On The Lives of the Saints, by Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley

Catholic reading indispensable – Who are the Saints? – Their lives are our example, and afford us information on devotion to our Lord, on Catholic dogma, and on the ascetical or spiritual life; the source of their power over the heart.

We have addressed you from time to time on the subject of Catholic reading. It has been our endeavour to impress upon all, that, at the present time, it is virtually impossible for a Catholic to keep the faith firmly and to practise it satisfactorily with out the assistance of reading. Every one reads now. The non-Catholic press, which covers the whole country, does harm to the Catholic religion in two ways; sometimes it attacks the faith; and at all times it occupies people’s time and attention so as to push religion into the background. On both these accounts Catholic reading is indispensable. If we read things that are written against our holy religion, we are bound to read the statements and explanations which will enable us to know what is the truth, and to be ready to give information to others. And since we give up so much of our time to the news, the paragraphs, the sporting intelligence, and the amusing or thrilling stories that pour from the press day by day, it is certain that God and Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the Church and the Sacraments, must to a great extent fade and shrink in our thoughts, unless we have also some kind of reading that will effectually keep them before the eyes of the mind.

There are many different kinds of good and useful Catholic reading; for the moment, let us dwell upon one only upon the reading of the “Lives of the Saints.”

“The Saints” are those holy, blessed and happy men and women who, by the power of the precious Blood of Jesus Christ, have passed safely through the temptations and dangers of earthly life, and now enjoy the never-ending vision of their Creator in their heavenly home. They are that mighty crowd which no man can number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, which the Apostle of Love saw standing before the throne and in the sight of the Lamb, clothed in white robes and palms in their hands. We know of this great multitude; but we do not know with certainty who they are of whom its august legions are made up. Speaking generally, we cannot be absolutely certain that any individual human creature is in heaven. We may, indeed, possess a very sufficient moral certainty as to the eternal salvation of a large number, whom we our selves may have known, or whose story is written in the annals of the past. Knowing their life and their death, their virtues, their penance, and their charity, we may justly presume that they have deserved life everlasting. But the mighty company of the Blessed, as a whole, is, to our eyes, only a blaze of glory, an ocean of bliss and splendour, in which we cannot single out this face and that and trace a soul’s history from earth to heaven.

But to this statement there is a most striking exception. There are names of men and women, not a few, although few as compared with the whole number of the Blessed, whom we definitely know to be in heaven. These are they whom the Church has canonized. For the Church, judging either from the words of Holy Scripture, or from heroic holiness of life and authentic miracles, has pronounced that certain servants of God are to be honoured in her public liturgy. Such holy men and women are therefore certainly in heaven.

The various reasons for honouring the Saints, and the ways in which this honour is paid to them, cannot here be entered into. But one very powerful motive for the canonization of the Saints certainly is, that men may profit by their example. There is no such effective exhortation to live for heaven and for God as the lives of those who are in heaven already. To read their story, to study their success and their failures, to know what they said and did, to feel the inspiration of their courage, their generosity, and their devotion to Christ in a word, to enter into their earthly lives, whilst, all the time, we are conscious that they are living and reigning in heaven, is the strongest possible corrective of worldliness, of base self-gratification, and of sinful folly The Church, inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit, and naturally anxious that her children should enjoy so efficacious a means of salvation, has placed before us, in every age, her Apostles, her Martyrs, her Doctors, her Confessors, her Virgins, and her holy men and women of every condition, that we may learn, that we may imitate, and that our hearts may be stirred unto all that is beautiful and all that is eternal. For these heroes of holy religion and of faith are not as the world’s great men, whom we admire, perhaps, but do not love. The great fighters, the conquerors, the philosophers, the poets, the men of science they excite our curiosity and impress our imagination; but they do not touch the inmost and the holiest senses of our being. Our true sympathy, the loving response of our most human feeling, is reserved for those who have thrown themselves into the only profound, ultimate, and real human contest that can be the soul’s contest for her own last end, the conflict between good and evil, the fight for God and for eternity. These are the combatants that we follow with our heart’s emotion; for we, too, have immortal souls, we, like them, have to contend with evil, and we have the same last end and the same Heavenly Father. Their example purifies the air of this cold, confined, and sordid world. Beyond all mere words, or lessons, or recorded facts, the memory of the Saints hangs over this earth below “like a composition of a sweet smell made by the art of the perfumer,” to quote the expression of the ancient Hebrew preacher about his own Saints: “Sweet as honey in every mouth, and as music at a banquet of wine.” (Ecclesiasticus 49:1)

The Lives of the Saints have been written in every possible form and on every scale. There are collections consisting of many huge folio volumes; there are works like that of our own Alban Butler, which for useful information and simple piety it is very difficult to surpass; there are learned monographs on individual Saints, replete with critical and exhaustive research; and there are biographies in pamphlet form, cheap and comparatively short, which are meant for those who are too busy to read longer works or too poor to buy them. Of these last we have a long and excellent series in the penny publications of the Catholic Truth Society. This Society, which in so many ways provides for the needs of Catholics who wish to read, has published about fifty or sixty biographies of the principal Saints. They are written in a plain, careful, and devotional style, and are admirably adapted for constant use in house holds, parish libraries, young men’s societies, and wherever there are Catholics who are doing work in the world and yet aspire to remember the world to come. It will be useful to point out some of the advantages which an earnest Catholic may gain by reading the Catholic Truth Society’s series of holy “Lives.”

The first advantage is information. This is one of our most imperative needs. Very few Catholics in this country, even among the more educated classes, have any sufficient idea of the extraordinary richness and the wide sweep of the Kingdom of God on earth. The common Protestant idea of religion is that a man should go to church or chapel on Sundays, try to feel “good,” and be honest and kindly in dealing with others. This, as far as it goes, is excellent. But the Kingdom of God the true and real Church, founded by Jesus Christ has been instituted to preach to the world the doctrine of the Incarnation. Now, the doctrine of the Incarnation or, in other words, the great dispensation of God made Man is made up of a vast number of ideas, and entails a large number of most important circumstances. For the Incarnation reveals God to us, and brings us near to God, so that God is no longer a mere vague name, but a Father and a Friend. It also shows us what is meant by a “good life,” throwing a new light upon human virtue, and proclaiming some virtues of which the heathen or natural world had no conception such as Faith, Charity, Humility, and the love of the Cross. It also is the source of a wonderful variety of helps and assistances to man in his spiritual life; that is to say, first and chiefly it has given us the great Sacramental system, with the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist as the principal means of our union with God; and then the great Eucharistic liturgy with all that depends upon it.

All this system which is really Christianity, and in the absence of which all so-called Christianity is necessarily mutilated and imperfect is embodied in the creeds and catechisms of the Church, in the decrees of her Councils, in the writings of her Doctors, and in the lives of her children. But, in a country like this, many Catholics, even those who are otherwise well educated, have a very limited acquaintance with this vast and fruitful store of divine teaching. If they would be more assiduous in reading the lives of the Saints, this ignorance would to a great extent disappear.

For example to take up a few penny “Lives” published by the Catholic Truth Society a Catholic would soon come to have a more personal and affectionate feeling for our Lord Jesus Christ by reading such lives as Saint Hugh of Lincoln, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bernardine of Siena, Saint Theresa, Saint Philip Neri, and Saint Aloysius. This tender and devotional piety to the person of our Lord is a distinct mark of the Catholic Church. You see some thing like it, occasionally, among the more simple and primitive Nonconformists; and it is pleasing to cherish the hope that it may really bring many of them to God. But, with non-Catholics, it is almost invariably the fact that their devotion to Jesus leaves out the circumstances that He is God as well as Man. Yet the great purpose of the Incarnation was to show us what kind of a God we have. It is just this precious and invaluable feature which distinguishes the lives of the Catholic Saints. In Jesus they find their God, revealing Himself in manifestations which the Divine Nature could never have displayed. When they see Jesus to be compassionate, zealous for a soul, kind, meek, humble, and suffering, they read what is really hidden in the abysses of the Godhead what really exists there, but in some most simple, infinite, and transcendent fashion, utterly beyond the investigation of human reason. Hence, true Catholic devotion to Jesus Christ is the expression and reiteration of the love of God above all things. Those who come to comprehend this great truth have learned Jesus thoroughly; and nowhere can we find the lesson taught so effectively as in the lives and words of the great Saints.

Another most important head of information regards the great doctrines of the Church, their expression in writing, the opposition they have had to encounter from heretics, and the constant labour and glorious success of the Church’s apostolic men and great preachers. In the lives of Saint Patrick, Saint Augustine of England, Saint Columba, and Saint Helen, we find the never-fading story of the conversion of the nations; in those of Saint Gregory the Great, and Venerable Bede, we see something of the unceasing intellectual and administrative life of the Church; Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Saint Edmund, and Saint Antoninus show us the Church contending against the oppressions of the State in the Middle Ages; Saint Thomas of Aquin, Saint Pius V, and Saint Francis of Sales, show how Catholic Bishops and Doctors impressed the views of the Gospel upon a reluctant world. In these lives, and many others, the great Christian dogmas come up one after another, and we follow their progress and their effects upon the spiritual life.

And there is another branch of Catholic information, not less necessary and not less neglected the principles of the spiritual and ascetical life. The Saints are distinguished by their likeness to Christ. They express in their lives Christ’s humility and poverty, His love of obscurity and His predilection for suffering. These are just the things which the world rejects, and which too many Catholics are disposed to let alone, or even to condemn and despise. It is the mission of the Saints to show forth in actual operation the perfect life as taught by Christ. The perfect life, at least in its details, is not binding upon all. But no one can even save his soul, let alone obtain a high place in heaven, without believing in the perfect life; that is, without seeing and recognising that, if we pretend to love God above all things, we must never place any limits on humility, detachment, mortification, and the love of the Cross. We may not be called upon to practise this or that act of humility, this or that act of self-chastisement; but the aspiration after humility and after the Cross must have no bounds to it; such is the teaching of the human life of Christ. It need not be said that a large number of Catholics habitually ignore this obligation. They have, perhaps, a vague desire to follow and imitate our Lord. But if they saw more clearly and aspired more consciously, they would be much further from mortal sin, and much nearer to God. It is in this that they are helped by the Lives of the Saints. In those lives they see the principles of Jesus Christ carried out, with innumerable striking details, in men and women who are only men and women and not angels. In such lives as those of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Saint John Berchmans, Saint Peter Fourier, Saint Francis Xavier, Blessed Margaret Mary, Saint Stanislaus Kostka, Saint Rita, Saint Vincent de Paul, and others, we have a living and moving picture of the perfect Christian life. To read these lives not only enlarges our ideas, but also shames our indifference. We are not only introduced to a world of which we do not know half enough, but we are moved, we are touched, we are stimulated.

For the power which the lives of God’s holy servants have to move our hearts and to draw us to imitation, is one which most of us have experienced, at least in some slight degree. This power has both a natural explanation and a supernatural one. A story is like a picture; and if it is a good story and a stirring story, it acts upon the heart like a noble and powerful picture. The preacher may enforce the love of poverty; but the picture of Saint Francis of Assisi, trampling upon riches and going about poor and rejoicing, is more eloquent and more effective. The preacher may exhort men to be kind to the poor, but the picture of Saint Vincent de Paul, consuming his life in seeking out the sick and the needy, seizes more strongly upon men’s emotions, and shows them more clearly what is required of them. The missioner or the retreat-giver may preach mortification, but the austerities of a Saint Rose of Lima or a Saint Peter Claver more efficaciously persuade human nature to take up the Cross, for they depict in line and colour to a heedless world the existence of that divine constraint which is exercised on the true followers of Christ by His sacred Passion.

But beyond this natural tendency of the human heart to be moved by a story, there is also in the lives of the Saints a supernatural influence that springs from the dispensation of Christ. He said of Himself that when He should be “lifted up” that is, when He should have undergone His Passion He would draw all men to Himself. The Saints are the reproduction and the enforcement of our crucified Redeemer. It is not so much in the painted or sculptured image of the Crucifix that the Passion of Christ is kept before the eyes of the world; it is in the lives of Christ’s heroic followers. It is not even by sermons, by the words of the learned and the holy, that Christ crucified is chiefly preached; it is by the eloquence of the words, deeds, and sufferings of that never-ceasing stream of witnesses who began with those who had lived in His company and who will still be represented, when the elect lift up their hands to welcome the coming of the Judge. Therefore, the lives of the Saints have the power to “draw” the human heart just in the same way as the Passion itself; to draw it and press it, stimulate and urge it, to that affection for, and imitation of, our Blessed Redeemer which is the only path to Heaven. We have examples of this power in the history of the Saints themselves. What is related of Saint Ignatius is well known, and you may read it in the Catholic Truth Society’s little biography. When he was a soldier and was lying wounded, he asked for books. They brought him a Life of Christ, and a volume of the Lives of the Saints. A new world was opened before him, and he was moved to give up all things and follow Christ. “What Saint Francis did, and Saint Dominic did,” he said to himself, “why cannot I do also?” Many generations before Saint Ignatius, similar experiences had befallen the gentleman of Siena who was afterwards canonised as Saint John Colombini, and the great baron of Southern France, Saint Elzear, who carried through life the impression made upon him by the holy Lives which he heard read in his boyhood in the abbey of Saint Victor at Marseilles. Saint Theresa owed her earliest feelings of devotion to the books about the Saints which her father had provided for the use of his household. Saint John Baptist de la Salle his “life” is among those of the Catholic Truth Society from his childhood loved the lives of the saints above all other reading. Let us profit by these examples, and let us be sure that these holy lives, filled with the wisdom of the Gospel, which is the deepest wisdom of all, will make us all wise unto the things of God. What says the “Following of Christ”? “Study the striking examples of the Fathers, in whom true perfection and true religion shine forth; and thou shall see how poor, how worthless, is all that is done by us. Alas! what is our life, if compared with theirs?” (Book I. ch. 18). Their lives should be read, not as common history, or as profane stories, but as a part of the Gospel message. To believe in all their legends and miracles is no part of a Christian’s obligation. But to profit by them we must come with humble hearts, as to heavenly teachers; we must believe in the perfect life as taught by Christ, and study with docile and ready minds the moving details of that life as exhibited in His heroic servants; and we must be confident that from this multiplied image of the lifted up Son of Man there will come spiritual healing to our souls.

The reading of the Lives of the Saints may, therefore, be warmly recommended as an education in Catholic principles and Catholic ways, as a stimulus to our natural sloth and indifference, and as a preservative from that worldliness which is in these days such a proximate danger to souls. All who can read and all ought now to be able to read, and ought to keep up their reading should apply to this holy reading regularly, especially on Sundays. It is not that Catholics have no time to read. All read a good deal but they read much that is useless, and not a little that is evil. Reading for recreation is by no means wrong; but recreation and amusement should have their limits, or else they degenerate into waste of time, corruption of the mind, and sin. Catholics know well that, in matters of purity, what is wrong to do is wrong to read about on account of the danger of taking pleasure in such things. But, apart from the literature of corruption and depravity, which parents should try to keep from their children, and which all should carefully avoid, there is what may be called the literature of folly. Under this head come the silly, sentimental, misleading, and exciting stories which our young people are now learning to devour. Can we not drive out this weakening and debasing trash by the Lives of the Saints? The effort might well be made, by priests and people. For the better educated there exist in large numbers, even in English, and much more in French, holy lives which, even as literature and biography, are full of interest. Some of the time that is now given to novel reading might be devoted to a reading that would, perhaps, prove to be just as attractive, and would be of infinitely greater utility. As for our boys and young men, it will always be a hard task to make them read anything beyond the sporting, betting, and exciting columns of the news paper. But it is certain that if we desire to bring up a generation of well-informed and intelligent Catholics, there is hardly any better way of doing so than to interest them in the Lives of the Saints.

Priests who try to create and spread this kind of taste, by clubs, societies, lectures, instructions, or libraries, are certainly wise, and will most likely see the fruit of their labours. Earnest and God-fearing fathers and mothers, who read themselves, and do their best to keep their children out of the streets and to teach them also to read, will find in the Lives of the Saints the most effectual competition with the attractions which all of us regret and deplore so deeply.