What Saints Can't You Stand?

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.

  • jkm

    “I have to quote Kathleen Norris, who writes that Maria reminds her of Marilyn Monroe. No, she doesn’t mean that both had dreadful luck with Italian men . . .”

    Crying from laughter.

  • bt

    Many saints considered their minor faults to be extremely major and often considered themselves to be the worst of sinners, though if we looked at their foibles we would probably consider them trifles compared to our own.

    Yes, I’m glad that St. Jerome is called “irrascible” by some, though it’s probably a sin for me to be glad about it ;). In truth I wish the saint to be as bad as me, so I don’t have to work hard to improve myself. I strongly suspect that there was a foundation of love below whatever minimal irrascibility St. Jerome had that makes my own irrascibility seem like a skyscraper compared to his. So I take the “faults” of saints with a grain of salt. They had faults and obstacles to overcome, to be sure, but at their death I think their faults are probably not as large as some might claim them to be today. If we were to meet them in their time, we would sense the presence of a saint.

  • Max Lindenman

    bt: You’re right about saints exaggerating their faults. I’ve read that St. Francis of Assisi called himself illiterate. Was that literally true? Or did he mean he couldn’t read Latin, or wasn’t much of a scholar?

  • lethargic

    I was going to pipe in with “I love St. Jerome; he gives me hope for myself” but then I read bt’s comment and that nailed it — I want St. Jerome’s irascibility to excuse my own. Sigh …..

    So as I understand it, saints lived lives of heroic virtue, not necessarily perfection on earth … think of how much MORE irascible St. Jerome might have been, eh?

    Or am I missing the point here?

  • Sarah

    How about St. Bridget of Sweden? Her writings about marriage are simply vile, and only serve to reinforce the worst stereotypes about Catholic teaching.

    Don’t like St. Jerome either, but considering I too have a bad temper, I should probably ask for his intercession. I still don’t like him though, and I don’t have to like him.

  • Nan

    Padre Pio was called to help a particular soul, not to redirect that person’s thought process as to everyone. He did what he was there to do.

    I’m not sure why anyone thinks that saints or their causes are to be promoted; initially people were canonized due to public acclamation or by a cult which spontaneously formed as people came to pray to them. The trick is, canonization is based on having become established as someone to whom the populace is devoted and developing a reputation for performing miracles.

    In the case of soon-to-be Beatified John Paul II, let us remember the cries of “Santo Subito!” at his funeral. You seem to attribute his upcoming canonization to a cult of personality. Maybe that’s what Catholicism needed. I know tons of young people who have literally only had two popes in their lifetime. He inspired many to name their sons John Paul; one of those John Pauls is one of my favorite priests. He inspired many young people to deepen their faith; world youth day sparks many vocations.

    Keep in mind that Saint Paul persecuted Christians and was present when St. Stephen, the first saint, was martyred.

  • Regina

    I like all the saints because they are us. In our time, doing what we do. And yes , they are all kooks. But so is anyone who follows a certain rabbi. We are a motley crew.

  • http://myunorderedthoughts.wordpress.com/ Katarina

    Any saint that has been quoted in the same line with NFP and ” contraceptive mentality ” – joking – well sort of

  • http://beatencopperlamp.blogspot.com Sarah

    Thank you for starting this discussion! I feel like saint biographies are often more like superhero comic books than practical guides to serving God. When I was a young teen trying to get more serious about my faith, every book I read seemed to say that I needed to sleep on the floor, eat stale bread, chop off my hair, and run off to a convent if I was going to ever get holy.

    For the record, I really don’t get St. Therese. Her writing is not bad, but the cult around her makes her seem nauseatingly sweet and perfect from infancy, with blond curls no less. That makes this sarcastic brunette want to gag. (Clearly envy is a weakness of mine.)

  • Max Lindenman

    Sarah: Speaking as a lifelong comic-book geek who entered the Church only recently, I sometimes find it helpful to think of saints in fanboy terms; it makes them more fun.

    Once, a friend of mine and I spent the better part of an evening comparing saints to X-Men. We found only one really good parallel: Nightcrawler and Martin de Porres. both were healers (Nightcrawler is a doctor, Martin was a nurse-practicioner); both came in colors that entailed severe social handicaps (Martin was brown, Nightcrawler is blue); Nightcrawler teleports, and Martin bilocates.

    When I first read about the nervous breakdown Therese nearly suffered when she was in her teens, I wondered what would have happened if she’d lived in Vienna instead of Normandy. I began outlining a story in which Josef Breuer and his young protege, Sigmund Freud, both try to figure out what her deal is.

    I called it “The Case of Sabine L.” Both Breuer and Freud assigned their patients pseudonyms to protect their privacy. As a pneumonic device, they chose names beginning with the letter immediately preceding the patient’s actual initials. Thus, Bertha Pappenheim became Anna O. Therese Martin might well have ended up as Sabine L. I could have been Lorenz K.

    What bothers me is the way people reduce saints to a single dimension. I’ve always been a big admirer of Venerable Oscar Romero, but unlike some of his fans, I recognize that there was a lot more to his spirituality than a concern for social justice. He was extremely devout in every sense, and an admirer of Josemaria Escriva.

  • http://thatsadancerslegmargaret.wordpress.com Bernadette

    I’m trying to think if I can make a case for a parallel between Blaise Pascal (not a canonized saint, but holy nonetheless) and Gambit. However, besides the gambling, there’s not much.

    I once wrote an essay comparing Romero and Dorothy Day, pointing out that both were extremely devout persons who led lives of deep prayer and were daily communicants. I wasn’t real popular with the rather liberal teacher after that.

  • Greta

    Always have to laugh when I hear people talking about St Thérèse of Lisieux. She was not only a saint, but declared the 33rd doctor of the Catholic Church. Her Little Way is anything but easy. Most get lost in the fact that it sounds so simple, but they miss the point and miss the wonder of why this nun is so loved, even by those who are strong theologically. Try to live that life for a couple months and you will never say the Little Way is an simple or easy.

    Pope John Paul II is admired now, especially by those who love the Catholic Church and all her teachings. But we will not see the full extent of this Saints impact on the Church for decades as the fullness of his enclylicals and the vocations he inspired come to full fruition. As the JP II priests become bishops and cardinals over time, they will exert ever greater influence around the world. Pope Benedict was a perfect follow on to JP II because they were so much in sync for so many years that the seeds planted are being well cared for. I think one day we will have a Pope who was inspired to give his life because of Pope and Saint John Paul II the Great.

    As to his problems with the Jesuits, they were not with this Pope but with the teaching of the Catholic Church. As they dissent from Church teaching, especially settled Church teaching such as only male priests and marriage between one man and one woman and the sanctity of all life from conception to nature death including bans on birth control, they also dissented from Christ. I will be much more comfortable on the side of Christ and JPII

  • AvantiBev

    “saint” Patrick, “saint” Columba, etc. I associate them with my classmates puking green beer into the gutter.

    Had that “culture” shoved down my throat for 18 years as the only ItaloAmerican on the SW Side of Chi town. I don’t revere any Celtic “saints”.

  • http://anchoress maria

    Max you make me laugh. thank you, loved the post.


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