A Bedside Book of Saints – The Human Nature of the Saints

It is comforting to know that in all the Saints there is quite enough of the human element to give a human interest to the story of their lives. History exhibits to us plenty of heroes who had very little humanity and some who had none at all. The poet Shelley once said rather inelegantly: ‘You might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton as expect anything human from me.’ But the servants of God are not of that sort. They are very complete men and women. And this is one of the sources of their great attraction. We like to find ordinary things even in extraordinary people. We like to find weaknesses even in those who are strong. A marble and bronze type of heroism excites our astonishment, but it leaves our heart rather cold. Christian heroism, however, dwells in hearts of flesh. So far from destroying the innocent weaknesses of our nature, sanctity finds in them its strength and its beauty.

We may be sure that the Fathers of the desert, the Anchorites, and the Solitaries, all felt the wild bird’s thrill of song behind the bars; and that the cloisters and the hermitages, even in the most strenuous ages of monastic penance, were not peopled by phantoms, but by human beings like ourselves; speaking, thinking and feeling as do we; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, and warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter. Who would ever have suspected that Saint Anthony the Hermit was one of the most sociable of men? Yet Saint Athanasius tells us that he was.

It is only too true that many of the Saints appear to us to be very shadowy. This may be the fault or the misfortune of their biographers, who either do not or cannot tell us what they were really like; or are so intent on exhibiting their supernatural virtues, that they have forgotten or thrown into the shade the natural elements. Besides, the Saints resemble a rich landscape or a work of art. They require to be studied. We do not take them in at a glance or even at first sight. Some reveal themselves more rapidly than others; but some of them seem to wear a look of reserve in their faces, and to know them takes time. The very name of Saint Dominic suggests something formidable, we think of the dog with the lighted torch in its mouth: we think of the terrible hammer of the Albigenses. It surprises us to find Saint Dominic, in his weary journey across the Alps, carrying in his pack some wooden spoons as a pleasant surprise for the Nuns in Rome who were his very good friends.

Again, Saint John of the Cross has been called the ‘Inflexible Saint’ and the ‘Impenetrable Saint’. Some of his writings convey the impression of a man buried within himself, walled up as in a sepulchre, and looking out at the world of sense with bloodstained and terrible eyes. But the letters which passed between himself and Saint Teresa show plainly that he was nothing of the kind. If there had not been a very human side to Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa could never have teased him as she was in the habit of doing or have found a nickname for him and chosen it from among the pagan philosophers.

Saint Ignatius, too, appears upon the distant horizon as a figure rigid and unbending; but the character of Saint Ignatius is full of the most delightful and attractive traits. He could dance and he did once dance. He could play billiards and he did play once for a wager and won. He was so fond of flowers that he would never pluck them.

Behind the failure of biography and behind the haze which always gathers about the distant past, we can be certain to find that human nature of ours which is pretty much the same in all men and in every age. Saint Aloysius, in spite of all impressions to the contrary, must have been a most attractive person, considering that he completely won the heart of a man like Saint Robert Bellarmine. The great charm of the old Monastic Chronicles lies in this, that they are human documents. They unfold before our eyes, indeed, a spiritual drama; but they enable us to see that the actor in it are real men, with the passions and weaknesses of men; albeit those same men are quite evidently making great efforts to become Saints.

Again, the martyrdoms of the Early Church, somehow or other, present themselves to our imaginations as things statuesque or even ethereal. We know that Saint Polycarp and Saint Sebastian were men; and we know that Saint Agnes and Saint Cecilia were women: but we fancy, for some reason, that the man or the woman in them was completely sublimated by the sheer ecstasy and exaltation of their sacrifice. Yet, the English martyrs were the same sort of martyrs as those of the Coliseum; and the Acts of the English martyrs show how surprisingly human they were. Indeed, Saint Perpetua’s description of herself, as recorded in her own Acts, is a very human description. She tells us how she was sitting at table with her family when the officers of the Crown came to remove her to prison; how in prison: ‘I was terrified for I had never been in such darkness before. We suffered greatly from the heat and from the insolence of the gaolers; and what gave me most pain was that I hadn’t my baby with me.’ When her father came and on his knees begged her to take pity on his grey hairs and submit to the Emperor: ‘I was ready to die of grief to see him in such a state.’

Besides, the characters of the Saints, like that of all great people, were many-sided and even the best biography may stress one side at the expense of another. Perhaps this explains how it happens that a dozen biographies of the same Saint may appear within the space of a few years, each one bringing to light something which the other has overlooked. In the Middle Ages there were sixty-six different lives of Saint Patrick in circulation at one and the same time. In our day, we have New Lives constantly appearing and each one is hailed as an improvement on its predecessor. In the Life of Saint Margaret Mary, published by the Visitation of Paray-le-Monial, reference is made to the erroneous ideas concerning the Saint which have been fostered by her biographers — and those erroneous ideas nearly all relate to the human side of Saint Margaret Mary.

How unjust it would be to describe Saint Jane Frances de Chantal as ‘the mother who stepped over the prostrate body of her son’; or Saint Paula as ‘the mother who sailed away to the East, leaving her distracted children on the shore’; or Saint Aloysius as ‘the youth who never looked at his mother’s face’; and so on. The truth is that all these Saints had very affectionate and tender hearts and whatever sacrifices they made they suffered most intensely in making them.

Saint Ignatius stood up to his neck in a frozen pond. Saint Benedict rolled in thorns; Saint Jerome struck his breast with a heavy stone; Blessed Angela of Foligno branded herself with a red-hot iron. These are incidents in the lives of Saints, but they are not the sufficient keys to the characters of the Saints. Merely to know that they did such things is not to know them. The value of such incidents lies in this, that they do reveal to us that the Saints had to wrestle with the same human problem of sin and temptation which daily confronts ourselves.

It sometimes happens that accounts of the extreme and the extraordinary leave half of the story untold. For example, Saint John Chalybita, the Solitary, is cited as an instance of the length to which the old-time ascetics carried the spirit of self-abnegation. Having spent six years in the desert he was given leave to return home. On the way he disguised himself as a beggar and, not being recognized, was driven by his mother from his mother’s door. He then went to live in a little hut nearby, preserving meanwhile the secret of his identity. This is the story of Saint John Chalybita; but it is not by any means the whole of the story. The sequel is this. After three years our Lord appeared to him, telling him that his penance was over and bidding him reveal himself to his mother. Overjoyed the Saint sends for her, tells her everything and later dies in her arms.

We know nothing of Saint Simeon Stylites except that he lived on a pillar. Yet, probably he laughed heartily at himself sometimes as did Saint Teresa: ‘My health is very bad but God does so much through me that I laugh heartily at myself.’ At any rate, one of the Pillar solitaries has left behind quite an amusing account of his experiences. And moreover we gather that Saint Simeon himself was a man of very sound common sense. He approached his experiment with great caution and cunning. For some years he tried himself out, so to say, on small pillars, until he came to be able to do fifty feet without feeling it. We also know that there was no fanaticism or eccentricity about him because, at a word from authority, he was prepared to pack his experiment up and put it away.

Yes, the character of the Saints was many-sided and Saint Teresa of Avila is a very good example of it. She was impetuous and hasty, and yet cool, calculating and business-like; she was simple and she was extremely shrewd; she would give the poor anything they wanted, and yet woe to the tradesman who tried any of his ‘ business ‘ tricks with her convent; she was susceptible to indignation and natural aversions (when Prioress Beatrix was in disgrace, she couldn’t bear to hear her name mentioned); and, yet, she had a most affectionate, exuberant and even playful temperament. A recent writer compares her to a stainless but metallic lily, forged of wrought iron. ‘Those who suffer,’ he says, ‘have scant consolation to expect from her.’ This was the impression made upon him by reading her works. How different, however, is the impression of her letters. Here is revealed the sympathy, pity and truly maternal tenderness of this ‘Mother of the Church,’ and above all here is revealed the real woman. She speaks freely of her aches and pains; likes and dislikes, vexations and antipathies; pokes fun at the Inquisition; invents nicknames for her friends and enemies and, woman-like, excuses her bad writing by blaming the pen. ‘The butter tasted very nice as it was sure to do coming from you. So I accept it on condition that you remember me when you have any more that is particularly fine as it does me a great deal of good. The quinces too were delicious. In fact, it seems to me as though you had nothing else to do except to give me pleasure.’ It is doubtful if so much human nature was ever compressed into so small a letter.

That they suffered and were apparently glad to suffer is no sign that they did not feel. ‘Let me suffer or die,’ prayed one of them. The ‘Little Flower’ did not know how she would ever become said he would be lucky to be rid of a quarter of an hour before his death. How irascible Saint Francis de Sales was by nature! What a stiff battle he had to fight in order to master his temper! He is quite frank in telling us that the passion of anger was uncommonly strong in him and that he had to exert himself to the utmost in order to keep it down. The faults of Saint Gertrude were so notorious that Saint Mechtilde actually asked our Lord why He was able to love her so much. Saint Francis of Assisi who ‘did ever pay the highest heed that never should he be a hypocrite before God,’ made no secret of his temptations and he confessed to his brethren that he felt vainglorious as often as he gave an alms. This simplicity is, in fact, one of the great notes of God’s servants and it means that they never played a part; never pretended to be other than they were; never countenanced the pretenses and poses of the worldly: it means, in short, that they were above all real, and genuine, that is to say natural and human. Affectation was Saint Philip Neri’s pet aversion.

How candid and engaging are the ‘confessions’ of Saint Teresa of the Infant Jesus! She tells us about her aversions and repugnances; admits that searching in books for beautiful prayers made her head ache: and that in the morning she felt no courage or strength for the practice of virtue. She was on the point of showing her annoyance to the Sister who splashed her with the dirty water in the laundry. She was sorely tried by the fidgeting of her neighbour at Meditation; and the effort she made to restrain her impatience ‘cost me so much that I was bathed in perspiration.’ Or there is Glare Vaughan on her deathbed: ‘It is all very well to say “Courage, Clare, Courage,” when one only sees Paradise through a little hole.’

And here is what the Mirror of Perfection tells us of the last days of Saint Francis of Assisi: ‘Whilst he was sick of the ailment from which he died he one day called his companions, saying: “You know how Lady Jacqueline of Settesoll was and is exceeding devoted unto me; and I do therefore believe that she would hold it a great consolation were we to notify her of mine estate, and specially send her word that she send me of the Marchpane that many a time she hath made for me in the city.”‘ This Marchpane, or Marzipan, was a confection of almonds and sugar; and sure enough it was sent for and it came, although it happened to be on the way in any case.

– text from A Bedside Book of Saints, by Father Aloysius Roche, 1934; it has the Imprimatur of Joseph Butt, Vicar-general, Archdiocese of Westminster, England