Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Lives of the Saints remembered

We could read about sex and violence in the Catholic schools when I was a boy. We could read such stuff right under the nuns' noses and they wouldn't mind. Indeed, they would encourage it... because we were reading the Lives of the Saints.

Yesterday was Halloween -- All Hallows Eve. Today is the Feast of All Hallows: All Saints Day.

And on All Saints Day I can't help but remember those vigorous tales designed to form our character and give us courage against the temptations of puberty or rock-and-roll music.

The sex part came from the early lives of the saints -- We learned that St. Francis of Assisi led quite a life before he saw the light, with parties and singing and dancing.... St. Augustine also lived a pretty wild life before his conversion -- but these stories were always unfortunately vague about the lurid details. We did learn that Augustine's mother prayed for him and never stopped encouraging him to become a Christian. She did such a good job of it that she became St. Monica, an inspiration to mothers' ambitions ever since.

But if the sex stuff in these stories wasn't altogether satisfying, the violence part more than made up for it: The writers of these Lives were forever recounting how this saint was torn apart by lions in the Coliseum without ever uttering a sound, or how this other one was hacked limb from limb by gladiators, or how still others were put in cages and burned alive as human torches to light the way for one crazy Emperor or another. This was bracing stuff indeed... and, thus inspired, how could we complain about the far lesser trials of times tables or long division?

We didn't get much about the pagan gods who were re-cast as Christian saints. St. Brigid of Ireland, for example, might have been a reinvention of the Celtic sun goddess... or she might have been a nun converted by St. Patrick himself... or she might be a conflation of the two.

Pagan gods and goddesses reimagined as Christian saints were no doubt troubling to leaders of the Reformation. Surely Christianity may have been only a veneer, even in the late Middle Ages, in some peasant regions... a necessary cover for traditional, long-remembered pagan beliefs. This is why some Protestants sneer at us Fish-Eaters still for our devotion to the saints.

But long memories are not common today, among Westerners generally or Americans in particular. We don't remember Pearl Harbor, much less the Maine... thus the iffy pedigrees of certain saints aren't much of a problem for us.

And you might think we're a secular culture, too.

But not when push comes to shove: The recent downturn in the housing market has spurred renewed devotion to St. Joseph. Burying a statue of St. Joseph in your yard is supposed to help you home sell faster. Here's a link to a story in the Albany Times-Union by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist on this very topic.

(Jordan Carleo-Evangelist? Quite a name for the writer of a story about St. Joseph, eh?)

There was another story about St. Joseph statues posted yesterday morning on Yahoo! News... but, of course, I've lost the link.

Perhaps I should offer a prayer to St. Anthony....

Happy All Saints Day.


Cristina said...

The nuns taught me this one when I was little. There may have been another verse but this is all I remember:
Tony, Tony, look around. Something's lost and can't be found.

The story about buring St. Joseph also made the front page of the Wall St. Journal this week. I don't remember what day.
Happy Saint's Day!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A good post of school life.

Patti said...

I wonder if there is a street named Saint -- then it would be St.St.

I don't know why I thought of that.

Ralph said...

Yeah, the saints really can be an inspiration. I did go to a Catholic school in NYC (grades 1-2), and in CT (grades 6-8), but I never supposed that as a kid I'd ever really understand the suffering they endured for their faith. However, being older and presumably wiser, I say the saints matter because they lived their faith and would never renounce it, no matter what.

Contrast with today, where so many complain about the most trivial things. A real saint would suck it up (in today's vernacular) and really or certainly understand the real divine purpose behind their suffering. I'm not a practicing Catholic these days (UCC/Congregational today), but we could try to emulate the early saints, or quit complaining about nothing, really. Happy All Saints Day, Curmy...

Amanda said...

Interesting posts with all the Saints. I went to a Convent School but it was in Malaysia and there was no teaching of any lives of saints there. All my gory stories came from a little book of saint stories that I got for my first communion.

Lahdeedah said...

My mother told us the name of a saint to pray to for a husband. Can't remember the name.

We prayed to St. Anthony whenever we lost something...

My mother prayed to St. Michael forever to watch over my older brother... he needed special attention...

and I don't know why, but we had a picture of the Sacred Heart in every room.

Funny, I'd forgotten that.

katherine. said...

the only thing that really annoys me about the Catholics is the fact that when I go to ANY restaurant in ANY major city in the United States (San Francisco..Chicago...Denver...whereever) for lunch OR dinner on a Friday...I can NOT get any other kind of soup besides Clam Chowder. I mean...c'mon...the Portugese fishing industry no longer benefits...can you guys reverse this one already???