Hannah Green's 'Saint Foy': grace, peace

July 23, 2000|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

"Little Saint: The Hours of Saint Foy," by Hannah Green. Random House. 276 pages. $25.95.

My roommate consults tarot cards and astrological charts to guide her through troubled times, but if you listen to her spontaneous, withering asides you learn that she hates Christians. Usually her contempt bubbles up when a celebrity thanks God or Jesus Christ -- usually during a TV news show interview or award show acceptance speech.

"Oh, he's a Christian," she'll say, kinda shocked. I've objected a few times, but now the comments dissolve in my ears as soon as she speaks -- another knee-jerk bigotry, as stupid as black-hating or Jew-hating or gay-hating, and, for me, just as instructive. I haven't been to a regular Sunday sermon in at least 10 years. I don't read the Bible. I consult God only in the case of emergencies. But the first time I heard my roommate's anti-Christian sentiments, I took it as a personal assault -- and I realized that buried beneath years of neglect lay a potentially reborn Methodist.

The late Hannah Green's new book, "Little Saint," is just the kind of nourishing, aesthetically rigorous book that a skeptical almost-Christian like me should read and reread when our burden of doubts and "objective" insights tips the hand of our internal geigometer toward disbelief.

It's a hybrid book: one part travelogue, telling the story of Hannah Green and her husband going to the French village of Conques, where they fall deeply in love with the villagers and the topography and the local cuisine; one part biography of the titular "Little Saint," Saint Foy, a 12-year-old girl who, in the year 290, refused the order of the Roman proconsul Agen to denounce her Christian faith, was betrayed by her father, and then beheaded; and one part spiritual autobiography, detailing the way place, temperament, intelligence and sensuality combined in Green, and the way chance, or fate, or faith, or some combination of all three led her to the ornate bejewled statue of the third century martyr.

Green is a persuasive, exquisite writer whose descriptions of the French landscape are as utterly disarming as her descriptions of the mysterious way that the spirit of God moves through her. Here she is describing the local market, where "Rosalie speaks proudly of her customers who come to her kitchen in the mornings (for the most part) to talk and to buy the produce of her gardens. It's not so much a shop as a salon Rosalie holds in her kitchen, but nevertheless, all the while, she is weighing this and that with the old iron scale she holds up with her hand to measure out a kilo, two kilos, of beans, potatoes, leeks, spinach, whatever is in season ... or she'll be in the apple-fragrant downstairs closet where she keeps bunches of pearly brown onions tied with rope."

And here she is describing the face of the statue of Saint Foy, where "occasionally a smile appears on [the Saint's] lips, a smile that is not so much a smile as the look of trying not to smile -- the antique smile ... the lovely statuette of Saint Foy with her oval face and her high forehead and her long, flowing hair ... It gives off like a perfume the sweet essence of grace, of modesty and peace."

And so too does this utterly transformative book.

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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