Gems Among Tales of the Saints

More than 15 years ago when I published my first book, a work on a saint was a rare event. Father Maximilian Kolbe's story, A Man For Others, for instance, made it to print only because it was a compelling tale—not because of Kolbe's sanctity. Harper & Row ended up publishing it, after Catholic houses rejected it insisting, “saints don't sell.”

Today, volumes on saints pour out of publishing houses both Catholic and secular, though many of the books are not always well-researched, well-written, or well-edited.

But there are some gems. What follows is a sampling of the best books on saints to appear in 1998.

Books on St. Thérèse of Lisieux for her 1997 centennial and elevation to a doctor of the Church continued to appear this year. The most accessible of 1998's offerings is Maurice & Thérèse: The Story of a Love(Doubleday, hardback $19.95), by retired Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Ahern of New York. He writes: “My interest in St. Thérèse of Lisieux goes back to 1939 when I first read her autobiography and knew she was the saint for me. I was 20 at the time and she spoke to my deepest needs. She convinced me that someone as ordinary as I could aspire to the love of God which filled her heart to overflowing—in my own more modest measure, of course. The book has never lost its power to sustain me.”

The work reproduces in full, with the bishop's commentary, the letters exchanged between Thérèse and a young seminarian. Bishop Ahern writes, “Thérèse's autobiography is called Story of a Soul. The splendid biography by Bishop Guy Gaucher is called The Story of a Life. I have chosen to name this book Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love. Obviously it was not a romantic love, but a love between a man and a woman whose lives were given totally, in vowed celibacy, to God and to others. Such a love can be—and often in the history of the Church has been—a very beautiful human love. Sometimes the partners have both been saints. In this case one was ‘the greatest saint of modern times.’ The other was not a very great saint at all.”

Taking us past Thérèse's final letter all the way to the end of Maurice's life, Bishop Ahern describes how, after Thérèse's death and publication of her autobiography, “Maurice would pray constantly to Thérèse and count heavily on her help. He devoured everything the Carmel sent him about her. He pored over her letters, knew them almost by heart, and kept close the photograph that Celine had taken. ‘I know she is near me, and I now have the habit of consulting her when there is a decision to be made,’ he wrote.”

The saint's loving presence did not spare her spiritual brother suffering, however. Father Maurice Belliere, as a missionary to Africa, proved a failure in human terms. He contracted sleeping sickness, which affected him mentally as well as physically, and died back in France, coincidentally, in the same mental hospital where Thérèse's beloved father had spent several years. Bishop Ahern sums up Maurice: “Neither before he encountered Thérèse nor after did he rise above the average. He turned up in the life of Thérèse not as a knight in shining armor but as a weak and needful man, sensitive, impressionable, and keenly aware of his sins. She asked of him no great achievement and set no goal too high for him to reach. It was not his virtue that evoked her love She loved him in his human frailty as a sister loves a brother. She never criticized him and never doubted the deep inner worth that lay beneath his limitations. She knew that God could use him for his purposes because his heart was good, no matter how far short he might fall of his own ideals.” Bishop Ahern closes with thoughts on Thérèse's similar love, in God, for us all.

Another person Thérèse loved and formed in her own spirit brings us Thérèse of Lisieux and Marie of the Trinity: The Transformative Relationship of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her novice, Sister Marie of the Trinity by Pierre Descouvemont translated from French by Alexandra Plettenberg-Serban (Alba House, paperback $14.95). Here are priceless memories of Thérèse's down-to-earth doctrine that shapes souls for sanctity. For example, the novice complains that the prioress gives another nun more attention. Thérèse tells the novice: “It isn't [the prioress] you love, but yourself. When you really love, you rejoice about the happiness of the beloved person and you make every sacrifice to obtain it for her. If you loved Mother for her own sake, you would rejoice to see that she finds pleasure at your expense.” When Thérèse another day tells Marie, “I assure you that I love you as if I had a heart for you alone!” Marie retorts it isn't possible that Thérèse loves her more or even as much as she loves her blood sisters.

Thérèse explains: “Our heart is made in the image of God, who loves every creature as if she were the only one in the world. I have a special heart, entirely for everybody, and in spite of that, my heart belongs entirely to God. Jealously and comparison never exist in genuine love for one's neighbor.” Eventually Marie, too, will become holy having made her own Thérèse's insistence “One can never have too much confidence in God, who is so powerful and so merciful! One receives from him quite as much as one hopes for!”

A 1998 book recommended for its research is Faces of Holiness: Modern Saints in Photos and Words (OSV, paperback $14.95) by Ann Ball. Its 32 chapters actually offer many more saints since some cover entire groups of martyrs, such as the more than 20 heroic priests and laymen beatified as a group out of Mexico's persecutions of the 1920s and '30s. Many others are as recent as Brazilian Indian Curupira Ida Tuba who died as a Dominican nun in 1974, young Italian laywoman Carla Ronci who died in 1970, or Puerto Rican Carlos (“Charlie”) Manuel-Santiago RodrÌguez who died young of cancer in 1963.

Ball quotes Ronci whose cause is under way: “The thought that has touched me the most is this: God is in me. I am a living tabernacle. It does not have to be difficult to live in union with God. I am content with everything that surrounds me because in everything I detect a gift of God.” The photos offer immediacy and the book as a whole shows both the universality of the Church and her diversity of holiness. Although the book is an undistinguished-looking paperback, its contents make a fine gift for confirmandi,those being received into the Church, or college students.

One of the year's most beautiful books is Joan of Arc (Alfred A. Knopf, hardback $18) by Josephine Poole with striking illustrations by Angela Barrett. Written for children in the 10-year-old age range, this is actually a book for all of us. Aimed at the broad secular market in vocabulary (for instance, Joan is never referred to as St. Joan), this is nevertheless a book brimming with the spirit of God in both words and images.

Consider this passage, illustrated by a lush living-green orchard dappled in light, where the small figure of Joan looks up at something unseen by the reader: “One summer day, when Joan was alone in the garden, the air around her turned very clear and bright—much brighter than the sun could make it. While she was wondering what could be happening, she heard voices.

“They were talking to her. She was afraid at first, until she understood that these were voices from Heaven. As she listened, she was full of happiness. She had never felt so happy. When the Voices stopped and the heavenly light paled to sunshine, she cried because they had gone away.”

An appealingly and authentically illustrated book for children is Saint Francis of Assisi (Pauline Books & Media, hardcover $9.95) written by Francoise Vintrou, translated by Caroline Morson, adapted by Patricia E. Jablonski FSP, and illustrated by Augusta Curelli. This volume is part of a series titled Along the Paths of the Gospel which, to date, has two other attractive volumes, one on St. John Bosco and one on 15th-century Franciscan reformer St. Colette.

Harper San Francisco puts out beautifully edited books, and the 1998 batch on saints has particularly lovely covers, none more so than Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (paperback $16) by Carol Flinders. Flinders, who coauthored the phenomenally successful Laurel's Kitchen cookbook series, has a PhD in comparative literature and teaches religious and women's studies at Berkeley. A non-Catholic, she is a gentle feminist: She believes that “even aside from the social, economic, and sexual arrangements that bind men and women together in conventional life, we truly and deeply need one another” and she gets really excited over women's achievements.

Writing of Mechtild of Magdeburg, she exclaims: “When contemporary women learn about the Beguines, our hearts beat a little faster. Suddenly, in the allegedly monolithic structure of medieval Europe, there is a rift — an anomaly — incredibly enough, a women's movement. The exact nature of the movement and its origins continue to be debated by medieval scholars. In the past, some historians give priority to socioeconomic factors, almost to the exclusion of religious impulses, but today the genuinely spiritual nature of the movement, this ‘order that was not an order,’ is virtually unquestioned.”

I don't share all the views of Flinders, whose spirituality is more Hindu than Christian. But for mature Catholics who want to look at Teresa of Avila, Clare of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, and other women mystics through the eyes of one who loves them as an outsider, this book can stimulate useful new perspectives—especially for those of us who promote our saints as a bridge into the faith for unchurched friends.

This year also brought a unique work for those who love Church art featuring the saints: The Saint Makers: Contemporary Santeras y Santeros(Northland Publishing, glossy paperback $14.95) by Chuck and Jan Rosenak, American folk art authorities. More than 40 living makers of santos— those traditionally carved and sometimes painted images of Christ and his saints—from the New Mexico tradition are given brief biographies accompanied by beautiful, full-color representations of their work. Everyone will find something here that feeds the soul.

Patricia Treece's Mornings With Thérèse of Lisieux (Servant Press 1997) has been on the Catholic Hardcover Best Seller list most of this year.