Converted by the Saints
An NYU scholar on why they fascinate us — and how they impact lives
BY Dr. Evelyn Birge Vitz
November 01, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/1/98 at 1:00 PM
Dr. Evelyn Birge Vitz is a scholar, writer, and human-ist, whose interests range from medieval France to modern gender relations, to the lives of the saints — an area of special interest to her. She is a 1963 graduate of Smith College, who earned a Master's Degree at Middlebury and a doctorate at Yale, this last in 1968. Dr. Vitz has been Professor of French at New York University in New York City since 1968, where she served for twelve years as the head of the University's Medieval and Renaissance Studies program. She spoke by telephone to Register correspondent Raymond de Souza from the campus of New York University.
Raymond de Souza: Why did you choose to specialize in medieval literature and hagiography, i.e., writings on the lives of the saints?
Evelyn Birge Vitz: I should explain that hagiography is only one of the things I work on. I have done many different things — for example, I have done work on medieval romance, and the impact of the liturgy on literature. I chose to work on these matters long before I was a Catholic, so it is not as though I had a Catholic program in mind.
But there are at least two reasons why I was drawn to the lives of the saints. The first is that they are marvelous stories — they are extremely entertaining, dynamic, and often very beautiful stories. Second, they provide very interesting challenges to modern theories about literature. Modern theories often don't work because they have deeply atheistic assumptions built into them. Those theories don't work when they are applied to works of the Middle Ages and, in particular, to saints’ lives. So it was fun to see the ways in which saints’ lives provided counterexamples to modern theories, which are often presented as being universal theories. They were interesting grist for my mill.
So you found in medieval hagiography something to challenge the dominant theories that you had encountered as a student?
That's right. For example, there is a modern way of understanding literature that holds that all the major functions have to be played by characters within the text. But in hagiographical literature and in many other medieval works, it must be understood that God is a key character — that God is the actor above all the action. It is left implicit or made explicit that the person whose will finally prevails in the text is God's will — no matter what the characters want, if God wants something different, that's what happens. The characters have all kinds of things that they are trying to do, but God is always there.
This is even the case in works that are not at all pious — works that are bawdy, somewhat dirty, or even slightly blasphemous. It's not exactly that God has the last laugh, but you still have the idea that what happens is what God wants to happen. Those kinds of stories are not the lives of the saints, but this is true of medieval literature as a whole. There is an extraordinary willingness to see that God is the key character, above all other characters.
In contemporary biography and autobiography, there is a tendency to expose the hidden, even scandalous, aspects of subjects, to show they were not what they appeared to be. Does hagiography offer a challenge to this cynical approach?
Well, hagiography is clearly not cynical. We still do have heroic portraits today — of great presidents, explorers, adventures. But we tend to be cynical about political figures and the ulterior motives of religious figures. Yet almost everybody recognizes the importance in a culture of heroic narrative. For example, no matter how cynical our culture, there are plenty of heroic films around.
Much of hagiography does “air-brush” out the failings of the saints. There is a tradition of what is called “hagiographical romance” which makes all the martyrs beautiful young virgins or strong and impressive men. Of course, there is a good deal of evidence that there were plenty of people like this, too. But leaving aside the romantic tendencies, there are lots of cases where we have a great deal of historical information about the saints, and their qualities still shine through.
That is not to say that the saints did not have failings. There are many saints who had problems with their temper — they got very impatient with people who did not understand what they were trying to do. Saints, like all human beings, made mistakes and had mixed motives at times. Yet, a great many of saints — especially saints about whom we have a great deal of documentation — still stand out very impressively as viewed from today's perspective.
Thomas More is a good example. There are plenty of people who may criticize his positions, but I don't think anybody fails to respect Thomas More and what he stood for, or the other English martyrs. The martyrs of the Reformation are simply extraordinary people, both men and women, and the more documentation we have, the more their heroic virtue stands out.
How then would you respond to the contemporary approach that downplays the lives of the saints precisely because of criticism of “hagio-graphical romance"?
You give children reading that is appropriate for children, and you give grown-ups reading that is appropriate for grown-ups. It does not bother me that young children should be given somewhat idealized and simplified lives of the Saints. There's no reason why teen agers and adults can't be given historically based stories; there are plenty of accounts of early martyrs that are very much respected by the hardest of the hard-nosed editors of these works. Some of these texts hold up very well.
It shouldn't bother anyone that children get something appropriate for children. Nobody knows what St. Agnes looked like, but I am not bothered that there are illustrations of St. Agnes in children's books, because children like illustrations. It is no different from an illustration of George Washington when he was a boy.
You give people reading that is appropriate to their age and level of education. The lives of the saints have been extraordinarily powerful motivators of religious behavior, not only for ordinary people but for the saints themselves. A stellar example is Ignatius Loyola, who was largely converted by reading the lives of the saints while recuperating from a wound. This is powerful reading — persuasive and moving reading, and there is plenty of truth in it. It is a very important kind of reading to be giving to people today.
Anybody who is interested in the historical nitty-gritty of all this should look at Butler's four-volume Lives of the Saints, as re-issued by Thurston & Attwater. They weigh extremely carefully the different kinds of accounts, and they are quite tough about saying that there is no basis for belief in this or that saint or martyr. But then there are plenty for whom there is just very strong evidence.
What improvements would you recommend to editors today who are producing lives of the saints?
I would be interested in having quotations included from canonization proceedings — these are quotations from people who knew the saints. Canonizations as we know them date from about the 13th century. So since that time we have all these records of testimony from people who knew the saints. It can be deeply moving to read what they have to say.
When you read a whole book of the saints, you can come away with a certain monotony — here are all these saintly and holy people. But people who have known actual saints in their lives find them unforgettable and truly unique. I know some people who knew people whose causes are now open for beatification and canonization, and it is clear that these people have left an indelible mark on those who came into contact with them. It is very moving to read about it.
It is also useful for modern people to read the lives of saints of the last few centuries, where all the historical emphasis is present. These lives are very much informed by the principles of historiography. So people who dismiss the legends of the saints should read the lives of more recent saints.
How should the faithful learn from the lives of the saints, especially as the standard can seem too high, too intimidating?
Many of these saints specialized — or God had them specialize — in particular virtues, and we can all work on specific virtues. None of us are going to be perfect, but we can try to imitate a specific virtue that was lived by a particular saint. And the crucial thing about all the saints is that they tried to live prayerfully. We are not going to imitate the saints unless we imitate their prayerfulness.
When Catholics think about the medieval period, we often think mostly about the achievements in philosophy and theology. What does medieval literature contribute to the Catholic mind-set?
Medieval literature formed a fundamental part of what we can call Catholic culture. The Middle Ages, whatever its defects, was a time of Catholic culture. People were constantly aware of themselves as being Catholics — not always as good Catholics, as often they were more aware of themselves as sinners — but they knew that they were Catholics, and their Catholicism permeates all aspects of their life. Medieval literature, even when it is joking or being objectionable in one way or another, is a deeply Catholic literature. Even works that are not devout are part of a culture that understands the world and time as belonging to God, and human action as being motivated in part by needs and desires that are given to human beings by God. It is a richly Catholic literature, even when it is more or less secular.
For example, it is a common theme that no matter how much you forget about God — getting involved with love affairs or all kinds of adventures — you will be judged by God when you die. There is a constant eschato-logical tension present in medieval literature, where people are always thinking in these terms. Many works close by returning to this Christian reality of judgment.
Are your students who study medieval literature open to these aspects of the works?
I think so. I have taught many religious courses over the years at NYU, including one on the saints. I have had all kinds of people in that course: Catholics, lapsed Catholics, people whose grandparents were Catholics, Jains, Jewish students — all kinds signed up for that class. Many of them were deeply moved by the lives of the saints. There are some lives that are interesting and entertaining, but it is not clear whether they really existed. Then there are plenty of people who are tremendously moving to the students, saints who cannot just be dismissed as the creation of legend. I had a wonderful paper from a Jewish student who was blown away by Teresa of Avila. And I have also had a number of students who converted, but that's a separate issue, as they may have been a self-selected group who decided to take that course.
How has your work been received by your colleagues?
At NYU I suppose I am in some ways rather conspicuous. The fact that my husband and I have six children and live in university housing — we are somewhat conspicuous as Catholics! But there are many people who teach religious subject matter at NYU, so in that sense I am no different.
There is certainly a lot of anti-Catholicism in the academic world — of that there can be no doubt. It's also true that it is quite respectable to be a Catholic medieval scholar. When I go to the annual medievalists’ convention every spring in Kalamazoo, there is a Mass every morning in a very large room and it is always jam-packed, standing room only. So there are plenty of Catholic medievalists. Medieval studies draws many Catholics and — I am a good example — to some degree converts people who were not Catholic to begin with. So I have not had a great deal of pressure or hostility.
Perhaps you could speak about your conversion.
It's true that the lives of the saints were important to me. Even if any particular saint's story is not true — there is a lot of borrowing from one story to another — the general patterns are certainly true and tremendously moving. The great themes of the lives of the saints were very impressive to me. There were lots of other factors in my conversion, but there is no doubt that my reading of the lives of the saints was an important component in my conversion. I don't think one should ever belittle the power of the saints to effect conversions, even today.
What would you recommend for those who wish to read the lives of the saints?
There are different kinds of books. The Butler's edition I mentioned earlier (Thurston & Attwater) is where you go to understand how legend and history come together. There are books on the importance of the saints for Western culture, for example, Ferguson's which focuses on their role in art.
For those who want to get away from the cultural or literary issues toward historiography, they can turn to serious books about the saints by someone such as Evelyn Waugh [20th century English novelist who wrote biographies of Edmund Campion and Helena, mother of Constantine]. A number of great writers have written lives of specific saints, and most great saints of the last few centuries have had their lives written several times, sometimes by very significant writers. Large parish libraries and university libraries would have serious biographies of saints.
For example, Chesterton's books on St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Francis of Assisi?
I think they are terrific. He is trying to give you a feeling of what these people were like, and he does a wonderful job. Works by Waugh or Chesterton are very valuable reading because these are smart guys — they are not credulous but have a real understanding of what makes a saint, and what made real saints.
It is important to read writers of this quality on the saints. Chesterton was a journalist, not a historian, but he does a much better job that many historians of seeing what was really essential.
—Raymond de Souza
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