Thursday, September 7, 2006

Bad to the Bone But Not Beyond God's Grace

The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints
by Thomas J. Craughwell
The point of reading these stories is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world. Every day, all day long, God pours out his grace upon us, urging us, coaxing us, to turn away from everything that is base and cheap and unsatisfying, and to turn toward the only thing that is eternal, perfect, and true -- that is, himself.
I must admit that I came to this slender book with a lot of preconceptions.

Fascinated by saints when I became Catholic six years ago, I sought out and read many books about all sorts of saints from the well known to the obscure. They were written in varying styles ranging from cozy friendliness talking of "our friends the saints" to those of strict scholarship and research. Therefore, I wondered if I would find many new saints in this book although I must admit that, for the life of me, I really couldn't remember one who was a devil-worshipper as referenced in the subtitle.

The idea that today's stories of saints have become too clean cut and white washed for us to relate to is really not that new. Many of those aforementioned books also mentioned that same thing and then proudly would parade each saint's imperfections that would make them more human, one of us. How bad could these saints be really? These days haven't we seen pretty much every sort of shocking behavior known to man and learned that God can work through it all?

However, Craughwell is not a predictable sort of author although he is one that I hope to encounter often in the future. I was pleased to see his forward included a defense of not including Mary Magdalene in the book since she was not a harlot, although that reputation has since overtaken her in many circles. That was a good start which he soon improved on in leaps and bounds as he went from one saint to another with astonishing pieces of information and insight.

I soon found out that what I didn't know, even about the best loved saints could, well, fill a book.

For instance I knew that St. Augustine was converted to Christianity by St. Ambrose. However, I didn't know that it was because Ambrose, with great courage, refused Emperor Theodosius' order to turn over a Catholic church to Arian heretics and barricaded himself and his congregation inside the church to see what the emperor would do. (The emperor backed down.)

Likewise, St. Mary of Egypt is well known for being a prostitute who repented for a lifetime of sin by living as a hermit in the desert. Except that she wasn't a prostitute. She was a skilled seductress who seduced men for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Somehow that makes it so much worse, doesn't it?

Then there is St. Christopher, the well-loved traveler's saint, whose demotion by the Vatican because he never existed enraged my father in law. Actually, it turns out that is a religious urban legend. He is still a saint in good standing whose celebration day was removed from the overcrowded calendar but who churches and the faithful are still free to celebrate and invoke as they will.

Craughwell also provides a plethora of stories of lesser known saints who are nonetheless fascinating. There are the three saints whose stories are intertwined and who actually managed to shock me. Why? I was truly shocked to find that Callixtux, an embezzler turned Christian, who still couldn't seem to resist crime wound up being ... pope. In an ironic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Callixtux was denounced by Hippolytus an anti-pope who manipulated results and fought off other papal contenders. Callixtux then stunned me by winding up ... sainted. Yep. As did Hippolytus. In the middle of it all was Pontian, yet another pope who wound up being sainted. This may sound confusing but in Craughwell's skillful hands these stories wind up being enthralling.

Often Craughwell, sheds light on people who were close to well known saints but who have been cast into the shade by their more famous friends. Such is the case of Alipius, who was St. Augustine's best friend from all appearances. He went where Augustine went, studied what he studied, converted when Augustine converted. The only difference was that he had a debilitating addiction to blood sports that no one, not even his best buddy Augustine, could persuade him to give up. Until St. Ambrose came on the picture. That was when Alipius converted and eventually wound up as a bishop in a town near St. Augustine's.

The more shocking stories are those of St. Olga the queen who avenged her husband's betrayal by planning and carrying out a killing spree of thousands for revenge. Yet she became a saint. Likewise, St. Olaf, a Viking, also was no stranger to brutality and mass murder but changed his pagan ways upon conversion to Christianity. His brutal methods of converting his own violent society are shocking in themselves but the results are undeniable. Norway soon became Christian and did not revert to paganism after Olaf's death.

The author does not spend time drawing out the point of each saint's story in moralistic, "so let's take this lesson away" terms. He leaves us to draw our own conclusions. I liked it that way. Each of us must draw our own conclusions and come to terms with God in our own way. That is also very likely to be the way that saints speak to us, even the ones that had the most shocking pasts. We can be thankful to Craughwell for bringing these stories so vividly to life as reminders for us of the depth and breadth of God's grace to the sinner, no matter how bad their past has been.

This book will be at bookstores on September 19.

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