A few years back, a classmate of my daughter’s was killed in a car accident. That was when my daughter learned the meaning of the word “hagiography.” According to the dictionary, hagiography is “idealizing or idolizing biography.” According to my daughter, the idealizing and idolizing that went on when the boy died was nearly unbearable, as everyone at their school suddenly claimed him as their dearest friend and spiritual next-of-kin. My daughter remembered the boy (who had marched with her in the drum corps of the school’s band and whom she counted among her friends) as foul-mouthed and impious, as well as energetic, funny and good-natured. Yet after his reputation had been hagiographically bleached, it shone like the sun. The boy had purportedly never done anything objectionable. My daughter said it was nauseating.
A lot of people find hagiography nauseating, particularly when employed in a discussion of Catholic saints. Reading Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Saints will cause them to gag as they wallow through all the extravagant praise and wanton hyperbole:
In the person of St. Lewis IX. were eminently united the qualities which form a great king, and a perfect hero, no less than those which make up the character of a wonderful saint. Endowed with all qualifications for government, he excelled equally in the arts of peace and in those of war; and his courage, intrepidity, and greatness of mind received from his virtue the highest lustre; for ambition, or a view to his own glory, had no share in his great enterprises, his only motive in them being religion, zeal for the glory of God, or the good of his subjects. Though the two crusades in which he was engaged, were attended with ill success, he is certainly to be ranked among the most valiant princes, and understood war the best of any general of the age in which he lived; in the most dangerous battles which he fought he beat the enemy, how much soever superior to him in numbers and strength: and his afflictions set his piety and virtue in the brightest light.
Where are the warts?? people want to know. The truth lies in the warts!!
Because that’s what life is really all about – the warts. After all, look at the New Testament! It is brutally honest about the failings of the followers of Christ: Thomas’ unbelief, Peter’s cowardice, the apostles’ overall spiritual dimwittedness. My gosh, thinking about my own life – warts galore. It seems that everything about me, as well as about everyone of my acquaintance, is either objectionable or tragicomedic. We bumble and stumble our way through just about everything. Consider my ten years of Catholic experience. It has not been marked by “courage, intrepidity and greatness of mind” – not even remotely. Looking back, I note no marks of distinction whatsoever.
As a Protestant-turned-Catholic, I had a lot to learn when I first started attending Mass 10 years ago – all that standing up, and sitting down, and kneeling, and genuflecting, and blessing oneself with the sign of the Cross, all those responses, new hymns, new accoutrements, new faces. That last part, the new faces, was hard for me as a socially challenged individual – all those strangers to get to know, some stranger than others. One thing I quickly learned as a Catholic neophyte was that most of the men in the parish would either be named Jim or Joe. To be sure, there’s the occasional Ken or Brian, but chances are those guys are converts like me. No, real Catholic men are named Jim or Joe; the trick is figuring out which is which. Like the last time I went to confession – two men were standing in the foyer talking. One of them kindly introduced himself; he was Jim. The other man I recognized as someone I knew by sight from Adoration and holy days of obligation, the kind of guy you can always count on to be there. He introduced himself as Joe. Now, how was I going to keep that straight? (And sure enough, the next time I saw Jim, I called him Joe….) Anyway, after some chit-chat which left Jim singing “Just Walk Away, Renée,” I proceeded to the Adoration chapel which connects to the confessional. As usual, there had been no stampede to the sacrament, so I went on in, made my confession, and received the grace to go out and get it right this time. Back in the chapel, I knelt before the Tabernacle to pray. It suddenly dawned on me that this was my chance to do something I have long desired to do – prostrate myself before Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Joe (the one I had just been introduced to in the foyer) had done that last Holy Thursday, and I had longed to imitate him, but I was wearing a skirt at the time and after pondering the logistics of lying down on the floor in a ladylike and unrevealing manner without calling undue attention to myself… well, I had just continued to kneel. But now, in the empty Adoration chapel, here was my chance. Not only was I wearing pants, not only was the chapel empty so that I would distract no one, but our church is blessed with 120-year-old wood floors that creak like nobody’s business. When you’re in the chapel you can hear folks coming from a mile away, so I’d have a good chance to get up off the floor before anyone saw me (I have a horror of calling attention to myself in the presence of the Eucharist – if the Host is indeed the Creator of the Universe, God forbid that someone should enter into His presence and then be distracted by me or anyone else). It was now or never, so I proceeded to lie face down in the middle of the aisle and thank God for His mercy and His grace poured out in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
And in less than 10 seconds, two of the light-footedest men God ever created entered the chapel.
So there I am, lying face down in the middle of the aisle in the Adoration chapel, my nose mashed into the carpet, thinking to myself that it’s truly a mercy that in this day and age this is probably one of the few places left in America where two men can find a middle-aged woman lying face down on the floor, and not dial 911.
They seated themselves. I righted myself, genuflected, and left the chapel as discreetly as I knew how. I recognized neither man, although I can say with certainty that there is a good chance that one or both of them was named Jim or Joe.
So, how’s that little incident going to look when they open the cause for my canonization? Seriously, there will have to be a MAJOR rewrite of the facts, something along the lines of “And as St. Renée lay prostrate before her Lord in the Tabernacle, two strangers entered the chapel. Stricken by the obvious intensity of her devotion, they were at once convicted of their sins, and henceforth were moved to lead lives of notable piety.”
Something like that. After all, that’s how hagiography works, isn’t it? Religious cryotherapy is applied to the warts in the saint’s life, smoothing out the rough edges and making saints appear a breed apart from everyday folk like you and me. Let’s face it, goobs and doofuses don’t get canonized. Hagiographists get paid not to talk about the crankiness, the fender-bender (seriously, officer, I did not see that tree!), the break-up with the fiancé, the hammer and the bad language, the mind-wandering during Mass, the social contretemps, the bouts of depression, or any neglect of the niceties. Hagiographists blather instead about the saintly characteristics which the person under discussion purportedly possessed: the zeal, the piety, the courage, the intrepidity, and the greatness of mind.
Yadda, yadda, yadda….
The truth is in the warts!!
Well, no, actually the truth is in the truth, warts and all. To make saints sound as if they never got distracted during prayer (ask St. Teresa of Avila) or spoke sharply to someone (St. Jerome wanders into my mind) is to do them a disservice. Yet, far from being a crock, hagiography is actually good in that it offers us another perspective on the lives of the saints, a necessary perspective on the truth.
Take the example of soon-to-be St. John Paul the Great. It was revealed after his death that the pope would spend all night lying on the bare floor with his arms outstretched, fasting and praying before the ordination of bishops. Sounds saintly, right? Think about how this played out in real life. John Paul would first lie down in bed, shifting from one side to the other, to make it look like he had slept there – wouldn’t want people to talk…. The bed was comfortable, and the thought crossed his mind that he was getting kind of old for the self-mortification stuff. He pulled himself out of bed and onto the cold floor, which got colder after a half an hour had passed. He prayed, and prayed, and realized that he had dozed off. He prayed some more. The floor was awfully drafty, and he began to think idly about perhaps doing some remodeling to cut down on heating costs. Realizing that his mind had wandered, he also realized that he had to go to the bathroom. He wasn’t getting any younger, and neither was his prostate. My goodness, his legs were stiff as he arose from the floor. When he returned from the bathroom, his soft bed called to him. He knelt beside the bed. Why was he doing this? Was it really going to make a difference? All-night vigil or no all-night vigil, those bishops would be ordained tomorrow. If he showed up bleary-eyed and haggard, there would be no end of talk in the media about how ill he looked and whether or not he should consider resigning….
He lay back down on the floor, stretching his arms out to form a living cross. Hour One was behind him; only seven more hours left to pray for those men he was ordaining.
So what’s the truth? Is it the old guy lying uncomfortably on the floor all night, getting up for periodic bathroom breaks? Is it the saint imitating His Lord’s all-night prayer vigil before He announces His choice of apostles the next morning (Lk 6:12-14)?
And that’s why hagiography isn’t to be discounted out of hand. A supernatural reality underlies all that a Christian does when he is not conformed to this world, but is being transformed by the renewing of his mind. Remember the words of the angel to Daniel the prophet, who had prayed and fasted for 3 weeks:
He said to me, “O Daniel, man of high esteem, understand the words that I am about to tell you and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Do not be afraid, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart on understanding this and on humbling yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia was withstanding me for twenty-one days; then behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left there with the kings of Persia. Now I have come to give you an understanding of what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision pertains to the days yet future.”
Had the angel not disclosed the behind-the-scenes supernatural struggle, Daniel would have gone on fasting and praying, thinking, “Gee, this sure is getting old. I wonder if any of this really makes a difference. Who do I think I am, anyway, that God should take special notice of me and my prayers?” This dual reality, the natural and the supernatural, is the warp and woof of a Christian’s life – both the “who do I think I am?” and the “Oh. That’s who I am.” Both are real, and both are worthy of contemplation. You prayed for me, and through your prayers you obtained graces for me that I would not have obtained otherwise. Yes, you forgot my name and had to pray for “that woman with the blog about off-roading,” but God knew who you meant! Two realities – you are a fallible, foible-ridden human, and you are a co-heir with Christ = one truth.
So, yeah, the warts are true and deserve a mention. The writers of the New Testament realized that and pulled no punches – doubting Thomas, cowardly Peter, disappointing disciples. But remember, when speaking of the irritating, inept but determined children of God clinging to His promises like drowning rats, the New Testament also confesses: The world is not worthy of them.
And that’s true, too.
Which bodes well for the cause for the canonization of this messy bumpkin. I hope the iconographers remember to depict St. Renée in profile, with her nose still a little mashed from the carpet. Warts and all.
On the memorial of St. Narcisa de Jesús Martillo Morán
Deo omnis gloria!