This is part two of a four-part series on biographies of saints that best portray…
Biographies of saints that get it right: Part 3
This is part three of a four-part series on biographies of saints that best portray their lives.
|Don’t miss out on part one of the series to learn about two great biographies on Sts. Maximilian Kolbe and Teresa of Calcutta.|
The lives of the saints are never mere biographies, because their real lives are hidden in Christ with God (cf. Col 3:3). To see these men and women as a saint means learning to see Christ’s beauty in their particular life. Perhaps no one is better suited to see a saint for who he or she really is than other saints. Some of these men and women even write about other their fellow members of the Church triumphant as a testament to Christ’s glory made present to and effective in the lives of those who have learned to love them.
In this third installment in a series on biographies of the saints, we examine two works about saints — one written by a saint himself, and another written by one whose cause for canonization has begun.
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Bonaventure owed his life to St. Francis of Assisi. Bonaventure was deathly ill as a boy. As he recalls, “I was snatched from the jaws of death by his invocation and merits” (“The Life of St. Francis of Assisi”). Whether this means that Francis healed Bonaventure in person or that prayers to the saint healed the young Bonaventure is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that Bonaventure’s devotion to the founder of the religious order he himself would later join was deep, personal and abiding.
St. Francis of Assisi died in the year 1226. Within a few short decades, legends of Francis’ healings and miracles grew so numerous that, at a general chapter meeting in 1260, the Franciscans commissioned the most brilliant of their brothers to write “one good legend of blessed Francis compiled from all those already in existence.” This chosen brother was none other than the one who had himself been healed by the saint: Bonaventure.
Though Bonaventure had a mission and great personal affection, he also had a problem. His problem was the excess of material about Francis. Confronted with it all, Bonaventure had to discern what holds it all together. In other words, his task was different and more challenging than chronicling all the many things that Francis did; Bonaventure’s task was to answer the question, “Who is Francis?”
If you want to know who someone is, you must discover what they love. The answer for Francis seems all too obvious: It is Christ. But anyone who thinks they can just say “Christ” and be done with it hasn’t even begun to consider what it means to love the Lord. Francis loved Christ because he encountered him, and that encounter largely was mediated through Scripture, which was the living word to which Francis slowly conformed his own life. For Bonaventure to give a true account of the saint, he had to learn to see Francis on Francis’ own terms: in the language and by the logic of Scripture. St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” to which Bonaventure might add: Ignorance of Christ is ignorance of Francis.
Bonaventure shows that the sum of Francis’ whole life is one complete “yes.” One “yes” to the joy of the Gospel; everything else about him becomes an echo of that. When Francis says “no” to comforts and pleasures, each one is for the sake of his “yes.” In one turn after another, Bonaventure captures this central paradox of the life of Francis — a life lived toward the single end of love. And for a lover like that, “Laziness and idleness have no place where the goad of love never ceases to drive a person to greater things.”
From this fundamental insight, Bonaventure works to portray all the many things of Francis’ life and witness accordingly. To do so, Bonaventure paints Francis according to the three stages of mystical ascent: purgation (breaking from attachment to the world), illumination (learning the ways of the new life in Christ) and perfection (being united to Christ, whom Francis loved). In doing this, Bonaventure presents Francis’ life as one continuous journey — a pilgrimage, really — from what is below to what is above. Bonaventure’s Francis is the image of something like the Incarnation in reverse: whereas Christ “was in the form of God” but “emptied himself” (cf. Phil 2:6-11), Francis began from the bottom and, by emptying himself for Christ, moved upwards into union with God. “For even while he lived among men,” Bonaventure writes, “he imitated angelic purity so that he was held up as an example for those who would be perfect followers of Christ.”
Did Francis study Christ? Yes. He studied him in Scripture, in poverty, in the sacraments, in his sufferings. But he did not stop at studying; he pressed through to love. And for Bonaventure to see Francis on his own terms required nothing less for Bonaventure: He himself — the most brilliant of all his brothers — always had to allow his study of the saint to be directed by love.
Bonaventure’s “The Life of St. Francis of Assisi” is therefore a revelation at least four times over. Of course, it is a revelation of Francis himself, but since seeing him means learning to see what he loves, it is also a revelation of the Gospel. To see Francis means learning to see Christ arrayed in glory.
But the vision Bonaventure opens is a vision born of his own admiration and devotion, as he strove to see Francis as he is. That means that this work is also a revelation of St. Bonaventure, for it is through his eyes and his sensitivity to the dynamic love of God that this portrait of Francis has been painted — held together as one whole from many different fragments.
And further still, seeing Christ in Francis, or marveling at the vision that Bonaventure has attained, is no guaranteed thing. The Life of St. Francis confronts you and me, as its readers, with a direct question: “What are you willing to see?” Will we let our vision expand to the dimensions of Francis who stretched himself toward the dimensions of Christ? Will we learn to look with both discipline and devotion, knowledge and love, upon the strange and wondrous beauty of Francis, who is hidden in Christ with God? Will we love him as Bonaventure loved him, so that this poor and holy man may draw us closer to his own beloved one, Jesus Christ?
Don’t miss out on part two of the series to learn about two great biographies on Sts. Catherine of Siena and Philip Neri.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Dorothy Day didn’t want to love Thérèse of Lisieux, but she couldn’t help it. She was in the hospital, lying in bed, holding her newborn daughter, Tamar Teresa. That middle name was taken from the great reformer, Teresa of Ávila, whom Dorothy admired even though Dorothy herself was not yet Catholic. She had no tolerance, though, for that other Teresa — the French one — whom she only saw as a quaint “young nun with a sweet insipid face,” as she later wrote in her book “Thérèse.” But the woman in the bed next to hers mistook the child’s second name for the one from Lisieux and pressed a chintzy medal of the saint into Dorothy’s hand before she had time to resist. Because of her great love for her newborn child, Dorothy decided to take this second patroness for her daughter. And so the trinketed minimalism of a Catholic sacramental became the seed from which a fierce devotion to the Little Flower eventually blossomed.
Her biography of Thérèse of Lisieux is a lot like that moment in the hospital, except that rather than the one in her palm, it is the story of the image of saint being imprinted on her soul. It is not that Dorothy ultimately fawned over the piety of a too-sweet French provincial girl. Rather, it is that Dorothy came to discover just how serious, how sacrificial, how wildly devoted and unpredictably holy the one known as the Little Flower really is.
In many ways, it began with Thérèse’s parents. Dorothy saw how these holy parents created “the kind of home where it would be easier to be good.” Those are important words from Dorothy, because they are nearly identical to the expression regularly offered by Peter Maurin, with whom Dorothy founded the Catholic Worker movement. Maurin was fond of saying that their aim was to “make that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” The gift of Thérèse and her family to Dorothy Day was to root her hopes for social reform in the Gospel.
Far from saccharine, the Thérèse who challenged, taught and filled Dorothy Day with love is the one who placed the heart of her spirituality in the words of Isaiah, prophesying to Christ: “He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him. He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem” (Is 53:2-3). To which Thérèse herself adds, “I too desire to be without glory or beauty, to tread the winepress alone, unknown to any creature.” This is how Dorothy came to understand what “little” as applied to Thérèse — the “Little” Flower, of the “Little” Way — really means. It means not to claim virtues as our own achievements, not to be so proud as to hold on to our faults too zealously, not to be too distracted and miss acting swiftly in response to the needs of others. “The total unimportance of anything in this world except God’s love for us — that was the burden of her teaching,” Dorothy concluded.
Dorothy Day once said that she didn’t want to be called a saint because she didn’t want to be dismissed that easily. She had once dismissed Thérèse, who was even in Dorothy’s lifetime already known as “the greatest saint of modern times.” And yet Dorothy reclaimed this once dismissed saint because she learned from Thérèse what holiness really looks like. It wasn’t what she expected, yet it was everything she always wanted.
Since her biography of Thérèse is also the story of Dorothy herself learning to love this saint precisely as a saint, maybe through this work Dorothy also teaches us how we can prepare to someday love Dorothy, too, as a saint.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book on the theology of the communion of saints is “Work of Love” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).