I don’t mean to overdo the Fr. Jim Martin plugs — I swear, nobody’s passing me anything under the table. But today in Slate, Fr. Jmi published a fascinating piece, “Saintly Bad Behavior,” in which he makes the point that many saints venerated by the Church were oddballs or plain old jerks. Of course, he puts it more gently:
Four centuries later, St. Jerome, the brilliant polymath who translated the Bible into Latin, was a famously nasty Christian. When confronted with criticism, he was reliably uncharitable. In the early fifth century, the future saint wrote a snide public letter to a prominent theologian named Rufinus, addressing him as “my most simple-minded friend” and commenting that he “walked like a tortoise.” Jerome kept up the invective even after Rufinus’ death, when a gentler appraisal might have been expected.
Likewise, St. Cyril of Alexandria, archbishop of the city from 412 to 444, is described by Butler’s Lives as “brave but sometimes over vehement, even violent.” Reconciliation was apparently not his strong suit. During a church council in Ephesus in 431, Cyril led a group of unruly followers to depose and exile another bishop who had disagreed with Cyril’s theological writings. The late Edward A. Ryan, a Jesuit church historian and seminary professor, said wryly, “We don’t know anything about the last years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been the years in which he was made a saint.”
Contemporary avatars of holiness also had their foibles. Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century, could be vain, impatient, and short-tempered. Late in life, he also broke his monastic vows by sleeping with a young nurse he met during a hospital stay, sneaking off the monastery grounds to meet with her. (Afterward, Merton repented over misleading the woman and recommitted himself to a life of chastity.) And Mother Teresa could be occasionally tart with any of her sisters whom she suspected of malingering. “You live with the name of the poor but enjoy a lazy life,” she wrote to one convent.
He goes on to quote Francis de Sales:
There is no harm done to the saints if their faults are shown as well as their virtues. But great harm is done to everybody by those hagiographers who slur over their faults. … These writers commit a wrong against the saints and against the whole of posterity.
This came as a relief. Since I started reading the lives of various saints, I’ve often been disappointed to note that the subject sounds like someone I couldn’t begin to have a conversation with. Sometimes, this is the fault of the hagiographers — or as I like to call them, the hackiographers — who tart up their portraits with so many pious cliches as to sacrifice any appearance of reality. But just as often, I find myself repelled when the saint’s real personality manages, somehow, to slip through.
Topping my Do Not Call list are the saints who went overboard with corporeal mortifications. That’s a huge number to be sure, but one who manages to stand out from the rest is Maria Magdalena da Pazzi. Ever hear of her? She was born in the sixteenth century to an extremely wealthy and powerful Florentine family. Her vocation for religious life — specifically, the Carmelites — created the same buzz that would have followed a religious calling for Caroline Kennedy or either of the Bush girls She became a mystic; the extent of the woman’s self-denial can be glimpsed in a casual aside in a description of her incorrupt body:
“Her toothless mouth,” writes one of the saint’s living sisters, “curves up into a graceful dimple.”
Maria Magdaela da Pazzi died at the age of forty-one. What could have cost her her teeth so early? Well, it turns out she lived for a long stretch of time on nothing but the Blessed Sacrament. The poor woman must have given herself scruvy.
It’s not that I don’t revere St. Maria Magdalena. I just want to stage an intervention. “Come on, Sorella. You can have your visions and eat your vegetables, too.”
I know a lot of people revere Padre Pio, but I have to admit, the man’s choice of miraculous appearances gives me some pause. After the Austro-German breakthrough at Caporetto — the one that convinced even the adventurous Hemingway that taking an occasional powder from shot was a viable option — the great firar is said to have bilocated into the tent of Italian General Luigi Cadorna. There, he talked the despairing general out of suicide. Cadorna was known to execute his men when they showed insufficient zeal for charging into Austrian machine-gun fire. Couldn’t Padre Pio have added, “Spare a little pax et bonum for the enlisted guys”?
Elizabeth, the regular Anchoress, is a big fan of Blessed Piergiorgio Frassatti, an Italian student, activist and newspaperman who died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. (Many believe he’d picked up the disease volunteering in Turni’s charity hospitals.) Her reason? Piergiorgio knew how to be pious “without being all freakish about it.” Hear, hear! Even in his sappiest hagiographies, he comes across as a Turinese Ricky Nelson — fun-loving, good-natured, and best of all, level-headed. This is not a guy who’d embarass you on a double date by showing off his Nautica hair shirt.
G.K. Chesterton once cautioned against judging St. Francis “like a curate’s egg” — in other words, as a mixture of good and bad. But I have to believe that, somewhere deep down, a 300-pound man who praised wine and “simplicity of spirit” over “sandals and turnips” understood that suffering was not the last word on the good Christian life.
So come clean, y’all: are their any saints who just…don’t do it for you? Why?
PS – Fr. Jim likes to brag that Ignatius Loyola is the only saint ever to be arrested for public brawling. Well, my patron, Francis de Sales, was also a dab hand with a sword and buckler during his misspent youth. Not only did he have a taste for bloodsport, he was shrewd enough not to get caught. So there.