Wednesday, November 29
Two Book Reviews
Hannah Storm. Sabrina Weill, Ed. Notre Dame Inspirations: The University's Most Successful Alumni Talk About Life, Spirituality, Football--And Everything Else Under the Dome. Doubleday, 2006.
The medievals knew what people wanted in a good saint's life. Sacred weirdness, and lots of it: outrageous miracles, intricately gory martyrdoms, and a sense of courtly extravagance perfectly suited to this most chivalrous and ceremonial of eras. They may have embellished a bit from time to time, but they never whitewashed. Some saints, perfect from childhood, may have fasted from their mother's teat or preached a sermon on the Trinity from the arms of their godmother, but when it came to the reformed bad boys of hagiography, the lurid details of their past were not only not swept under the rug but given appropriately Technicolor treatments. As time past and the only saints seemed to be merely of the plaster variety, the importance of the past lives of these prodigal sons was often forgotten, with the best of intentions. However, it's important to remember that the best saints' lives are those that remind us that sanctity is within our grasp--and by the same token, it ain't easy.
Thomas J. Craughwell's wonderfully enjoyable and even inspiring little book, Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints never lets us forget that saints are made, not born, a fact, as he points out in his introduction, that was not lost on medieval hagiography: "In the early centuries of the Church [...] saints' lives were perfectly candid about saints whose early lives were far from saintly. It is from these ancient sources we learn of the bloodbath St. Olga unleashed on her husband's assassins; of St. Mary of Egypt trolling the streets of Alexandria for new sexual conquests; of the obscenely rich St. Thomas Becket looking down at a poor man almost freezing to death in the street and refusing to give him his cloak." The depth of their youthful sins only serves to make their later lives more compelling. From this we get, not a tabloid thrill, but are given a splendid glimpse into "how grace works in the world." It was this realization that truly makes this book. It's a delightful read, as I found ouit on daily my subway commute to work; a mini-Golden Legend for our time, with a sympathetic, devout and at the same time agreeably light tone perfectly suited to the subject matter and our time alike.
We can be inspired by the drastic turn-around of St. Matthew the Extortionist, or commiserate with St. Alipius the Obsessed with Blood Sports when he backslid in the nosebleed seats of the Colosseum and then found God yet again; or take heart that the etherial St. Francis and the noble Becket were wastrels and hedonists in their day. They all turned out well, with a bit of work and a lot of grace. And so can we.
I'd like to think some latter day Ignatius Loyola might pick up this slim volume like the first Jesuit did the Golden Legend on his sickbed and think perhaps that he, too, could make it to heaven if this pack of misfits, malcontents and downright nasty folks did it before him. Though even for those of us who manage, if not to be necessarily good, to be at least not bad, can definitely learn from this splendid little book, to remind us that if we've tripped and scraped our knee on the road to heaven, at least ten saints have fallen and broken their ankle in just the same way--and perhaps unlike us, have gotten straight up and gone along their way.
I imagine most of the readers of this blog never went as far as Blessed Giles of Portugal's alleged and in all likelyhood mythical dabblings in black magic (though, you never know), but for those of us who struggle with the nasty, everyday little sins, the continual process of conversion and re-conversion on a micro level, these transformations wrought by grace are a tonic to the soul. And a little funny, too, but as my friend Andrew Cusack says, "God's the funniest thing in the world--it's the devil who's dull." May these tales of saintly reform remind us of the ultimate tedium that lies deep in the heart of Hell.
If you ever wanted proof of Notre Dame's school spirit, a quick visit to the campus bookstore would prove its existence without a shadow of a doubt. Not only has the massive structure the size and prominence that has led one visiting bishop to mistake it for the university chapel, but inside is evidence of a cottage industry in Domer-themed apparel, Notre Dame guidebooks, Grotto memoirs, football memoirs, lives of Corby, Sorin, Rockne, McInerney mysteries and just about every conceivable item of clothing on which it is possible to print "IRISH," and a couple you couldn't conceive. I don't say this in a cynical mood, as the supply clearly has grown in relation to the demands of proud alums, ND moms, dads, granmas and kissing cousins in appropriately-labeled sweatshirts, and siblings eager to get their college entrance essay past Admissions. CBS anchorwoman Hannah Storm's Notre Dame Inspirations is a charming addition to the genre.
The usual crowd of famous alums are here, and we'd be disappointed if they weren't: Charlie Weiss, Joe Montana, Fr. Hesburgh, Regis Philbin--yeah, sure, he wears tone-on-tone shirt-and-tie combos, but he's a Domer, after all. And there's a host of lesser characters--a rabbi or two, and, much to my delight, the Most Reverend Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., the noble bishop of Peoria, a local Catholic nerd fave. The shot of him as a seminary student in cassock and biretta, mock-cursing the South Bend winter a with comically Rasputinesque grimace is worth the price of admission, as are his thoughts on Notre Dame's continued, ingrained Catholicity, enduring and inspiring in the most surprising of circumstances: "It's a powerful place for our Faith." Jenky adds, "If I live to seventy-five, I will be the cantankerous old bishop on the front porch of Corby Hall." No doubt with the fragrantly incensed cigar that I will perpetually associate him in hand, and so it ought to be.
While by its nature, not a scholarly review of Notre Dame's history, this well-presented little book is a pleasant jaunt through the last few decades of Domer lore, and full of vivid slices of campus life, past and present--whether sepia-toned, black-and-white, or the eye-searing full-color beauty of a campus October of the present. It would make a fine present for the Notre Dame Mom, Dad, or Grandma who has everything--or even for a freshly-graduated Domer with a bit of nostalgia on his mind.