Recommendations for the Lives of the Saints

Recommendations for the Lives of the Saints September 22, 2013

I’ve just finished reading Sigrid Undset’s life of Catherine of Siena, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that most of my knowledge of the lives of the Saints comes from Wikipedia.  Admittedly, Catherine was no less terrifying at book length than in a short article, but sitting down with Undset’s book helped me take her in a bit more in toto, instead of as a timeline of miraculous acts and grotesque suffering.

But I haven’t read many other hagiographies.  I’ve read G.K. Chesterton’s lives of St Francis and St Thomas Aquinas and I think that’s pretty much it.  In terms of the writings of the saints themselves, I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions and I have Edith Stein’s Essays on Women coming my way through interlibrary loan.

Are there other works that people would particularly recommend?


Update: forgot to include that I’ve read The Long Loneliness which is, well, trending lives-of-the-saints-ward.

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  • The Dumb Ox

    Denys Turner’s recent biography on Saint Thomas Aquinas is superb, as is that of Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP, from 1997. Ryan N. S Topping has written wonderfully on Augustine. As for the writings of the saints, I would recommend Saint Bernard’s Commentary on the song of songs (pretty good translation by Cistercian publications, Kalamazoo, but his Latin is beyond beautiful), and Saint Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Oh, and I’m just now reading Thomas Dubay on Saint Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross (book’s called ‘Fire Within’) which seems great, too. You have plenty of treasures to look forward to, wherever you start!

  • James Albrecht

    Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana is a critically important (and often overlooked) work for oddball catholics like you (and me). It is a late work, so it shows the effect of grace on his thinking over time. It’s also about grace, and about the relation of that divine substance to the human ability to make beauty in art/rhetoric.

    And De Trinitate is another masterpiece. Shows the relation of various aspects of life and faith to the Trinity.

  • TomH

    based on my memory of things you’ve said about yourself(correct me if I’ve distorted anything)that intellectual conversion was easier for you because of your passion for abstract knowledge, and that the struggle will be the HEART. and that may be lifelong(my words). by heart, of course, for a catholic means the person of which the intellect is only a part. Chesterton, Augustine, Aquinas are naturals for you. even the great Catherine of siena because of her unquenchable desire for theological understanding may not do the job. if you are looking for spiritual transformation in your own life. one of the appeals of Catherine for me is that she had no formal education at all, could not read or write. yet her intellectual power triumphed over all obstacles. in my opinion, leah, a saint like therese of lisieux might be one whom god will work wonders through to deepen your “heart” life. she was very smart. but it was her total surrender to childlike trust in god that touched my heart so deeply. I know that for at least the last 18 months of her life she was in the dark night of the soul in the midst of horrendous physical suffering. not one consolation up to the end. her body was consumed with tuberculosis and all she had left was her will to still trust completely in god. childlike trust in god meant that her intellect, memory and will too(she could only will to trust)were powerless to help her cope. her autobiography “the story of a soul” is great. but intellectuals often have trouble with her flowery language. I can recommend a biography by fr. Frederick miller that I thought was excellent. I don’t remember the title. he’s very smart, and he has a strong spiritual life. this book was written around 1980. I hope this helps you. and i’d love to get some feedback from you.

  • Tony

    Leah — Sigrid Undset wrote two other books on saints and holy men and women not yet canonized. One of them is called Saga of the Saints — Scandinavian ones, that is. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the other one, but it features St. Angela the founder of the Ursulines, and several other women, if I remember … There’s also an excellent old Doubleday Image biography, I can’t remember the author, of Father Damien of Molokai, before his canonization; and Evelyn Waugh wrote a fine biography of St. Edmund Campion, also an old Doubleday Image book.

    • LeahLibresco

      The other one I read by Sigrit Undset was Stages on the Road. Is that the one you were thinking of?

      And I just put in a request for the Campion book through interlibrary loan!

      • ARM

        Besides “Campion,” there’s also Waugh’s “Helena” about the finding of the true cross by St. Helena. It’s highly novelized, but very interesting and enjoyable. Another thing I enjoyed a lot was a collection of St. Thomas More’s letters; they really made clear what a lovely and amazing person he was. (Did you know when he was travelling for business, he had his kids write him daily letters in Latin as part of their education? Including his daughters, which was very atypical in his time.) Of writings by saints, one I like to read every Advent if possible is Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation.” (That’s the book for which C. S. Lewis wrote a forward that became a manifesto fo the Great Books movement.)

  • grok87

    This may be stretching it a bit, but I would recommend “How the Irish saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill for the section on St. Patrick.

  • Will James

    “Interior Castle” St. Teresa, “Confessions” St Augustine, “Story of a Soul” St Therese.

  • Will James

    I found a used copy of “AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF EDITH STEIN — LIFE IN A JEWISH FAMILY”. I highly recommend it. It inspired me to write: “The Woman in Dark Clothes, for Edith Stein”

  • anon

    _Story of a Soul_, St. Therese of Lisieux
    _Seven Storey Mountain_, Thomas Merton

  • Anna

    Ann Ball’s “Modern Saints” books are excellent. They’re fairly short bios, but include photos wherever possible and avoid being syrupy. Ms. Ball was a very real person herself (delightful and, well, just nothing what you’d have thought she’d be like), and presents the saints as such too.

    “A Harsh and Dreadful Love” by William Miller is about Dorothy Day. (Not technically a saint yet, but hey.)
    And Adrienne von Speyr’s “Book of Saints” is neat and very different. It’s not really bios, it’s Von Speyr’s mystical insights into the prayer of a lot of different saints. It’s a book to take slowly, learning something about prayer from each person. Some are more helpful than others, depending on who you connect with more, but there’s always something to glean.

  • Joe

    Raymond Arroyos “Mother Angelica: A Nun. her Nerve and a Network of Miracles is a fascinating story about not only a great Saint but also a lovely romp through the last 50 years of American Catholic history. Celine Martins “My Sister Saint Terese” Helped me realize what all the hype was about when it came to St Terese. Also the Life of Fr. de Smet; Apostle to the Rocky Mountains is pretty awesome. Padre Pio: The True Story by Bernard Ruffin is probably the best biography of Padre Pio out there. “Dear and Glorious Physician” by Taylor Caldwell is a great fictional novel about St. Luke. “To Quell the Terror: The Mystery of the Vocation of the Sixteen Carmelites of Compiegne Guillotined July 17 1794 by William Bush is an absolute must read you’ll love it!!

  • JF

    I would recommend the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux (The Story of a Soul), and the Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska.

  • Mariana Baca

    I like St. Therese’s Story of a Soul. Loved it. Also started St. Theresa’s Autobiography, but haven’t finished it, since I’m reading it in old spanish and it is slow going. I still like it.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Not a hagiography, but I enjoyed the biography from several years ago of St Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd.

    For a different view, University College Cork has translations of mediaeval Irish texts of saints’ lives from the Early Middle Ages.

    • grok87

      thanks- that looks interesting
      “Life of Abban
      Once upon a time an eminent king assumed the headship of Leinster, whose name was Cormac. He had a wife named Milla, and she was own sister to Bishop Iubar. And it so befell that she was pregnant, and at the time of her delivery she sent word to her brother, Bishop Iubar. And when Milla saw her brother, she said:—

      Bishop Iubar to my aid! It is he who knows my secrets;
      Let him ask forgiveness of my sins; Sharp pains have overtaken me.

      And the bishop said:
      Bishop Iubar is before thee, Sharp pains have overtaken thee;
      Thou shalt bear a noble wondrous son; May the King of the elements aid thee!

      At the prayer of the holy bishop the woman bare a son without pain or travail; and he was baptized, and the name Abban was given to him. And he was sent to be fostered, and to be instructed in feats of strength and valour1 with a view to his succeeding his father in the kingdom; but it was of no avail…”

  • Darrell

    Not a hagiography but, St. John Damascene’s An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.

  • Darren

    If it is lives of the saints you are after, then “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

  • Dauvit Balfour

    I found Fr. Christopher Rengers’ 33 Doctors of the Church to be an awesome introduction to some of the more intellectually inclined saints.

    • Randy Gritter

      If you are looking for intellectual stuff and not stories then Ralph Martin’s “The Fulfillment of All Desire” is very good.

      As far as stories go, it depends what you want. The authors vary a lot in the way they handle torture and severe asceticism. Miracles are another topic that is handled very differently by different authors. I prefer the story told in the old fashioned way with all the gore and all the impossible stuff left in. If I want to I can look up exactly how well documented the tradition is later but the story needs to be told without constant skeptical interjections.

  • Therese G.

    The marvelous Maisie Ward has a book called “Saints Who Made History:
    The First Five Centuries.” Smart and fascinating. I think it may be
    out of print, but there are used copies available on Amazon. Ward and
    her husband, apologist Frank Sheed, founded the publishing house Sheed
    & Ward. Her other books, as well as Sheed’s, are worth a look as

  • Carlos Crestana

    Hi Leah,
    I think what you are looking for is any book from Louis de Wohl. I’ve read “The Last Crusader” (about the Battle of Lepanto and D John of Austria) and “The Quiet Light” (on St Thomas Aquinas). Man, do I recommend that?! Go get those books, but he also has many others, on the life of St Francis, St Helen, St Catherine…

    Take a look and let me know…

  • Bill Logan

    I’d recommend “My Life With the Saints” by Fr. James Martin, sj. He looks at the lives of several saints and weaves in episodes from his own life. It’s not a “pure” hagiography, but more hagiography combined with spiritual memoir and inspiration. The hagiographical aspect is modern, looking at the saints as if they were real human beings, not these otherworldly beings they can sometimes be in older literature.

  • You’ve already read the absolute classic (Augustine’s Confessions )

    I have a special debt with St. Theresa (of Avila), who was besides all a great “writer (old Spanish); she has two semi autobigraphical books: “My life” and “Book of foundations”, “The Interior castle” is supposed to be her main work.

    A very different saint (including writing style) is St Therese (of Lisieux), she wrote “Story of a soul” and her letters; von Balthasar has a great book /essay about her : “Thérèse of Lisieux: The Story of a Mission”

    Julien Green and J. Jorgensen have written biographies of Saint Francis.

    “Man of Molokai” by Ann Roos is a nice biography of Father Damien

    In other line: “Apologia Pro Vita Sua ” , cardinal Newman

    and “Journal of a soul” (pope John xxiii)

    The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel is a nice biography (by a jew) of the vident of Lourdes.

    I’m not too fond on novelized lifes (Louis De Wohl) but they are not bad either.

    “Helena” by Evelyn Waugh is good.

    If found the “private letters” of Mother Theresa by Kolodiejchuk objectionable from the editorial poit of view, but have some gems.

    She is not a saint (not even a catholic… perhaps) but the life and writings of Simone Weil are inspiring – as is Dorothy Day.

    Most saints (especially women, come to think of it) are at theirs writing letters: Edith Stein, for another one.

    About Joan of Arc, instead of books, I’d pick the two great moves of
    Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) and Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc),
    There are a lot a bad movies about saints; some are not great artistically but decent eg: (padre pio)
    There is a movie valuable artistically but dubiously catholic (I love it anyway) about Therese:
    Also recomendable is “A man for all seasons” (Thomas more)