Contemporary writers make saints real

January 12, 1995|By Walter F. Naedele | Walter F. Naedele,Knight-Ridder News Service

"After hiking seven hundred miles north, he arrived in Paris on February 2, 1528, and went to the Sorbonne. . . . Even in peculiar times, he was a peculiar student, a frail mystic who knew no French, was less than fluent in Latin, and was then in his thirty-seventh year."

Now there's a guy to spin a tale around.

Born in the family castle in the Basque province of Spain, Ignatius of Loyola was well into middle age before he founded the Roman Catholic organization of priests and brothers commonly known as the Jesuits.

Quite a guy to imitate, I can say as a graduate of a Jesuit prep school and university.

The nice thing about "A Tremor of Bliss," a collection of essays edited by Paul Elie, is that it attempts, successfully, to introduce a general audience to some major-league talent in the difficult game of striving for spiritual perfection -- written by major-league writers.

It's interesting to see how a few of the heavy hitters did it.

The subjects of the essays -- with the exception of Dorothy Day -- are all on the Roman Catholic Church's roster of saints, departed believers declared by the pope to be in heaven with God and worthy of emulation as heroes of the faith. The subjects include the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, well-known saints such as Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, such mystics as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and more obscure exemplars of sanctity, such as the virgin martyrs who perished in the persecution of Christians in the third and fourth centuries.

Of course, reading about the Catholic Church's saints is a bit like visiting Cooperstown before the days of Jackie Robinson, since folks of all religions and no religion are likely to have their own lists of equally saintly lives -- including, often with good reason, the lives of their own parents. So why read about a bunch of mystics and martyrs and, yes, misfits?

Because a bunch of good writers (and a graceful introduction by the child psychiatrist Robert Coles) makes them human.

The Loyola story is told by novelist Ron Hansen, whose "Desperadoes" -- about the Dalton gang of cowboy bank robbers -- was one of the best pieces of lyrical writing this side of James Agee.

Then, consider the words of the poet Kathleen Norris:

"I first came to the virgin martyrs as an adult, and from a thoroughly Protestant background, which may explain why I have little trouble taking them seriously.

"I find them relevant, even important, but many Catholics I know so resent the way they were taught about these saints that they've shoved them to the back of the closet.

" 'Why are you writing about the virgin martyrs?' one Benedictine sister asked me, incredulous and angry. 'They set women back! As if in order to be holy, you had to be a virgin, preferably a martyr. And that's not where most women are.' "

Writes University of Chicago scholar Martin E. Marty: "The main difference between the good old days of sainthood and our time is that back then they had not yet invented the tape recorder and the camera."

So when Mr. Marty -- senior editor of the Protestant periodical the Christian Century -- describes Dorothy Day in the early 20th century, her own writings reveal "that she had affairs, lived with men to whom she was not married, married a real loser . . . had an abortion, a common-law marriage, a child [whom] people of ... TC her day would have called illegitimate . . . "

Then she discovered spirituality and founded the Catholic Worker movement in the depths of the Depression of the 1930s, aiding the kinds of people who resemble the homeless of the 1990s.

A saint? Not yet, according to the Catholic Church.

Saintly? Close enough.

A couple of the writers make some of the real old-timers accessible by tracing parallels in the writers' own lives.

The novelist Kathryn Harrison recalls that, in her more demonic days, she hungered to imitate the 14th-century mystic Catherine of Siena:

"Even as the saint tirelessly cared for [bubonic] plague victims, even as she exhorted thousands to convert and lobbied effectively for the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome, she criticized, scourged, and starved herself."

Trying to get love from the mother who had let grandparents raise her, Ms. Harrison became anorexic.

The saint "fasted, eating only bread and uncooked vegetables. She began to experience ecstasies." The author "ate raw vegetables, multivitamins, No-Doz and . . . when I climbed stairs, I saw stars."

You draw the implications.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints"

Editor: Paul Elie

Publisher: Harcourt Brace

Length, price: 325 pages, $22

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