As St. Teresa of Ávila said in the sixteenth century: “From silly devotions and from sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” People often assume that the more “saintly” a person becomes, the more severe and dull she becomes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The saints scattered throughout these pages were authentic human beings who, as they drew closer to God, only became more and more fascinating and — in some cases — a wee bit more eccentric.
Many led exciting, even dangerous lives. They battled evil people, wild beasts, corrupt governments, bureaucratic processes, savage seas, and persecution. Sometimes they died for their convictions. Some experienced incredible loneliness as they dwelt in the desert or among natives in foreign countries. A few were dissidents, which made life even harder for them.
Many of the saints in this book are also contemporaries who struggled with familiar vices — some lost their faith for a time, some smoked and drank beer, and still others sank to the depths of despair and then dug their way to the light above.
The saints come from every rank of society — princes and queens, peasants and farmers, even former prostitutes, thieves, and murderers found their way to sanctity. The majority of the saints were celibate, but there are also married folk and parents who achieved a celebrated level of holiness.
All of the saints showed charity and mercy to those they served — the poor, the sick, prisoners, and so on. The unfortunate and needy did not have to suffer ill humor from those ministering to them. In fact, the saints were surprisingly cheerful, given all that they endured.
This book will explore the lives of both Western and Eastern saints, as well as some who are on the path to canonization in both churches. It is important to know, before starting out, that until about the year 1054 there was one Christian church, generally united in theology and practice. This church encompassed what is now known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The separation of the churches in 1054 was tragic for all of Christendom. Some might even say that this great “schism” paved the way for all of the divisions found in the church today — some estimate that there are presently as many as 35,000 denominations.
Many of the saints profiled in this book lived before Christendom was divided. For this reason, some lives offer a glimpse of the shared heritage of the whole, undivided church — preserving a fading memory of what the church was — and still could be. As separate practices have evolved, however, distinctions have emerged. Many of the saints have two different days of commemoration, for example, because the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches follow different calendars.
These types of linguistic, calendar, aesthetic, and theological distinctions can make for some confusion to those new to “saint-watching.” That said, a rich tapestry of holiness is wrapped all the way around the globe, and this edition strives to demonstrate this diversity.
These pages offer a glimpse of desert saints, holocaust saints, missionary saints, animal-loving saints, literary saints, healing saints, and companion saints. Do keep in mind that most saints could have been listed in several of these categories — St. Francis, for example, was a companion of humans and wild beasts, a healer, and a writer.
The saints also bore witness to the intrinsic value of life, in every age and circumstance. “Life would be almost unbearable without such people,” said Thomas Cahill, famed author of How the Irish Saved Civilization (Random House, 1995). “The saints are for everyone — believer, unbeliever, Christian, non-Christian — it doesn't really matter. They are the people who say by their lives that human life is valuable — that my life is valuable — and there is a reason for living. Without them, history would be just one horror after another.”