National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Winter Books
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

By Frederick Quinn
Crossroad Publishing Company, 235 pages, $22.95
By Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver
Liguori/Triumph, 243 pages, $22.95
Saints and holy people in far-off lands

Vignettes expand view of Christian Africa; Celtic book treads familiar terrain


Western Christians tend to grow up learning mostly about the spread of Christianity in this hemisphere. “Do you remember the map on the spread of Christianity in the Sunday school room of the church where you grew up?” asks author Frederick Quinn in the introduction to African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa. “Thick dotted lines led from Jerusalem along the Mediterranean coast to Rome. … At the map’s lower extremity was North Africa, largely barren spaces with a few palm trees, camels and oases.”

It is now 50 years after the time of that Sunday school classroom. Today, church growth in Africa is “astronomical,” writes Quinn. The continent’s population is estimated to be around 770 million persons, of whom 320 million are Muslims and 350 million are Christians, including 175 million Roman Catholics. Quinn, an Anglican priest, has lived and traveled widely in Africa, and holds a doctorate in African history. His book reminds us of the rich place that Africa has always held in Christian history.

This alphabetical anthology of 86 martyrs, theologians, popes, prophets, missionaries and other holy people helped to fill in the “barren spaces” on that scanty African map of church history in my own mind. I knew most of the names included from the earliest Christian centuries, such as Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, martyrs from North Africa, who were thrown to wild animals in the year 203. And St. Anthony of Egypt, fourth-century hermit, who inspired countless others to follow him to the wilderness. Seminal theologians Athanasius, Augustine and Origen are here, and the three African popes: St. Victor I (189-199), St. Miltades (311-314) and Pope Gelasius I (492-496).

I was fascinated to discover the story of the Kongolese prophet Kimpa Vita (or Dona Beatriz, as she was known by her baptismal name), 1684-1706. After two years of preaching to a wide following, she was arrested by the local Capuchin missionaries, beaten by a mob and burned to death for her unorthodox views. Her story illustrates the scenario, repeated all over the world, of the clash between indigenous and imported religions. “By her own reckoning and within the framework of traditional African belief systems, Kimpa Vita was not a heretic,” explains Quinn. “Her confrontation was that of a woman of faith, destroyed by her own people and the missionaries, all acting in the name of Christ.”

African Saints profiles a number of European and American missionaries to Africa, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also stories of African missionaries who traveled West. Salim Wilson (d. 1946) was one of these: born in Sudan, sold into slavery and freed by Anglican missionaries. He eventually settled in Yorkshire, England, where he earned a living as a well-liked Methodist preacher.

Since the author’s intention is to give readers a perspective on the whole spectrum of religious belief in Africa, he includes the stories of several non-Christian holy people, as well. “Too many holy people, just and suffering servants, come from churches and faith traditions different from ours,” says Quinn. “I am content to walk the Way of the Cross with them rather than pass judgment on them.”

At the end of the book are excerpts from a diary of the author’s trip to Africa in 1987, in which he includes his recollections of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The book finishes with a small collection of traditional African prayers, proverbs and wise sayings (one of my favorites: Never mind that your nose is ugly, as long as you can breathe through it).

Left wanting more

Most of the vignettes in African Saints focus on the early centuries of Christianity or on persons who lived within the past 200 years. I would have been interested to see more representatives of religious activity during other times. I was also surprised that so little was included here about Ethiopia, which endured as a Christian kingdom throughout the Middle Ages. There are no profiles devoted to Ethiopian saints, aside from a bit in the introduction about the Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in Acts.

On the whole, though, Quinn has done a fine job with his selections. African Saints should work well as a textbook for classes on church history or as an individual devotional guide. It left me wanting to know more, hoping there might be another book on the way with the stories of holy people the author was not able to include in this volume.

If African Saints felt like stepping into an undiscovered country, Praying with Celtic Women Saints was a hike through familiar terrain. Celtic spirituality is so popular these days that it’s hard to find a book on the subject that covers much new ground.

In Celtic Women Saints, authors Regina Madonna Oliver and Bridget Mary Meehan describe pilgrimages to the holy sites of a number of early medieval women saints, primarily in Ireland and Wales, inviting readers to come along with them and “contemplate the feminine wisdom hidden in Celtic traditions.” Each chapter about an individual saint concludes with a suggested prayer service devoted to some distinctive aspect of her spirituality. The book is beautifully produced, featuring color photographs of stained glass windows representing the women saints being discussed.

Many elements of these chapters work well, especially the descriptions of the landscape and people the authors encounter on their way to various holy sites. An account of their pilgrimage to the well of Irish St. Ita, a fifth-century monastic founder, evokes a peaceful sense of place and a snapshot of local devotion: “To the right side of a narrow lane lies an open field … and the ruins of a castle. To the left is a walled cemetery and the stone remnants of Ita’s [monastic] foundation. A statue of the saint, crozier in hand, stands watch over the quiet graves of the more recently deceased, and resting in its niche are the tokens of gratitude left by pilgrims, simple gifts: a medal, a picture, a small plastic statue. A bubbling stream runs close by.”

After relating the circumstances of their journeys, Oliver and Meehan tell us the legends surrounding the saints they went to visit. We read about the Welsh nun St. Winefrede, who refused the advances of a prince and was decapitated for her defiance. No problem: Her head and body knit back together, leaving nothing but a small scar for the rest of her life. (The authors tell us that Winefride’s story “is influenced by the ancient Celtic tradition that the severed head contains supernatural powers.”) There is a sweet story of St. Melangell, patron saint of hares, who sheltered some of the frightened animals under her skirts in order to protect them from hunting dogs. St. Dwynwen, invoked by people who suffer from unrequited love. And Irish St. Cannera, who wished to be admitted to the group of hermits on Scattery Island. When the monk Senan denied her request to stay there, Cannera reportedly replied: “How can you say that? Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men. He suffered for the sake of women as much as for the sake of men. Women as well as men can enter the heavenly kingdom. Why, then, should you not allow women to live on this island?”

Unfortunately, these women saints never emerge as real people. Their personalities and their stories are often buried in pages of author interpretation. Instead of allowing St. Cannera’s bold “How can you say that?” to stand on its own, for example, the authors follow it with two pages of explanation about feminist theology, the role of women in the early church, and so on, to make sure we don’t miss the point about empowerment. Most of the suggested prayer services could have been pared down; they go on for four, five, or even six pages, and traditional Irish prayers are saddled with additional comments like “Brigit’s table blessing reflects her spirituality of womb-compassion.”

I also found myself dissatisfied with the way the authors presented their research. They begin many sentences with “Scholars say …” but don’t tell us which scholars. A discussion about a certain Irish church called St. Brigid’s on the Hill concludes with the vague sentence, “The church was destroyed in penal days.” At the end of a passage about conhospitae -- houses in which celibate and married people lived together in a life dedicated to Christ -- they assert, “The dualism that plagued the thinking of much of Western Christianity was not prevalent in Celtic lands until pressure from Rome following the mandate of 1139 made celibacy a requirement for all religious.” The authors say nothing further to explain “the mandate of 1139,” leaving readers to recall for themselves the proceedings of the Second Lateran Council.

The book is an interesting read, but would have been more illustrative of Celtic spirituality if the authors had let the landscape and the stories speak louder than their attempts to define and explain.

Both Celtic Women Saints and African Saints illustrate that the interaction between the spirituality of East and West is sometimes clunky, sometimes rewarding (St. Anthony of Egypt appears on Celtic crosses), and always creates our Christian world anew. “The saints of God speak the same language,” says a Somali proverb. And across the ocean, St. Samthann of Ireland echoes: “Since God is near to all who call on God, there is no need to cross the sea. The kingdom of God can be reached from every land.”

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is a freelance writer with a degree in church history. Her reflections on the Holy Spirit in history recently were published in Review for Religious.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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