By Denise Trull
I have a particular bee in my bonnet when it comes to saints. They must ring true.
When I was little, and even more so, when I was a teen growing up in the now infamous 70’s, there were not a lot of saint books out there and if there were, they were either sentimentally insipid or had atrocious drawings of sickly stick figures. Many gave the apostles the popular shag haircut of the 70's or made Jesus look suspiciously like the lead singer in your favorite folk band. I could have possibly put up with the haircuts, if only the stories had been better. But the Church was having an identity crisis at the time, and I am afraid the saints were swept under the rug in apologetic embarrassment. They were not, as they say, ‘relevant’.
One thing that the Catholic home schooling movement gave back to us all as a gift was their insistence that all the saint stories be unburied and revived. So many books were republished or new books were written that addressed every Catholic teen's urgent question: “How do I live my faith, anyway? What does it LOOK like?” It is a legitimate question especially as they approach Confirmation. Saints show us what holiness looks like, and they bring so much consolation and strength in their wake.
I have two kinds of saint books that I have cherished through the years with my kids.
In the early years, saints should be almost legends and surrounded by beauty and mystery. The drawings should be attractive and filled with action. No boy, or girl for that matter, will long suffer a book with pictures of someone staring up at the sky making a face that looks like someone is pinching them. Over the shoulder it will go, and with reason. They want heroes, seaman, travelers, brave men and women. Celtic saints, saints like Boniface sent from England to tame the fierce, German pagans, Julian of Norwich in her little hut, Catherine of Sienna radically chopping off her hair, Benedict with his exploding glass that warned him he was about to drink poisoned wine. This kind of thing fascinates children. That saints are other but also the same as they are. They can dream of one day perhaps living in a hermitage or running off to the missions and facing dangers for the Lord. It is okay for them to want these things and to daydream about them. They make children begin to feel perhaps the first stirrings of courage and magnanimity in themselves.
The second kind of book is the "reality check" book. The best are Modern Saint books: the ones with actual photographs which prove that the saints are still here, so close to our own time that there are actual photographs of them. It is always a great exercise to look at the saints when they were first starting out on their road of faith beautiful, young, vigorous perhaps, and then photos of how they ended up: utterly spent, weary, wracked with sickness, dark circles from lack of sleep; but always, always those tell tale eyes that never change but only get more luminous with love and holiness. The photo is worth a thousand words.
Teenagers need to see John Paul II bent over and shuffling painfully, they need to see Elizabeth of the Trinity wracked with TB and yet carrying on faithfully. They need to see that actors, doctors, young students, faced some incredible odds and overcame them through humility and asking constantly for God's help. That chastity IS POSSIBLE, and that some like Cecilia, Agnes, and Maria Goretti would die for it. That some saints felt so lonely and different and were not like anyone else in their family; that some had emotional problems and anxiety, and even depression. That they suffered tremendously because of it but found their way to the light with God's help. Children learn from reading about these saints that it is ALL TRUE, this dying to self. And here is what is looks like. How it is done.
Your kids will have their favorites and it is lovely to see who they end up loving the most: my own David was impressed by St. Damien of Molokai, Thomas loved Ephraim and his poems and formed a great friendship with Dorothy Day, Madeleine had a great devotion to beautiful St. Rita who had to live with her gangster relatives, Ben loved St. Leo the Great turning the Barbarians back at the gates of Rome. John Paul St. Sebastian because he was an athlete. Reuben had a great admiration for St. John de Breubeuf.
So, on this magnificent feast of All the Saints, I have one plea as I stand on my small impassioned soapbox. Never let your kids read tripe about the saints. Find the REAL stories, the ones that show foibles, warts, and character flaws that are overcome and conquered. The saints will be able to teach them things you simply cannot. They are like walking, talking, human visual aids. And they will not disappoint.
Blessed be God in His Angels and in His Saints.