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Inspiring models of lay sanctity

By Ann W. Astell, editor
University of Notre Dame, 250 pages, $35


Saints are wonderful. Think of the color, the richness, the heroism and, all right, a touch of the bizarre that they add to the Catholic tradition. Catholics claim saints with an enthusiasm matched by few other traditions. We really believe in the communion of saints, living and dead. They are important members of the Catholic family tradition.

So this book is important because it examines with academic reverence the lives of some holy lay people, how some became saints and why others of dazzling virtue didn’t.

The Catholic tradition, for all the honor it gives to saints, rarely looks critically at the criteria used to determine who is a saint. The criteria are implicitly political, theological and cultural and are blithely assumed to be fair, rational and universally applicable. They aren’t.

The most unspoken but pervasive criterion for saints is that they be as like monks as possible. In the academically refined language of Astell, “The preeminence of the monk as a saintly exemplar during the Middle Ages caused holiness to be generally defined in a way that valorized the contemplative life of prayer and study over the active life of works of mercy, virginity over marriage, extraordinary ascetical practices over the faithful fulfillment of duties, and ‘leaving the world’ over temporal involvement.”

The medieval preference for the monastic template prevails to this day. Which lifelong champion of the poor will have the better chance for Vatican recognition: Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa?

The rest of the book is about saints who, because they are laity, don’t fare well under these criteria. The series of essays either describe a saint (all women and one married couple, by the way) or a way of becoming a saint other than entering a monastery. I found the essay on pilgrimage enlightening and the section on child saints confirming my darkest suspicions about the art of hagiography. Pilgrimages, with a few modern twists and conveniences, still have an appeal. Child saints are, with a few exceptions, mostly victims of child abuse.

The authors set themselves a tough task: to describe probable saintliness without using the monastic yardstick by which sanctity is measured. Miracles are not required, obedience to a rule or person is not really the point and no institutional legacy can be adduced. The authors do not talk about the money required to lubricate the archaic machinery of sanctification. This is a determinedly positive book; no criticism of the existing structures is offered. Instead, the essayists, employing footnotes and authoritative support for their choices, offer alternative descriptions and their own implicit criteria of sanctity.

Some of the models NCRreaders will know rather thoroughly: Dorothy Day, Raissa and Jacques (the token male) Maritain and Catherine of Sienna are familiar. But Gertraud von Bullion, Margery Kempe and Elizabeth Lesseur are probably new to your circle of celestial companions.

This is inspiring reading. These lay saints are heroic and they are vivid models. They report dramatic, enduring religious experiences and convictions. They are attractive people. Their piety informs and energizes their work. They are tireless workers, effective administrators, dynamic leaders and behave like people in love. Their spiritual practices (prayer, meditation, scripture reading, voluntary poverty, transformative suffering) are appealing, healthy and joyous without gushing about it.

These saints swing both ways with virginity and celibacy. If they abstain from sex, they do so to serve God more perfectly. If they enjoy sex, they use it as a metaphor for how they love God. Gospel freedom, it seems to me.

The authors’ scholarship is impressive throughout. Cultural influences get careful attention, Vatican II documents root their judgments in contemporary theology, and the range and quality of their sources is impressive. I will consider their almost exclusive focus on female laity as merely a corrective bias.

Clarence Thomson is a freelance writer and theologian who teaches scripture in an ecumenical setting.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000