The Oxford Dictionary of Saints

When I was a kid, my dad brought home a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Farmer from a clergy conference. It was probably the 3rd edition (1992), but maybe the 2nd (1987). I thought it was the most excellent thing ever, so I was quite pleased to buy my own copy of the 5th revised edition (2011) for half price from Blackwells last week. Since it’s the Octave of All Saints, here’s my review.

As the front cover states, the book covers ‘the lives, cults, and associated art of more than 1,700 saints’. The immediate question, especially in our ecumenical age with western Christians becoming ever more aware of the eastern churches, is: Which 1,700? Since my dad’s edition (and probably since the first), the main focus of this book has been English saints — unsurprising, given it’s point of origin. However, it has now been expanded to include saints from North and South America.

Farmer’s Introduction (p. vii) gives us these 5 criteria:

  1. All English saints including those of English origin who died abroad … and those of foreign origin who died in England.
  2. All saints whose feasts are in the important calendars such as the Roman Calendar of 1969, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Sarum rite as well as those who are patrons of churches or places.
  3. The most important and representative saints of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
  4. Other saints have been included because of their importance of the history of the Christian Church.
  5. Candidates for canonization called Venerable … or Blessed are not included in this volume

This gives us a range covering the English Venerable Bede, Augustine of Canterbury, and Willibrord, as well as Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and John Chrysostom, and modern saints such as Mary Mackillop,  Gemma Galgani, and Thérèse of Lisieux, and pre-schism eastern saints such as John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, and Theodore the Studite. The inclusion of Prayer Book saints means that Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, despite suppression by the papacy in 1969, are here.

Unfortunately, Canada seems barely to exist in this book. Kateri Tekakwitha is not here, and of the eight Canadian Martyrs only Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues are present. Canada is also not included in the list of countries and places with their patron saints. Given that the book has tried to become global by including African, South American, and Asian saints, it is a bit disappointing to see it lacking Canadians.

The next question, after considering the range of saints included, is whether the entries are any good. I believe the answer is yes. Each entry begins with the saint’s dates and a brief mention such as ‘monk and bishop of Lindisfarne.’ Then follows a brief, critical biography that mentions the activities and reputed character of the saint as well as miracles performed within his or her lifetime with neither accepting all miracle tales outright nor rejecting them out of hand.

In the case of a saint such as Cuthbert, there follows a long discussion of what happened to the body/relics and the establishment of the saint’s cultus, possibly also where mediaeval artwork concerning the saint is to be found. The entry proper closes with the saint’s feast day. Then Farmer gives a brief bibliography of both primary and secondary sources for the saint’s life, and where the works of saints who were writers may be found. Sometimes I think mentions of English translations would be useful, but the critical engagement of each entry is to be lauded.

The Introduction to the volume discusses the origins of the cult of the saints, then its progress in the British Isles in the Early Middle Ages, and then the development of the system in the Roman Church from the High Middle Ages to today including the fate of the cults during the Reformation. There is a brief bibliography as well as footnotes throughout the Introduction.

A series of appendices close the book. Appendix 1 covers ‘Principal Patronages of Saints’  — Matthew, my namesake, is the patron of accountants, while Bede and Jerome are the patrons of scholars. Appendix 2 is very helpful, ‘Principal iconographical emblems of saints.’ With this knowledge in hand, one can more easily identify saints in art. Interesting entries: ‘Breasts (on dish) Agatha’, ‘Eyes  (on dish) Lucy’, ‘Eyes (on book) Odile’, and ‘Intestines Erasmus’. Appendix 3 is a useful discussion of ‘Pilgrimages’, accompanied by maps of pilgrim sites in Britain and Ireland, Europe, the Holy Land, and North and South America. Then follows an Index of Places, a Calendar, and Patron Saints of Countries and Towns.

Finally, this book is ‘Web Linked.’ This means that OUP has a web page of useful links about saints to accompany this book, undoubtedly chosen and recommended by Farmer. The page includes links to resources on Benedictines, Cardinal Newman, some general saints websites, Celtic saints, Greek Orthodox saints, the Marist Brothers, the Crusades, the Bollandists, Mary Mackillop, and a link to the Vatican’s website.

Overall, this book is a very handy resource and I highly recommend it. Its gaps are disappointing but few. Maybe the 6th Edition will have more Canadians. 😉 Otherwise, it covers in a brief yet critical way that opens the reader up to further reading most of the saints that interest me from the Patristic and Insular world.

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Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints

Polycarp

Back to my Cypriot seminars. When we look at tradition as it moves along, various developments inevitably occur. We need to test each of these developments against the core of tradition in the Canon of the Faith as well as against Scripture. Some things will be helpful for us as individuals or churches; some will be indifferent; others are to be rejected.

I believe the tradition of honouring our forebears in the faith is reasonable; we do it today to living heroes such as Billy Graham or past ones such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. We see this going on in the mid-second century when Polycarp, a man who had known the Apostle John, was killed by the Roman authorities in Smyrna. The Christians buried his bones and commemorated his life and teachings ever after. We see the same going on with Perpetua and Felicity a bit later in Carthage around the year 200. This sort of practice continued and is evident in Kyprianos of Carthage’s letters in the 250s when the Emperor Decius systematically sought to stamp out Christianity.

However, at some stage, the commemoration of faithful believers went beyond this, and we have the poetry of Paulinos, Bishop of Nola, who was a contemporary of Augustinos’ in the late 300s. He wrote poems to St. Felix, an early Christian martyr, referring to Felix as his friend and offering up prayers to Felix. We also see at this time the emergence of relics and shrines as sites of healings. Missionaries were being sent out in the late 300s accompanied by the relics of martyrs and other holy Christians of prior days to take with them. These are traditions that may have roots in the 200s but which are becoming clearer in the 300s — although various people questioned such action well into the 600s.

Furthermore, although someone like Paulinos of Nola may be a big fan of praying to St Felix, most Christian piety well into the 500s and beyond is focussed on Jesus; it is Jesus most documented Christians pray to most often; it is Jesus who is the centre of the liturgies of these periods; it is Jesus who is even, very often, the focus of the lives of the saints. He is the centre of devotion, even at the time when the prayers to the saints were starting to develop and grow in popularity. This praying to the saints is, I believe as a good Anglican, a derailment of a tradition that developed as a way of encouraging persecuted Christians and remembering the teachings of those who have gone before. However, it should not keep us from reading the so-called ‘Lives of the Saints’ in hagiography. I have read many, many saints’ lives, and sometimes they are silly, but sometimes there is a flash of insight into true virtue or prayer or worship or the character of God that I would have missed because I do not believe in praying to saints.

At all times, the tricky parts of the multitudinous traditions should be held up against the core of the tradition and against Scripture. Are they in conformity to this? Do they draw people nearer to Christ? Do they detract from the true worship of God? Even if a text, such as a saint’s life like the late fifth-century Life of Daniel the Stylite, is not necessarily entirely historically accurate, can God show us things through the example and life of Daniel?

When we approach ancient texts in this way, we can sort through the silly or false parts and find some gems. For there are gems to be found in ancient Christianity, and they are worth finding. For me, the gems have been found in the teachings about the person of Christ and the Trinity, as discussed on Thursday, as well as in the worship and prayer practices of the ancient Church, which have helped me appreciate the holy God of the Bible even more and drawn me nearer to him and helped me in my own times of daily devotion. We must learn to sift through the oddities so as to live with the gems which greatly outweigh the oddities and hard parts, if we are willing to read with an open spirit.

Martin of Tours: Where Demonology and Scatology Meet

I was going to give you another post about St Columba and how we read/use hagiography and miracles, but then I starting reading Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin of Tours. It includes this:

During this same period and in the same town, as Martin was entering a house belonging to the head of some family, he stopped on the very threshold, explaining that he could see a horrifying demon in the entrance hall to the house. When he ordered it to depart, the demon seized the owner’s cook, who was in the inner part of the building. The wretched thing began to tear him with its teeth and to maul anyone it came across. The house was thrown into confusion, the household members panicked, and the people turned and ran. Martin stood in the way of this raving creature and first ordered it to stop. But when it raged and showed its teeth and, with its mouth wide open, threatened to bite him, Martin put his fingers in its mouth and said, ‘If you have any power, eat these.’ But then, as if it had received white-hot metal in its jaws, it withdrew its teeth a long way, refusing to touch the holy man’s fingers. Forced by these punishments and torments to flee from the body of the man who was possessed, it was not allowed to leave through his mouth but was expelled in a flow of diarrhoea, leaving behind it foul traces. (XVII.5-7, trans. Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Lives, p. 150)

As the title indicates — and as those of you who know me in person — what drew me to this particular demon story was its exodus from the cook’s body in diarrhoea. *Insert boyish/teenage-style chuckle here.* Demon diarrhoea. Hilarious.

Anyway, the demon diarrhoea in this story is actually interesting beyond the scatalogical humour it affords for me and many other men the world over. It is interesting because of the physicality of it. In the late fourth century when Sulpicius was writing this Life, the vision of the spirit world that was becoming current at the theological level was of an immaterial, non-corporeal spirit world. That is, spirit don’t have bodies; they cannot touch you. Angels and demons — along with the Trinity and the human spirit — are of this category.

Nonetheless, here we have a text that, despite its ‘high’ literary Latin, represents popular Christianity at some level. Of course, the idea of demons being involved in physical matter upon their exorcism from a human host is found in Scripture, when Christ commands Legion to enter a herd of nearby pigs. This physicality of the demonic remains, despite the high Platonic philosophy that comes to dominate Christian thought with people like Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers.

We have seen it in Besa’s fifth-century Life of Shenoute here and Adamnán’s seventh-/eighth-century Life of Columba here (being one of the most popular Coptic monk-saints and Scottish monk-saints respectively). Demonic physicality is also affirmed in the monastic Life par excellence, ‘Athanasius”s Life of St. Antony, as seen here and here. Although he does not linger on it, somewhere in the Conferences, John Cassian mentions demons who lurk at crossroads and mug travellers.

What makes Martin’s confrontation with the demoniac baker and its physicality different from the above is that, although the text blurs the person of the cook and the person of the demon, it is evident by the end that the cook is possessed. Martin accordingly expels the demon from the cook’s body — appropriate for a man who began his ecclesiastical career as an exorcist.

Nonetheless, the demonic diarrhoea — one of the crappiest ways for a demon to go — reaffirms the physicality of the demon.

I think this sort of tangible story with all the gorey details, so to speak, is an important difference between hagiography and other monastic literature. As I said above, John Cassian does not linger on demons who mug people. That sort of story, along with miracles, is not really what he’s into. Cassian’s literature is about how to fight the demons in daily life — and that means the constant struggle to your last breath against temptation (as goes one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers), it means regulating your thoughts, it means learning what arouses your concupiscible passions and what arouses your irascible passions.

Not whether or not demons can be expelled from a human person the same way as too many burritos.

The purpose of hagiography is always to edify the reader, as claimed by Sulpicius in his Life of Martin. It is to provide an example for monks to imitate. It is to strengthen the faith of the reader. It is to say, ‘If you are simply fighting temptation, look at the crap St Martin had to put up with!!’ But unlike what one may call monastic manuals such as Cassian’s work or Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer and Antirrhetikos (or Talking Back), most hagiography does not give the reader very specific instructions as to what the holy life looks like for imitation (although I would argue some of John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints do).

At the end of the day, I think this particular story is there to show us a. Martin’s holiness, b. what Christ can do with his saints, and c. the lowliness of evil spirits in the face of the fearless Christian. Those, I suppose, are lessons worth taking away.

Reading the ‘Life of St Antony’

I have blogged about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend to confront us — especially if philosophical materialists (matter is all there is) — are manifold.

How much of this is even true? We have Antony visible wrestling with invisible opponents. The sick are cured. Demons are cast out. People hear the disembodied voices of the demons as they tempt Antony. He lives for twenty years alone on a sparse diet but is as hale and hearty as ever when he comes out of seclusion. He has visions both of demons and of Christ.

People who want to determine whether an account is true or not tend to dissect things on their likelihood as well as how well attested they are. The likelihood of any miracle is, by definition, scanty. And our evidence for Antony’s miracles primarily comes from this text written probably by an Alexandrian and certainly serving the polemical purposes of Athanasius vs. the ‘Arians’ — if the Nicenes can produce such a saint, how could they be wrong?

Of course, one could easily point to the vast wealth of material that gives us miracle stories, exorcisms, and visions in the acts of the martyrs and lives of later saints. Perhaps these could be used as a bar — people in similar circumstances do similar things. May these miracles be not so unlikely after all?

However, immediately it will be pointed out that the earlier stories are unreliable because they were often written after the fact and clearly embellished to promote the Christian message. And the later stories are clearly modelling themselves on the Life of St Antony. Therefore, the argument that holiness manifests itself in similar ways throughout history will not convince our imagined materialist.

In fact, short of witnessing such a miracle oneself, I don’t think that a confirmed materialist could ever be convinced that the Life of Antony is 100% true. Furthermore, the apparatus of historical investigation cannot either prove or disprove the events recounted in this story. ‘Likelihood’ cannot be used as a criterion if the miraculous is in play, short of discounting all miracles (as the materialist will).

What use, then, is the Life of Antony? We cannot prove it true. We cannot prove it false. What do we do with it?

We must ask ourselves why the text was written in the first place and for whom it was written. It claims to have been written by Athanasius to provide the ideal monastic lifestyle for the reading pleasure and edification of his fellow clergy. The point of the Life of Antony is not historical information but edifying example.

Therefore, what this text shows us is what this particular Egyptian community — Alexandrians who admired the Desert Fathers, perhaps the Desert Fathers themselves a bit — values and strives towards. These people value commitment to Christ above all. They value what Franciscans will later call ‘evangelical poverty.’ They value constant prayer. They believe in demons but also in the greater power of Christ at work in the Christian to overcome the demons. These things and more are what we can take away from this text.

At this point, when we look to it as reflective of a particular historical community rather than a straight historical narrative, the Life of St Antony takes on a different force and becomes disturbing in a new way. Rather than challenging the philosophical materialist (matter is all there is), it aims for the heart of the practical materialist (matter is all that matters).

This is the value, historical and philosophical, of documents such as the Life of St Antony. These are the questions we should ask them — questions that will provoke the text to question us as well.

Adamnán’s Life of Columba

Adamnan of IonaI have blogged about St. Columba here before; he was the first saint of the week and I revisited his life somewhat recently, and considered his relevance for early mediaeval demonology. Today, I am going to briefly consider not Columba but his Life, his Vita by Adamnán, the hagiography of an early ‘Celtic’ saint.

My post is inspired by a recently released article by Roy Gibson in the Journal of Roman Studies about, of all things, letter collections. What he has to say about ancient letter collections is very interesting, but is largely irrelevant to this saint’s life. What is relevant is his discussion of genre at one point when he is thinking about why ancient letter collections are not arranged in chronological order the way modern editors like to have them.

He has two genres that may have influenced them that are directly relevant to our reading of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. One is ancient biography as practised by Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius does not give his reader a blow-by-blow, chronological account of his subjects’ lives. Rather, he groups the events in their lives according to themes, of categories of actions from the emperor’s life.

The other relevant genre is encomium, the ancient practice of writing documents in praise of a person. These are not properly chronological, either, but grouped according to category and theme.

This helps me make a bit more sense of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. You see, when I first read this text, I found it a strange and troubling creature. Adamnán does not treat of his subject in chronological order. Indeed, I felt (feel?) it entirely impossible to get a proper biography of the saint from this Vita, a biography that begins with his birth, ends with his death, and gives the reader a series of events in the order they occurred.

Instead, Adamnán gives his reader collections of miracles of differing sorts, such as visions or healings or what-have-you. Since my main exposure to hagiography has been of the sort as is Athanasius’ Life of Antony or Cyril of Scythopolis various Lives of Palestinian monks, I found this way of telling a saint’s life odd and troubling, but I went along with it and read the various miracle stories with interest.

Now, however, I get it better. (All you need give me is an ancient precedent.) Early mediaeval Adamnán, who dies in 704, is writing within ancient traditions, not only of hagiography but of biography and encomium — indeed, one would argue that these are two of the most influential genres upon ancient hagiography. He is giving us reasons for Columba’s sanctity. He is showing us the various categories of miracle wrought by Columba. He is showing us the most important facets of this saint’s life. He is praising Columba and giving his reader cause to praise Columba, and thereby God himself, through this encomiastic piece of hagiography.

With this in mind, I’ve no doubt that more saints’ lives I shall inevitably come across will make more sense. The point is not a precise chronological account of the saint’s life. That is biography. The point is to demonstrate holiness and stir up the soul of the reader to worship Christ and live in sanctity as well. This can be effectively achieved with Adamnán’s style, I am certain.

Joseph Campbell and Hagiography

This post is hypothesising more than anything. Please keep that in mind, in case you place great stock in Late Antique/Early Mediaeval hagiography.

In Authority and the Sacred, Peter Brown writes:

In large areas of eastern Christianity (and, if in a more diffident and spasmodic manner, also in the West) the holy man was thought to have brought back to the settle world, from his long sojourn in the wilderness, a touch of the haunting completeness of Adam. (p. 76, referencing B. Flusin, Miracle et histoire dans l’oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991), pp. 34-5.)

A good example of this narrative is the life of Jacob of Nisibis, recounted by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ in his Historia Religiosa (translated for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria). Jacob was what is termed a boskos, a grazer. He lived in the wilds of Syria with no shelter and no food. He literally lived off the land, eating wild plants to sustain himself. This was his ascetic labour.

Somehow, word of Jacob’s holiness got around, and he was elected bishop of Nisibis. Reluctantly, he answered the call of the people of Nisibis and strode naked into the local church, and was duly consecrated. This anti-social character lived out the rest of his life as bishop of that city, serving the spiritual needs of his flock.

Similarly, St Hilarion (saint of the week here) spent a very long time in self-imposed exile before his monastic complex sprung up around him in Palestine. Barsanuphius of Gaza never left his retreat, bricked up in a cell in his monastery, but dispensed wisdom to many through his letters. St Symeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) spent time living as a traditional anchorite before climbing his pillar and drawing crowds; so did his imitator, St Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) in Constantinople.

Examples no doubt abound. The basic cycle of the story is that the holy man or woman withdraws from human society — into the wilderness, into a tomb, up a mountain, into a cave, on a pilgrimage — and there acquires holiness and access to God and the wisdom of God. This access to God (parrhesia) and power (dunamis) is acquired through ascetic struggle, through wrestling with demons, constant prayer, fasting, or wearing iron undergarments.

Then, whether he or she likes it or not, a return to society is made. Sometimes, society comes to the saint, as with Symeon the Stylite. Sometimes the saint goes to society, as with Jacob of Nisibis. Having returned to society, the saint dispenses the wisdom, holiness, and spiritual power upon the people. The saint intercedes on their behalf, with God and with local or imperial men of power.

This is the basic story.

It sounds a lot like this:

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

This is an image representing the most popular aspect and core thesis of Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology and psychological interpretation thereof, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, the vast majority of hero mythologies take this journey from the known to the unknown and back again. This is part of the archetypal universe that inhabits the subconscious of the human psyche.

I find it interesting that Late Antique and Byzantine hagiography fit this pattern. Many would probably subscribe to a statement such as, ‘Hagiography is a skillful blending of history and mythology.’ By that, however, they would usually mean that true facts about these persons are mingled with tall tales and fables. They would not mean, ‘Hagiography is mythological in that it traces the same patterns as the foundational myths of most civilisations.’

This can mean a few things. One thing this observation can mean is that the appeal of hagiography throughout the Byzantine centuries is precisely rooted in its drawing up the same archetypal motifs as all mythology. We all like mythology — Homer, Hesiod, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the adventures of Sigurd (Siegfried). It speaks to something in the core of our being. It resonates with us.

Myths are not just stories that are untrue and that explain some religious aspect of the universe. They are often this. But they are more than this. To quote my friend Emily, something that is mythical is bigger than true. Whether such a definition helped her ESL students, who can say? But that does get at the heart of why we find the voyage of Orpheus to the Underworld or Galahad’s Quest for the Grail so compelling. They speak to our hearts and communicate realities that mere history and philosophy (and their awkward companion allegory) cannot touch.

Thus hagiography’s appeal.

Another realm for play in this discussion ties into the thoughtworld of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. For these Oxford dons, Christianity was the myth that came true. It was not simply the history of God with humanity. It was not simply theology. Nor was it myth in the sense of an untrue story that communicates deep truths about the world. It was a myth that actually happened.

This is to say that the mythical impulses of the Christian story — the eucatastrophy of the Easter cycle (a concept discussed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ — see the volume Tree and Leaf), the miracles, the events surrounding the lives of the apostles — are, in fact, historically true, just as Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC is historically true. But they are still mythologically charged and speak to the mythical impulse in ourselves. It is as though the myths of the world that resemble the Incarnation are, in fact, backwards echoes of the power and incomprehensibility of God becoming man. Or that they are implantations within the human heart of the greatest story of all, a historically true story to be recognised when met.

What if, then, the mythological impulses of hagiography are real? This would presuppose the staying power of God’s presence in the world after Christ’s ascension. This would also mean that myths can be acted out in real life. Indeed, could not the appeal of Campbell’s cycle tug on the heartstrings of real men and women? Could they not live out the myth for real? It strikes me as plausible.

Perhaps we should all live out the myth. Hagiography was written to remind us that we, too, should be holy. Let us leave the familiar and combat the forces of darkness that we may return to the world of the known, bestowing the gifts of the divine upon our fellow humans.

Do you ever get uncomfortable with your own comfort?

Every once in a while, I wonder if I’m missing out in the deeper, harder joys of life by living in such ease. For example, the Life of John the Almsgiver (Patriarch of Alexandria 606-616) tells some fairly remarkable stories about this man. Once, he was given a quilt worth 36 nomismata, a fairly tidy sum. At the behest of the giver, he slept under it for the first night, but was tossing and turning all night with guilt that the money could have been better spent. So, the next morning, he sold it, bought four rough blankets for 1 nomisma, and gave the other 35 to the poor.

Chapter 23 of the same Life relates similar anecdotes about St. Serapion (is this Serapion of Thmuis, the 4th-c bp?):

Serapion once gave his cloak to a poor man and as he walked on and met another who was shivering, he gave that one his tunic, and then sat down naked, holding the holy Gospel, and on being asked, ‘Who has taken your clothes, father?’ he pointed to the Gospel and said, ‘This is the robber’. Another time he sold the Gospel to give an alms and when a disciple said to him, ‘Father, where is your Gospel?’ he replied, ‘Son, believe me, it was the Gospel which said to me “Sell all you have and give to the poor”, so I sold it and gave to the poor that on the day of judgment we may have freer access to God’. (Trans. Dawes, Three Byzantine Saints)

They tell a story about St. Francis (I think I read it in John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of Saint Francis, however it may be from the Little Flowers) that one day he was given a cloak by the brothers, not being the sort of person to wear a cloak, and the weather being cold. Submitting himself to the will of the brothers, he wore this cloak — until he saw a poor, poverty-stricken soul shivering in the winter cold. Thereupon, the goodly saint divested himself of the cloak.

According to the grand scheme of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, true happiness and contentment are found in union with God. God is Christ (the whole point of the Nicene Controversy that occupied much of the Church’s time in the fourth century), and Christ tells us that we will find Him in the poor, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. -James 1:27 KJV