Stepping out on a Patron Saint

Stepping out on a Patron Saint January 26, 2012

I totally spaced my patron saint’s feast day. Indeed, I might have gone all day without being any the wiser, but some friends posted clues to my Facebook wall. One, a video commemorating the fourth centennary of the founding of the Order of the Visitation, just made me go, “Mm. Very nice for the, er, Visitationists.” The second, a Peter Maxish image of a bearded man cradling a dove, his bald dome lit by a halo, made me pull a facepalm.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop of Geneva, I remembered. Feast Day: January 24th. Mentor and confidant of St. Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal, founder of the Order of the Visitation.

Theirs was one of the Church’s great romantic friendships; the two were like Francesco and Chiara with shoes on. And I forgot.

Part of me hopes I can get away with saying, “Sorry, Monseigneur. I thought it was the 29th, honest. And I’ve been so busy lately.” But I would trust any man so discerning as Francis to recognize that as the flimsiest, sorriest excuse for an explanation. The sad fact is — like a girl from bygone times, eager to escape her parents’ home by marrying — I chose him in haste, only to discover after the match became final that the two of us had nothing in common.

I thought I was on solid ground. Patron of writers? Check. Faint, cross-channel resemblance to Shakespeare? Check. Turbulent historical setting? Triple check: Francis was five during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, 31 when Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, and 43 when the good king was shivved to death by Ravaillac. Literary tie-ins? Not quite, but almost. Francis died in 1622, only three years before the action in Dumas père’s Three Musketeers. Though the fictional Aramis had a real-life model in Henri d’Aramitz, Francis could have inspired the Church-minded musketeer just as well. According to hagiographers, the future bishop fought with rapier and poignard while a student at Padua. Though said to have fled the embrace of a grisette, he did not — take note, Thomas Aquinas — threaten her with a fireplace poker. In that, the son of the Sieur de Boisy was true to his upbringing, a real gentleman.

Some time after standing before the altar in a white smock tagged with his name, I checked Francis’ signature work, Introduction to the Devout Life, out of the diocesan library. Reading Introduction’s introduction, I got goose pimples. Positing a universal call to holiness 300 years before Vatican II, the man was well ahead of his time. Except he wasn’t — the book went through several editions before the author’s own death! Even the Roundheads over in England tucked in with a translation that had been “purged of Popish errors.” By singlehandedly inventing middlebrow Christian inspiration, my patron was the Rick Warren of his day.

Then I dug into the text.

Reader, I found it all but unreadable. This is no fault of Francis’; I just never developed a taste for the genre. Sitting through homilies makes me fidget, and Introduction amounts to a homily, in five books. Francis addresses his fine words to someone he calls Philothea, or “Lover of God,” a pseudonym for Madame de Charmoisy, whose correspondence with the author forms the basis for the text. That’s fine, but “Philothea” sounds like a girl’s name. Every time I read it, I’m tempted to say, “Ah. This is a private thing. I’ll just leave you two alone.”

Viewed with serene objectivity, it’s a wise and witty book — I know that. Its value as counter-Reformatory propaganda is incalculable. At its publication, the diocesan clergy were noted for their ignorance, and the religious (rightly or wrongly) for soft living. The episcopacy’s most visible symbol was the Duc de Richelieu — able and visionary, but far from a teddy bear. Knowing they could ignore these models and strive for sanctity on their own without going Calvinist must have come as an enormous relief to the laity.

But for me, I’m afraid, serene objectivity is as unnatural an attitude to assume as the lotus position. When it comes to saints, I’ve learned sadly, my instincts are those of a fanboy: I go for the spectactular, the dramatic and the bloody. These instincts led me — via Chesterton — to the original St. Francis. Now that was the stuff. François engaged Calvinist leader Theodore Beza in dialogue; Francesco challenged the Muslim ulema of Damietta to a trial by ordeal. There’s no contest. If I were the tame Savoyard, I’d resent having to share a name with the wild Umbrian.

In our own day, there are a number of Catholics — I’m thinking Randall Terry and Alan Keyes — who would leap into the nearest fire only too happily, given assurance the video would go viral. Let’s just say that if they went into schism, I’d be praying for their return in the tone Willy Wonka adopted when warning Mike Teavee. But the fanboy’s headspace offers little room for realism. Behavior that looks tiresome or exhibitionistic in the here and now makes good copy when set long ago, in a galaxy far away. And that, I suppose, is the bottom line: I like saints whose stories read like good fiction, and for that reason, seem to demand no more literal a reading.

Read like a news item, the story of Maria Goretti is nothing but ghastly. It should turn any thinking person into a helicopter parent, and I mean a helicopter with a minigun. Considered at more than a century’s remove (and from a position of male privilege), it’s got mythic and literary valence out the wazoo. Sandro and Marietta look like Apollo and Daphne divided by Raskolnikov and Sonya, the remainder being that guy from “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Kathryn Harrison reminds readers that Joan of Arc was “uncouth,” but also that “Her enemies spoke of clouds of butterflies following in her wake.” Well, uncouth is fine — I was once a big Gretchen Wilson fan — but it’s the butterflies (and the voices) that make her story into material fit for a comic book.

I’d love to have Francis de Sales as my bishop. A couple of years ago, when reading through the homilies of Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Atlanta, I noted a placidity and good sense that reminded me of my patron. “Lucky Atlantans!” I thought. But I’m afraid the game’s just not straight. Once you die and join the Church Triumphant, you find yourself facing much stiffer competition. Today, as I offer Francis belated congratulations, my prayer will include the words “It’s not you; it’s me.” Hopefully, he’ll understand.

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