This past week I gave a talk on teaching children the Beatitudes, and I mentioned a few of my favorite go-to sources for studying the lives of saints. The next day I discovered a new favorite, just where I least expected it: in a baby name book.
Why Study the Lives of Saints?
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of learning about the lives of the saints who have gone before us. In addition to being fun and interesting — I’ve never yet encountered a boring saint — there are some crucial spiritual benefits:
1. Reality check your idea of the Christian life.
Learning about lots of saints, across many times and places, provides a broad view of how to live out the Christian ideal, corrected for the errors of our own era. We all get wrapped up in our own culture, and lose sight of some of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs that shape us without our realizing it.
It happens to everyone, and when you read the lives of saints, you’ll notice the way this or that saint was very much a product of his own time and place. But taken as a whole, you’ll also see the recurring themes in the lives of every saint. This aggregated picture is sobering: we begin to see areas of our own life where we need to become less like a man of our time, and more like a man of eternity.
2. Become rooted in the historical reality of our faith.
The Christian faith is not a love for inspiring myths, nor a a vague affection for some chimeric “force”. We we believe in a personal God who is the author and sustainer of history, and who acts among us. The Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension are not ideas, they are events that really happened.
The lives of saints, especially the lives of those who formed the early Church, wakes us up to this reality. Ignorance of history is ignorance of the God who made it; knowledge of history — accurate, thoroughly researched, and scrupulously fact-checked knowledge — always leads us to Christ.
3. Stay inspired.
There are so many distractions in day-to-day life. As we work out our vocations, we are constantly being pulled from necessity to extravagance. I need a place to live . . . I start looking into housing choices . . . next thing I know, I’m convinced I need to save up for a bigger place, or a better neighborhood. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t — and reading the lives of saints can help me make that decision.
Gathering examples of the Christian life from every angle helps me re-orient myself towards the Gospel, no matter my state in life. My culture is going to inspire me towards its values — materialism, success, beauty, fame. The saints point me back towards Christian values: generosity, service, purity, humility.
What’s that got to do with a baby name book?
I’ve been reading the Catholic Baby Name Book as an evaluator for the Catholic Writers Guild’s Seal of Approval program. I volunteered for this mammoth reading assignment because (A) I didn’t know how big the book was, and (B) my daughter loves to write fiction, so she needed a good source for characters’ names. What I didn’t expect to find was my very favorite saint’s book made accessible for the ordinary reader.
I truly love the old Butler’s Lives of Saints four-volume compilation, but let’s be honest: it’s expensive, and it’s daunting. The average Catholic has neither the budget nor the love of old books to justify such a purchase. But something you don’t find anywhere else (until now) is the treasury of ancient, obscure saints.
In compiling her name book, Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur brought these under-appreciated stories to light of day. She’s indexed just about every Catholic saint out there, alphabetically and with all the male saints listed in one half of the book, and the female saints listed together in the other half. She gives us the mini-version of one or two saints by each name. [Variations are pointed towards the entry under the most common name — for example, if you look up “Caprais,” you’ll be instructed to check “Caprasius” for the history.]
To give you an idea of the scope of this work, here’s the sample from page eleven:
- Adelemus – soldier then monk from France, died. 1100.
- Adelphius – one of the desert fathers.
- Adelphus – grandson of a saint, abbot, died 670.
- Adeodatus – Pope, died 618.
- Aderald – archdeacon from France, died 1004.
- Adheritus – Bishop of Ravenna, 2nd Century.
- Adjutor – Norman knight and later hermit, died 1131.
And there’s five hundred more pages just like that. I love in particular the way the Persian and African saints give a peek into bits of history that are under-studied in the west.
Other Good Sources for Lives of Saints
My stock recommendation for those who want to really understand and appreciate the lives of saints is to pick up a kids’ book.
Here are a few of my favorite series:
The Encounter the Saints Series from Pauline Media. These little books are comfortable reading from about fourth or fifth grade, but don’t let the readability fool you — these are awesome for adults. They are quick to read, and full of interesting details that give you a feel for the overall vocation of the saint in question. Discover reassuring details, like the fact that St. Gianna Molla was no “supermom” — she balanced her professional and home life by hiring help. Look behind the mystical experiences of a saint like Catherine Laboure, and see the lifelong commitment to prayer, humility and service that were her primary life’s work. Highly recommended.
The works of Mary Fabyan Windeatt. These vintage children’s books are readable and edifying, and truly enjoyable. Difficult topics are dealt with discretely — for example in the St. Maria Goretti coloring book, the children only learn that St. Maria was being pressured to sin in some way, but the nature of that sin is not specified. The reading level is about third or fourth grade, but they are packed with good insights for adults.
The works of F.A. Forbes. These are compact, historically-intricate biographies suitable for strong middle school readers and up. If you get hopelessly confused keeping straight the zig-zagging exiles of St. Athanasius, or are getting a bit sick of the two-sentence lollipop-hagiographies of St. John Bosco, these are the remedy. If your brain or your soul have been succumbing to spiritual laziness, here’s are the kick you need. Very readable.
And there are others. I thoroughly enjoyed Ignatius Press’s St. Isaac and Indians, as well as the adult novel Fire of Love, about the life of St. John of the Cross. (You will at points want to shake St. John on the shoulders for not using a little sense.) Not a saint movie exactly, but one my family has enjoyed and found inspiring, is God’s Mighty Servant, about Sister Pascalina Lehnert.
Your turn: I’m sure you have a few favorites of your own. What are they?
Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz