Saints and their mysteries

This week Pope Francis announced today the canonization of two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. Each of the men appeals to a different group of people—John Paul II is a favorite of political conservatives and John XXIII of liberals. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see the arrival of saints with very different groups of fans. It has always been that way.

portrait of Pope John 23
Pope John XXIII

The roster of acknowledged saints increases steadily year by year. According to the sources I found, there are at least 10,000 saints already, some of them pretty much forgotten, but others actively celebrated every year. It’s easy for nonreligious people to wonder at some of the choices of saints. Does living in a hut in the wilderness really make you a force for good? And why did some women choose to live in a secluded convent where they would never again see their friends and family? Is this what religion is supposed to be? But when you read about saints, you realize that many of them led active lives in the world and their lives can offer inspiration and even hope in our modern secular world.

The earliest individuals to be honored as saints were the martyrs who suffered persecution and death for their allegiance to Christianity, but for most people it is not the martyrs who offer patterns for everyday life. More inspiring are the people who practiced generosity and love for the people around them, sometimes in difficult situations. Of course even charity can be taken too far. Phyllis McGinley, the twentieth-century poet who genially commemorated many types of saints, wrote a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the generosity of St. Bridget:

• Saint Bridget was
• A problem child.
• Although a lass
• Demure and mild,
• And one who strove
• To please her dad,
• Saint Bridget drove
• The family mad.
• For here’s the fault in Bridget lay:
• She would give everything away.

(If you have never read McGinley’s poetry, you’ll find a treat in collections like Times Three, available in many libraries.)

But not all saints went to extremes. Many of them had illustrious careers as teachers, doctors and social workers. In today’s world they would find fulfillment in secular life, but centuries ago there were few options for public life and almost none for women. Several of the saints remembered today chose the life of a single career woman to evade the prescribed and limited role of a wife and mother.

painting of St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena, like many other female saints, found it difficult to persuade her family that she did not need to marry. She was born in 1347 in Siena, a city that had been hit hard by the bubonic plague, known as the black death, that had killed so many Europeans. When she was 16 years old, her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth. Catherine’s parents wanted her to marry Bonaventura’s widower, but the girl protested by starting a long fast. She was so firm in refusing food that eventually her parents relented on the marriage. Catherine cut off her hair to discourage other suitors, but she insisted that she did not want to enter a convent; she wanted to stay at home and devote her life to prayer and good works. She once suggested to her confessor that he could “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee” and it seems that is what she did. Catherine’s interior cell was so strong that she eventually persuaded her father to let her life the life she had chosen.

Catherine worked in hospitals in Siena and gradually gathered a group of followers around her. This was a stressful time for Siena and for the papal state in general. Catherine felt called to move into the wider political sphere to try to encourage the reform of the clergy and the strengthening of the pope. She learned to write, something that women were seldom taught during those years, and sent letters to various authorities urging peace between the republics and the princely states in Italy and the return of the Pope to Rome. She negotiated for peace between Florence and Rome. In other words she became a politician and a public figure rather than the wife and mother her family had expected.

Her religious fervor was undimmed and she continued to fast so drastically that her own followers begged her to eat properly and take care of herself. Despite her extreme practices, she was able to found a monastery for women and to organize her group followers into a force for good. And she did all this before dying at the age of 33. Did she go too far with her own severe practices? Would she have been even more saintly if she had maintained her health and continued to work for her people and her Church? We will never know the answer.

Once again Phyllis McGinley can help us accept the lasting mysteries of saints. In a poem about Simeon Stylites, McGinley writes:

• And why did Simeon sit like that,
• Without a garment,
• Without a hat,
• In a holy rage
• For the world to see?
• It puzzles the age,
• It puzzles me.
• It puzzled many
• A Desert Father.
• And I think it puzzled the Good Lord, rather.

Christina Rossetti—the Consolations of Religion

Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti
April is poetry month, so it is fitting to remember one of the most celebrated poets of the 19th century, Christina Rossetti. Poetry was her profession and she was a serious poet, but her life was also dedicated to her religion. Her religious convictions were strict and she gave up many of the normal joys of life to dedicate herself to them. In her poem “A Portrait” she might have been talking about herself:

She gave up beauty in her tender youth,
Gave all her hope and joy and pleasant ways;
She covered up her eyes lest they should gaze
On vanity, and chose the bitter truth.
Harsh towards herself, towards others full of ruth,
Servant of servants, little known to praise,
Long prayers and fasts trenched on her nights and days:
She schooled herself to sights and sounds uncouth,
That with the poor and stricken she might make
A home, until the least of all sufficed
Her wants; her own self learned she to forsake,
Counting all earthly gain but hurt and loss.
So with calm will she chose and bore the cross,
And hated all for love of Jesus Christ.

Neither her poetry nor her religious beliefs were the whole of her life, of course. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830 and grew up in a large artistic family. Her father was a poet and a political exile from Italy, and her brothers Dante and William were among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists who strongly influenced British painting and the artistic climate of England. Both her sister Maria and William also became writers.

The men in the family were not particularly religious, but Christina’s mother and sister became deeply devout members of the Church of England. When Christina was fourteen she suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, perhaps caused by the stress of having to transform herself from a lively child into a modest Victorian young lady. It was at this time that she turned to religion as a source of comfort and inspiration. As her brothers moved into manhood and went out into the world, Christina, like other women of her generation, led the limited life of middle-class English girls, socializing only with family and friends and seldom moving into a wider circle. All her life she suffered from recurring bouts of melancholy, although these episodes did not keep her from writing her poetry and publishing it.

As an attractive young woman, Christina was not without admirers. She became engaged to a friend of her brothers, James Collinson, but when he reverted to Catholicism, she decided their religious beliefs were too incompatible to allow her to marry him. Later she had a warm relationship with Charles Cayley, a friend of her brothers, who asked her to marry him. But he too was unacceptable because their religious beliefs were incompatible. Finally she appears to have rejected an offer of marriage from John Brett, another friend of her brothers, and a painter. Once again it appears that religion was the obstacle, although evidence is difficult to find. After that, Christina’s life was devoted to her poetry, her family and friends, and a few social causes including humane treatment for animals and the rescue of “fallen” women.

Even as her poetry became widely known, Christina led a quiet life. She continued to suffer from periods of melancholy and her health became poor as she grew older. When she was about 60, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though the tumor was removed, the cancer recurred and she endured a long and painful illness. Her brother William and others tended her with loving care, but her last months were filled with depression and pain. A neighbor reported hearing her shrieking and crying hysterically, whether from pain or despair it is impossible to know.

Was she perhaps regretting how many chances for happiness she had given up in her pursuit of devotion? Did it sometimes seem that the God she had served for so many years had turned against her? We will never know what thoughts went through Christina Rossetti’s mind as she died in 1894, although you can learn more about her entire life by reading a biography such as Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh, which gives a thorough account of her achievements as well as her sorrows.

I like to remember Christina Rossetti as the author of one of the loveliest expressions of exuberant joy I have ever read. This poem tells me that she had some moments of happiness and knew the feeling of joy:

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.