Saints Behaving Badly

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The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints
by Thomas J. Craughwell

You may already have seen reviews of this book at Happy Catholic and Disputations and with such redoubtable reviewers, there is precious little I can add to the mix except my own brand of enthusiasm. I have to admit that this kind of book isn't particularly appealing to me normally, but after reading Tom's review, I thought it might be worthwhile. Fortunately, I was offered a review copy of the book and leapt at the chance to read it before it was generally available.

Of recent date, I have been in a sort of spiritual and personal doldrums, casting about this way and that to find something worthwhile to read, some way to access the prayer life I seemed to know at one time. This book was a real spirit-lifter and spiritual life-saver for me in ways that most lives of saints are not. In fact, I find most lives of saints depressingly Calvinistic, with one pious anecdote after another telling me about God's precious chosen few who from conception are preserved from any serious error. Saints who emerge from the womb preaching to all and sundry and after fourteen days die in the odor of Sanctity. (I forget the name of this particular prodigy, but will endeavor to provide when I have a chance to research.) I read of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux and reach the conclusion that sanctity is for the precious few.

And then along comes this breath of fresh air. Craughwell's intent is not to "downgrade" the saints, but to present less than perfect models after whom we might pattern ourselves. You have a wide variety of miscreants to choose from--everything from leches and lushes to mass-murderers and satanists. Each of the saints described in the book suffers from one or more virulent forms of (mostly) mortal sin. And every one of them was found to be a Holy Person.

The reader is invited to choose from Saints who represent any number of besetting sins. Being personally inclined to comfort and an excess of interest in the opposite sex, I immediately took to St. Augustine and St. Mary of Egypt. Not being particularly wrathful or vengeful, I was still heartened to read of St. Olga the mass-murderer and her grandson St. Vladimir, fratricide, rapist and practitioner of human sacrifice.

Craughwell describes the lives of these saints before they entered into God's friendship. He leaves for the interested reader the discovery of the life of sanctity that followed God's grace becoming apparent in their lives. And I like this as well.

What the book provides for me, and I think for many, is a very level-headed hard-eyed gaze at the parts of Saints' lives that we don't often pay much attention to. But the best part of all is that the book does this without detraction, without gossip, without making those previous lives seem like desirable states. It is very understated, matter-of-fact, and realistic without being detailed to the point of nausea. More, the book provides insights that give me hope when I feel overwhelmed by my own sinfulness and when the lives of the perfect are merely constant condemnations of my own state. Who can really hope to approach, much less imitate the Blessed Mother of God in the wretched state of sinfulness most of us occupy. Why would one think any Saint would intercede for, much less pay attention to those of us in the gutters of the way of the King? This book supplies hope--they would pray for us because many were like us. The Saints are not a frozen panoply of the perfect parading from one miracle to the next, but rather deeply flawed human beings who, in their surrender to Jesus Christ achieved God's own perfection.

Finally, the very best thing about this book is that it is well-written, lively, and fun. The lives featured average a few pages--perhaps five minutes reading for a slow reader--something for a coffee-break at work or a moment or two at home.

This was certainly one of the more enjoyable books I've read this year, and I think it will be a bedside companion--a compendium of hope and joy for those moments when I brood too much about my own sorry state. The book serves as a reminder that no matter what our state in life, God is there to lift us out of it if we only give him the chance.

Highest recommendation.

Saints Behaving Badly becomes available 19 September 2006. In keeping with my credo about supporting the Christian arts, I highly recommend that all who can afford to do so get this book and read it. Those who cannot should urge their libraries to carry it--it has enough mainstream appeal that it should move off the "Recent and Recommended" shelves steadily (after all, it does seem like it might be a bit lurid, doesn't it?). (Presently Amazon has a sufficient discount to make it only slightly more expensive that a mass market paperback!)

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I agree, and I think the key word is "understated." Craughwell lets the stories speak for themselves. In reacting to moralistic bowdlerizing, he doesn't overreact by treating his subjects' sanctity as an optional accessory to their sinfulness.

This reminds me of a thread that ran on Mark Shea's blog last week about a French murderer who is being considered for sainthood. It was very discouraging to me that the original writer didn't believe this man should be canonized due to his past. I wondered where exactly that left me & most of the people in this world. Mother Angelica used to have no time for the overly pious characterization of saints. I can hardly wait to read this book. thx for the post!

OK, between you and Julie, now I have no choice but to read this one!

Seriously, one of the worst problems for me, right after I became Catholic, was to find books about the saints that weren't so treacly and hopelessly "so holy you'll certainly never get there, MamaT". I despaired. Wasn't I supposed to love the saints? Read about them? Be inspired by them? I kept throwing down the books in disgust.

One time Smock's husband asked a very pertinent (to me) question: "Do you find the saints a comfort or do they make you nervous?"

At the time of my conversion, they made me nervous, because their lives seemed so out of reach for someone as weak and stupid as I am. As I found a few more biographies that showed me the saints weren't necessarily paragons of virtue 100% of the time, they became a comfort to me.

But now? I think they're making me nervous again. Why? Because I'm learning that it's a goal we might attain. And that puts the focus back on what I"m not doing. And how I'm far too lukewarm.

Oh, dear. It seems like I have that classic love/hate relationship with the saints!

This sounds very interesting!



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 14, 2006 7:29 AM.

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