Rounding up the Saints:
Recommended Books about our Spiritual Mentors
commentary by Heidi Schlumpf
164,504. That’s how many books come up when you search with the word “saint” on Amazon.com. Granted, that includes things like The New Owner’s Guide to Saint Bernards, but most of them are books about the holy men and women the church has chosen to honor and emulate. But don’t worry—if you don’t have time to read tens of thousands of books, we’re here to help.
We’ve whittled that list down to about two dozen of some of the most accessible (read: not too academic), interesting and inspiring books by and about those people who have gone before us, both officially canonized and not, whom we claim as heroes and spiritual guides. Obviously, given the growing number of saint books, I’m sure to have missed more than a few good ones. But this is a good place to start to become saint savvy.
If you thought saints were only for Roman Catholics, you might be surprised to learn of a growing trend among Protestants, even evangelicals, and those of other faiths to recognize the need for spiritual heroes and role models. Especially when interpreted more broadly, the idea of “saints” is a more comfortable concept, but even the “official” saints of Catholicism are finding followers in people of a variety of religious persuasions.
In The Lure of Saints (Paraclete, 2005), Jon Sweeney tells how, as an evangelical Protestant attending Bible college, he fell in love with the Christian tradition of saints. The book is comprehensive, including lists of saints and patrons, a glossary and helpful practices from a variety of teachers. Still, it is Sweeney’s unique perspective on—as the book’s subtitle says—“A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition” that makes this book fascinating reading for Protestants and Catholics alike. (See full review, read an excerpt.)
Although Sweeney touches on how saints are canonized, Newsweek religion reporter Kenneth L. Woodward has written the book on the process. In Making Saints (Simon and Schuster, 1990), Woodward not only describes the Vatican saint-making bureaucracy, he also touches on the political issues of who becomes a saint, who doesn’t, and how fast.
Often who’s left out of the sainthood process are lay people, especially lay women. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues for an expansion of the traditional concept of the “communion of saints” in her book Friends of God and Prophets (Continuum, 1999).While this book is more academic than some, it’s worth it if you’re interested in creative ways of revisioning the tradition.
One a Day
One way to go about learning about saints is the old-fashioned “saint-a-day” way. In fact, the most traditional compendium of saints’ stories has to be Butler’s Lives of the Saints, first published more than 200 years ago. Several more modern editions have been released recently: The “New Concise Edition” by Paul Burns was published by Liturgical Press in 2003, while HarperSanFrancisco came out with a paperback version of its “Concise Edition, Revised and Updated” in 1991.
If you’d like something broader than only the officially canonized or beatified saints on the church calendar, then the best compendium has to be All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Abingdon Press, 1997) by Robert Ellsberg. Now considered a “modern classic,” All Saints follows the traditional saint-a-day pattern but adds people like Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and John Wesley to the more traditional St. Augustine, St. Patrick and St. Agnes. Ellsberg also is the author of The Saints’ Guide to Happiness (North Point, 2003), in which he once again defines the word “saint” broadly, drawing on wisdom from a variety of holy men and women to help modern-day believers live lives of abundance.
When Ellsberg first wrote All Saints, this inclusion of “unofficial” saints was considered either brilliant or scandalous, depending on your point of view, but many have since imitated the approach. Theologian Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Saints (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) covers “from Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa,” with more than one per day when necessary. Cloud of Witnesses (Orbis, revised edition 2005) contains 35 mini-biographies, with an emphasis on those working for social justice. The broadest collection, however, has to be Spiritual Innovators (2002), in which Ira Rifkin and the editors of Skylight Paths profile 75 extraordinary people from the past century, as determined by a survey of university, seminary and religious leaders. The list is amazingly diverse, including Paramahansa Yogananda (a Hindu), Gustavo Gutierrez (a Catholic), Paul Tillich (a Protestant), Pema Chodron (a Buddhist), and Abraham Joshua Heschel (a Jew).
Take Your Pick
When you’re ready to go deeper with one particular saint, there is no shortage of books on individual spiritual superheroes either. Based on the new books that cross my desk, I’d have to say the most popular modern-day saintly authors have to be Thomas Merton and Henri J.M. Nouwen, two worthy spiritual guides, to be sure. You can always read Merton’s spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain, but there are dozens of other collections of his writings. One I like is called Seeds (Shambala, 2002) and includes just that: seeds of wisdom from Merton on topics ranging from solitude to sainthood. At a recent bookfair I saw no fewer than a dozen new books by Henri Nouwen, despite the fact that he’s been dead for nearly a decade. My favorite is a reflection-a-day collection from 1996, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (HarperSanFrancisco).
Other saints-in-the-making who have inspired a number of books include Mother Teresa, the late Pope John Paul II, and Dorothy Day . Of the numerous books about Mother Teresa, A Revolution of Love (Loyola Press, 2005) by David Scott offers more than mere biography and quotes. If you’re looking for a keepsake book commemorating the life of the late pontiff, John Paul II: A Light for the World (Sheed & Ward, 2003) is a beautiful, if not inexpensive ($35), coffee-table book. For insight into Dorothy Day, her own The Long Loneliness is a must-read. Also, Orbis Books recently released a new edition of Dorothy Day: Selected Writings for the 25th anniversary of her death.
Although the Dorothy Day book runs 350-plus pages, Orbis also publishes a whole collection of similar books of about half that length. The “Modern Spiritual Masters” series features “essential writings” from 20th-century greats, ranging from Oscar Romero and Karl Rahner to Thich Nhat Hanh and Flannery O’Connor. Each book, named for the subject, includes a summary of the person’s life and selections from their writings.
Of the saints from history, the most popular on bookshelves are those who could be loosely called “mystics.” What Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart all shared was a rich interior life, and modern-day seekers seem to find much in common with these medieval masters. My favorite book about Hildegard is actually a novel, Scarlet Music (Crossroad, 1997) by Joan Ohanneson. One of the better biographies of St. Francis is Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life by Adrian House (Hidden Spring, 2001). For a readable introduction to a complex mind, try Meister Eckhart FromWhom God Hid Nothing (New Seeds, 2005). Finally, a book of meditations inspired by Teresa of Avila, Falling into the Arms of God (New World Library, 2005), is also accessible to contemporary audiences.
Going back to biblical times, St. Paul seems to be a popular subject for biographers these days. Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan gives his two cents in In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004). And thanks to The DaVinci Code, books abound about Mary Magdalene. You know you’ve got a true phenomenon on your hands when you’ve got The Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene (Alpha, 2005). But, to be fair, Lesa Bellevie does a decent job of laying out the basic facts about this often misunderstood biblical figure.
But what about the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus? That will have to be another article. According to my Amazon search, there are another 1,898 books on her alone.
Copyright ©2005 Heidi Schlumpf