On Inspiration From the Saints
When I first discovered the blog Irish Papist, with its many idiosyncratic virtues, Maolsheachlann kindly invited me to contribute a guest blog post. (I had simultaneously discovered the now-dormant blog of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, also written by Maolsheachlann, and had contacted him to ask some questions about GKC.) Some years have gone by since that offer was made. But now, finally, I am responding to the invitation, on the splendid occasion of Mr. Irish Papist’s new book, Inspiration From the Saints.
This is not going to be a formal review, but a few scattered impressions. First, however, a brief note about myself.
I am a Swedish convert to Catholicism. My parish contains Catholics from all over the world. At Sunday Mass, about twenty-five to thirty countries are represented. The few ethnic Swedes in attendance are converts like myself, aside from very rare exceptions to the rule. Hardly surprising in a country which for five hundred years has lived in the murky shadow of one Mr. Luther. Outside church, I work as an archivist, and my interests include both G.K. Chesterton and Ireland (although I’ve only ever trod the “holy ground” of Erin for a single weekend, almost fifteen years ago).
Explanatory to Fundamentals
But let me turn to the book.
Before I read it from the first to the last page, at about the two-thirds mark, my first impression was: “Yes, this is a good effort”. It meets the need of the ordinary Catholic to stay afloat in these decadent times. Here is both an interesting and an easy read. It’s not only for those already over the Tiber with dry feet, but at the same time, it’s by no means only for beginners. The idea of themed chapters, and the actual choice of themes, is ingenious. The themes chosen are some of the most important, one might even say basic, aspects of the Faith, and they are introduced in a helpful sequence. The somewhat idiosyncratic chapter on “Losers” is sandwiched between chapters titled “Chastity” and “Humility”, which are followed smoothly by the twins of “Catechetics” and “Evangelization”, and then by further topics, with no perceptible sudden turns.
The writing is clear, mostly comprised of straightforward stories from the lives of the saints, but with here and there more personal reflections woven into the fabric. The pacing is fine. For a Swedish or otherwise peripheral readership, this book could be almost catechetical. The stories, both in content and in style, are very accessible.
In the chapter on evangelization, we are given a good explanation of the term “the New Evangelization”, an idea often mentioned as a Papal policy in recent decades. St. John Paul II is one of the saints most often featured; he and several others (including St. Rose of Lima and St. Josemaria Escrivá) come back into the stories again and again, under various themes. Passages from the Bible are well-chosen, and explained with care and a devout layman’s practical understanding, often as examples of convergence between the quoted verse and “ordinary” lives of the saints (“ordinary”, that is, but still very singular in their challenging zeal).
What can be learned by taking in this kind of panorama of the saints´ common features? Many fundamental and amazing things can be learned. Its inspirational approach shows or at least hints that their common features don´t take away from their respectively unique charismas. (Super-) naturally! These saints come across as common Catholic people, people like you and me. And a book like this can no doubt be re-read in various parts with benefit. Since there are quite a few unknown saints and Blesseds among the most well-known (good that their popularity was not a criterion, but only a secondary consequence of the selection in themes), the reader of the book at first will also receive some pleasant discoveries into the bargain. Another bonus is the general flow of the stories. The book is written in a fluid style already known to the regular readers of this blog.
Small (Just That, No More) Faults
For someone not familiar with “cradle Catholic” fundamentals, the “natural” ease in the author´s accompanying comments on the words and actions of the saints are a really fine feature of the presentation. It could be argued that the non-Catholic reader might find a few too many things taken for granted, but that´s nothing I would have claimed as a weak point, so no more here on that aspect. The fact that miracles happen, and that the sacraments work, is simply assumed in the text. Take it or leave it – or do what you find best, and reflect on (some of?) it!
There are only a few textual mistakes remaining, despite the proof reading. Some of those are to be found in the first half of the book (perhaps two handfuls of such small things as doubled words etc. are not such a big deal printed books these days). The use of an even narrative, with many facilitative favourite phrases and a good use of compact recapitulations brings the reader to a warmer apprehension of the whole. This is helpful for readability, and is a pure delight for all who enjoy what we have so often been blessed to find here at Irish Papist. Many saints reappear several times, and we are reminded they do so. When you buy into this feature of the text, it´s a rather nice reminder of the beneficial presence of their company.
The best thing in keeping the narrative so much centered on the basics of Faith and the saints´ daily lives, rather than the extraordinary, is that in the end almost any interested person reading this book will probably say: “Sanctity is not so strange as I thought it was”. As the many examples show, there are innumerable motivations to keep on trying to live the life of a Christian, even in the face of “failure”. And no one is immune to setbacks, not even these celebrated saintly heroes.
The Sense of Saints’ Communion
In between the most famous and the utterly obscure, there is also room for not a few medium-famous saints. One of the many, and one of many that I was sufficiently intrigued to want to read more about, is St. John Berchmans. But there is no need to point out which names appeal most. This book comes with a full guarantee that it contains more than one or two that you will never have heard of before reading.
Even more than this, this book can make you vividly aware of the reality of the Communion of Saints. How? When? Why? Well, it gives a sense of nearness to the sacramental outlook to begin with. Not just once do we hear the narrative calling, simply saying to us: “If they could, couldn´t we too?” If that seems impossible, the narrator still says it. That makes sense if you dare to put trust the author, as if he knew, either by experience or reason, that it isn´t. (In all likelihood the saints involved are actually active somehow also in the practical process of communication, though this is an argument far from the usual tenets of textual criticism!) The quotes from the saints only affirm the cumulative treasure of tradition. The prayerfulness etc. that is still around us wherever there is living Catholicism, feels quite integrated into the author´s own perspective. Sharing the wonders and small insights we get into truly good company. Given the practical state of affairs these days I may doubt how many secular Swedes would find a book like this inspiring, but that is another business.
|Domkyrkan, seat of the Archbishop of Stockholm|
The distant prayers from those hearty “friends we don´t know yet” can at some moments feel almost tangible. At least there are some mysteries that help, so that we can stir the imagination and hope. And if reading does not lead to prayer, it still can be just good plain reading or learning. The illustrative quotes and descriptions are well-chosen and there are no dry statements.
When a chapter gets closely read, either in part or all the way through, its contents can also gently lead on into prayer and even “Eureka-moments”. And a better effect than that could hardly be begged for. Especially if the effort was made to be not only “a fun read” but first and foremost to literally convey what is says. Inspiration from them to us!
So thank you Maolsheachlann, for bringing the heart’s desires of your saints to fruition. May God bless the Irish Church!
And God bless Tomas! If he has made you eager to buy the book, you can do so here!