant. Even then, something of my childhood prejudice remained. In adult life, I had come to accept the saints intellectually and to regard some of them with admiration and affection; I have never had any difficulty with the Church’s doctrine on saints. Whenever I tried to imagine them en masse, however, fairy-tale Bridgets and storybook Nicholases and Christophers pushed themselves soppily to the front of the crowd—and I backed off.
Agreeing to write that book meant that I had to stand my ground and look them all in the eye. I am glad I did; I learned a lot. The old proverb says that if you want to learn, you should teach, but I reckon that if you really want to learn, you should write a book. Teachers can think on their feet, refine their judgments in discussion, and defer or duck questions if they get stuck; but once a writer is in print, that’s that. Verba volant, scripta manent: When you know your words are going to be published, you choose them carefully, and, in order to choose the right ones, you have to know your stuff. I do not claim that working on that book has made me any kind of expert, but I can say that it taught me much—and it has certainly taught me enough about saints to make me wish that I had not left it so long before getting to know them better.
In the event, my problem turned out to be its own solution: I learned to love the legends of the saints. I did not learn to believe those legends literally, of course, and I still think that to tell children fairy stories with real saints as heroes and heroines does all parties a disservice—but I did learn to appreciate the legends for what they are. In this, my greatest tutor was the Jesuit Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye, whose 1907 work The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography analyzes the genre critically and honestly without descending into cynicism. Here he is on The Golden Legend, the 13th-century work that fixed so many of the fanciful stories of the saints in the popular imagination:
I confess that, when reading it, it is somewhat difficult at times to refrain from a smile. But it is a sympathetic and tolerant smile and in no way disturbs the religious emotion excited by the picture of the virtues and heroic actions of the saints . . . The saints practise all the virtues in a superhuman degree: gentleness, mercy, the forgiveness of injuries, mortification, renunciation, and they render these virtues loveable, and they urge Christians to practise them. Their life is, in truth, the concrete realisation of the spirit of the Gospel, and from the very fact that it brings home to us this sublime ideal, legend, like all poetry, can claim a higher degree of truth than history itself.
Understand this, and one is no longer tempted to throw the baby Saint Nicholas out with the bath water in which he is said to have stood up and prayed for two hours shortly after his birth. The historical Nicholas was a real enough saint, even if aftercomers did write a life to expand upon the few facts we know for certain about the fourth-century bishop of Myra. Saint Christopher, Saint Cecilia, Saint George, and many others got the same treatment. We know next to nothing about them; their legends celebrate their real sanctity symbolically. Some do so better than others—though few do so quite as unworthily as the story of Saint Bridget and her sunbeam.
I found out that some saints that many generations have venerated had never existed at all. Saint Margaret of Antioch had been declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius in 494, but her story—unlike the dragon that was said to have swallowed her—refused to lie down and die. The legend of the unhistorical Saint Barbara was just as persistent: It has her beheaded by her own father, who is struck dead by lightning. I learned that Margaret and Barbara were no more real than the saintly Bishop Myriel in Hugo’s Les Miserables—but then I also learned that Bishop Myriel was based closely on the very real Monsignor De Miollis, who was bishop of Digne from 1805 to 1838. When we are moved by Myriel’s charity to Jean Valjean, what moves us is the kindness of a genuine historical figure. No doubt, medieval devotees of Barbara and Margaret were touched by equally genuine virtues—even if history does not record the names of the characters who first sparked their legends.
Delehaye acknowledges that it is impossible to pin down the origins of most of the colorful inventions found in early biographies of the saints, but he is able to explain how some stories improved in the telling:
When St. Bernard came to preach the Crusade in the diocese of Constance, an archer in the bodyguard of the Duke of Zahringen scoffed both at the preaching and the preacher by declaring: “He can no more work miracles than I can.” When the saint came forward to lay his hands on the sick, the scoffer perceived him and fell senseless to the ground, remaining unconscious for some time. Alexander of Cologne adds: “I was quite close to him when this occurred . . . We called the Abbot, and the poor man was unable to rise until Bernard came to us, offered up a prayer and helped him to his feet.” Not one of the eyewitnesses says a word which would suggest a resurrection from death. And yet, a century later, Herbert, the author of a collection of St. Bernard’s miracles, Conrad, author of the Exordium, and Caesarius of Heisterbach all affirm that the archer fell dead and that the saint restored him to life.
That tells us more about medieval historians than about Saint Bernard; I did not think less of him on account of their miraculous inventiveness. And I felt no more tempted to unsaint Hildegard of Bingen when I found that her mystic visions were probably brought on by migraine than I was inclined to dismiss Catherine of Siena when I read that her obsessive fasting corresponds to what we now call anorexia. Grace works through nature, and illness can be an opportunity for sanctity.
I came across all sorts of other biographical details that reminded me that saints are not fairy-tale figures, but real people. I was amused to read that, when Padre Pio was told by a psychologist that the marks of his stigmata were the result of meditating neurotically upon the Passion, he invited the expert to go and meditate neurotically on a bull and come back when he had grown horns. I laughed out loud at the idea of poor Teresa of Avila carrying out the orders of one of her confessors, who was convinced that her visions came from the Devil. He told her to “make the fig”—an obscene hand gesture of which every culture has its equivalent—every time she thought she saw Our Lord. She winced but did as she was ordered, explaining to Him that she was only doing it under obedience.
The lives of many of the postmedieval saints that I came across were stories of self-sacrifice and courage that would not need to be exaggerated to sit comfortably in books like The Golden Legend. When St. John Rigby was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his religion in 1600, he was suspended for such a short time that he was still able to stand when he was cut down. He cried, “God forgive you!” when the executioners seized him; they stood on his throat to shut him up. When they were pulling out his heart, he had enough strength left to throw them off before they finished their work.
An even crueler death was suffered by St. Jean de Brébeuf, the French Jesuit who made an 800-mile canoe journey to preach the gospel to the Huron Indians of Canada. In 1649, he was captured by the Huron’s enemies, the Iroquois. They tied him to a stake and tortured him for hours. Having scalded him with boiling water in a mockery of Baptism, they hung red-hot hatchets around his neck, scalped him, and thrust a glowing iron down his throat before cutting out his heart. Witnesses said he suffered all in silence.
The sufferings of the 20th-century Ukrainian martyrs beatified in 2001 were as cruel as any endured under Diocletian. Blessed Joachim Senkivskyi, the abbot of Drohobych, was boiled to death in a cauldron by Bolsheviks in the town’s prison on June 29, 1941. In the same month, Blessed Zynovii Kovalyk was crucified to a wall in the Zamarstynivska Street prison in Lviv. Another priest, Blessed Roman Lysko, was walled up alive and left to die. His fellow prisoners heard him singing psalms while he had the strength.
One cannot spend six months of one’s life writing about characters such as these without being moved by the experience. When I began, I thought I was making a journey toward them, but I soon found that I was on a pilgrimage in their company. As our journey came to an end, I began to feel reluctant to leave them—but then I realized that I needn’t, and I shouldn’t. We say we believe in “the Communion of Saints” when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, but to acknowledge a truth in the mind is not the same as to embrace it in the heart. Late medieval Christendom had its faults, but one of its glories was its sense of neighborliness with those in Heaven. In our own times of weak faith, bureaucrat bishops, and degraded, man-centered liturgy, we need the encouragement of the saints more than ever. A couple of years ago, one curial cardinal neatly expressed the reason for that need: “It is not the sporadic majorities which form in the Church here and there that determine the path she and we will take. The saints are the true, crucial majority, and it is from them that we take our bearings. Let us stick to them!” That cardinal is now Pope Benedict XVI.