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  • Writer's pictureRachel Sherlock

Wicked Holy: 5 Great Biographies of Saints

Updated: Sep 26, 2018

The glory of God is man fully alive

- St Irenaeus

Across the centuries, the saints have been an enduring source of fascination. While some saints are associated with stories that are almost mythic, others were simply fascinating historical figures who lived extraordinary lives. The latter in particular are a source of wide-ranging interest, not just for the religious or the peculiarly pious. For Christians however, they are something more. In the Gospel of John, Christ says “I am the way”, saints show us what it looks like to walk this way, and the myriad of paths that that can take, each leading to closeness with God.

Ultimately the appeal of these stories is that they are exciting, a whirlwind of devotion and self-sacrifice, they show what it means to be fully alive as a Christian. The saints responded to the paradoxes called for in Christianity, finding themselves to be rich when they were poor, and free when they were in chains. They strove to be extravagant in humility, ostentatious in charity, and reckless in compassion. This contradictory nature of the saints allows their stories to stand out and capture the imagination.

It is unsurprising then that the lives of saints have been a topic of interest for writers across the centuries. The accounts of saints and martyrs can be found in the Bible itself. For this list, we have looked at five great biographies, each centred on a single saint. There are certainly many more books and saints that could be included in this list, but the ensuing length might tempt the reader to impatience, and so the list has been capped at five. If there are any you feel are sorely missing do let us know in the comments below.

St Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton

It’s hard to understate the importance and influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, not just within the Catholic Church but within Western society. The father of Thomism, and the author of Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas was at the forefront, grounding faith in reason. Much of modern philosophy, particularly in relation to ethics, political theory, or natural law, springs either from a defence of or an opposition to his ideas. With such weighty accolades under his (quite sizeable) belt, it might be easy to imagine the biography of this Italian Dominican friar from the 13th century as being dry and difficult reading. Fortunately, G.K. Chesterton’s biography of this venerated saint couldn’t be further from this.

G.K. Chesterton is himself a figure that looms large in the field of Catholic writing and thinking. Truth be told, Chesterton loomed large wherever he went. A strikingly corpulent man, there’s something wonderfully fitting in Chesterton writing Thomas Aquinas’ biography. More than just a question of their shared profile, the two men were of a similar ilk, acclaimed authors and known for their defence of reason in the arena of faith. Chesterton brings his incredible way with words, so evident in his fiction, to this biography. Not a sentence is wasted, each bearing his characteristic turn of phrase. As you might expect from Chesterton, the book is filled with his humorous perspective, never taking himself nor his esteemed subject too seriously. Yet this humour underscores his profound observations. His way with words is not limited to making us laugh, he also shines a new light on St. Thomas and what it means to be a saint. He has a wonderful affection for the venerable saint, which is quite infectious. If you enjoy this biography, it is definitely worth checking out Chesterton’s other biography, of St. Francis of Assisi.

Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

Our second entry on this list comes from the pen of another literary great, this time Mark Twain. This may come as something of a surprise given Twain’s antipathy to religion and the Church, however, his account of the saint avoids personal bias, and instead paints a wonderfully nuanced picture of a truly iconic saint: St. Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc is one of those utterly captivating saints. Every stage of her life seemed super charged with religious fervour, whether as a farm girl receiving visions from God, or as an 18-year-old leading the French army to victory against the British, or as a falsely accused heretic burned at the stake. There was nothing typical about this poor girl who rose from obscurity in 15th-century France. It’s hardly surprising that her story has captured the imaginations of people throughout the centuries. Twain was one of her most ardent admirers. Writing the book fulfilled a lifelong dream of Twain’s, having found a manuscript describing her life when he was a teenager. Twain would describe his book on the French saint as his best and favourite work. The book is somewhat of an exception for this list as it is in fact a novel, rather than a work of nonfiction. However, Twain spent 12 years researching the story, visiting France and going through the historical records of the saint. He framed his story through an imagined narrator, Sieur Louis de Conte, who, as the page and secretary to Joan, recounts the events of her life. Within this narrative frame Twain tells the story of the astonishing life of Joan of Arc with an admirable adherence to the historical sources. It’s easy to see Twain’s love for Joan in his writing, making it a wonderful means of encountering this most famous of saints.

Damien the Leper by John Farrow

Moving from the well-established to a relatively new addition to the communion of saints, St. Damien of Molokai, a Belgian priest from the 19th century, was canonized in 2009. Remembered for his life of incredible self-sacrifice, in 1873 Father Damien volunteered to serve a community of people with leprosy on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. There he lived among the community, caring for the medical needs of the people, building houses, schools and hospitals, digging graves and making coffins. When he arrived on the island he said to the community that he hoped to be "one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you”. This he fulfilled in its entirety, after 11 years serving those with leprosy he contracted the disease himself, still he continued in his ministry until his death 4 years later. This ‘martyr of charity’ was a truly breath-taking example of humility, service and compassion.

This biography was written by the Academy Award winning film director John Farrow. His ability in storytelling shines through, approaching the story with a distinct lack of sensationalism for such an extraordinary life. There is a humble, quiet tone to the book, that reflects the saint’s own approach. Yet his style is irresistible, moving along at a fair clip conveying the saint’s life in a familiar and direct voice. It is such a wonderful combination of writer and subject, with the cinematic yet personal approach to such an extraordinary story.

Saint Katharine by Cordelia Frances Biddle

We all know rags to riches stories are the standard fare for captivating and inspiring books and films, however saints lives are rarely standard, and in the life of Saint Katharine Drexel the story is quite the opposite. Katharine was born into a rich Philadelphia family, her father being a multimillionaire banker. The family, despite their wealth, were very engaged in social causes and charity work, but for the most part Katherine was a normal young woman. She went to parties, had suitors, and enjoyed herself. However, as she grew up she felt more and more the call to serve those overlooked by society, and so, foregoing her various proposals for marriage and her own enormous inheritance, she decided to take religious vows. This caused great shock and consternation in polite circles, indeed it made headline news, the Philadelphia Public Ledger reported “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent— Gives Up Seven Million." Katharine went on to found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who were dedicated to the service of Native Americans and African Americans. They were tireless in their work, which was often met with opposition but whether it was open threats from the KKK or anonymous sticks of dynamite, nothing would deter Katharine and her sisters from their mission. In her life, Katharine established 145 missions, 50 schools for African Americans, and 12 schools for Native Americans.

This book, written by a descendant of the Drexel family, conveys the seemingly indefatigable energy of this pragmatic yet optimistic saint. Biddle elegantly sets the historical scene, from the glamorous highlife to the gritty reality of serving. It’s a fascinating story, and one that it’s hard not to be inspired by, to get going, to keep at it, and to do more.

Edith Stein: A Biography by Waltraud Herbstrith

Bringing us to the saint closest to our own times, the final entry on this list is St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known by her birth name, Edith Stein. Stein was born into a devout Jewish family in Germany, at the end of the 19th century. However, by the time she was a teenager she declared herself to be an atheist. She went on to study philosophy, and was a fiercely disciplined academic. In her field, Stein was an intellectual force to be reckoned with. In 1921 she had an encounter with Catholicism that prompted her conversion, this only increased her fervour for academia and teaching. She became a lecturer continuing her studies and writing, and after becoming a religious sister with the Carmelites (at which time she took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) she continued teaching and writing. A new preoccupation would soon consume her however, that of speaking out against the Nazi regime and the treatment of Jewish people. Even after moving to the Netherlands for her safety, she strongly suspected she would not survive the war and even put herself through training to endure the hardships of concentration camps. After the Dutch Catholic Church openly condemned the Nazi regime, she was arrested in1942, but she was ready to lay down her life for her faith and for others. When offered an opportunity to escape she is reported to have said "If somebody intervened at this point and took away her chance to share in the fate of her brothers and sisters, that would be utter annihilation." In August 1942 she was brought to Auschwitz where to the best of our knowledge, she was killed in the gas chambers.

This biography of Edith Stein comes to us from the pen of another Carmelite nun. Herbsmith not only delves into the life of this incredible woman, but she also has insight into the religious order to which they both belong, and has access to interviews with people who knew her. The result is a sensitive and nuanced portrayal. Indeed, this biography comes at the recommendation of the saint’s own sister. Reading about St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the strength of her personality leaps off the page. She was formidable in all aspects, not only in her courage and intellect but also in her empathy and obedience.

This article was originally written for and published on February 11, 2017

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