Book of Saints, by Amy Welborn
This collection of saints’ lives includes over sixty saints. Each saint story begins with a preliminary set of questions and reflections on ordinary life which lead into some theme from the saint’s life. A short biography follows, focusing on major details, and the section concludes with a concise summary of some virtue the saint teaches us and a question that children can discuss after having heard the life of the saint.
This book is at a good level for children receiving first communion up to fourth or fifth grade. Throughout the stories, the author throws in remarks or questions which relate the saint’s experience to the experiences of children.
A little more than a hundred years ago, a young girl lived in a very loving family. On the outside, there was nothing special about them. They weren’t wealthy, and they weren’t royalty. They were just a family. They were the Martins.
Life of Christ, by Fulton J. Sheen
Fulton Sheen reflects on the various moments in the life of Christ with great knowledge and insight. His reflections help bring the Gospels to life, make connections that are not immediately obvious within the Bible, and apply the lessons of Christ’s life to our own situation.
This is one of the most accessible and helpful books on the life of Christ, and deserves a place on every Catholic bookshelf. Fulton Sheen is clear, thorough, and direct in his explanations—making this a useful book for anybody wishing to delve more deeply into the meaning and importance of the Gospels.
The world would hate His followers, not because of evil in their lives, but precisely because of the absence of evil or rather their goodness. Goodness does not cause hatred, but it gives occasion for hatred to manifest itself. The holier and purer a life, the more it would attract malignity and hate. Mediocrity alone survives.
Edmund Campion: A Life, by Evelyn Waugh
This book is exceptional in that the author is one of the best novelists of the twentieth century; in that the book was written not out of personal desire, but in gratitude to a priest; and in that Waugh refused to accept any of the profits from the book—donating them instead to the Jesuit house at Oxford. It is the story of an English priest who risked his life in order to serve his own people at a time when Catholic priests were systematically hunted down and killed in England. In reality, every priest from the English college knew the end he would meet in England if he returned from Rome. It was the service they could provide to their countryman until that end which motivated them to take the prospect of death head-on.
Waugh’s skillful use of English and his ease with historical detail can make this book a more difficult read than some, but the life of this saint and the struggles he went through can be understood well enough without perfectly comprehending the details surrounding it—and it is an interesting and inspring story perhaps especially suited to young adults, given that it provides an example of fearlessly following God’s will in one’s vocation.
He concludes with a peroration, every sentence of which is aflame with his own fiery spirit: “Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes… The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: so it must be restored.”
With God in Russia, by Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.
The memoir of Fr. Walter Ciszek’s years serving as a priest in Soviet Russia—under inhuman conditions, constant surveillance, and repeated threat of death—is as inspring as it is interesting. Fr. Ciszek, now a Servant of God in the process of canonization, recounts his early years of study and then delves into the twenty-three years he spent in Soviet prisons and labor camps. It is a testament of faith and of submission to God’s will which puts into perspective the worries and the priorities of our own lives. That said, this book is primarily a historical account. Its companion book, He Leadeth Me, delves more deeply into the spiritual life that sustained Fr. Ciszek during his time in Russia. It helps, however, to have the full details of his experience in this book before moving on to the second.
The book is a page-turner and is written in simple language. Even so, the sometimes intense content of the book is probably best understood and appreciated by adolescents and adults.
“Here, have some tea,” he said. He pushed a glass toward me, dropped in a big lump of sugar and (I thought) something else. Yet, I didn’t suspect anything; he seemed so relaxed and pleasant that night… When I came to again, I was on my feet. Someone was holding me, and there was a tight-fitting apparatus of some sort, almost like a football helmet, on my head. I dimly remember a dull, fierce throbbing pressure in my head. Sedov was holding my head and pulling at my eyelids, looking into my eyes. He was staring intently, and his eyes blazed like evil incarnate.
He Leadeth Me, by Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.
This was the book which Fr. Ciszek had intended to write, he tells us, when he first wrote With God in Russia. That book largely tells the factual and detailed account of his time in Soviet prisons and labor camps over the course of twenty-three years. He Leadeth Me follows the same story—adding nothing new in terms of historical content—but focuses simply and almost entirely on the account of Fr. Ciszek’s spiritual journey through it all. The historical account is given in skeleton form, in order to sustain and contextualize the spiritual lessons that Fr. Ciszek learned and wishes to pass on to his readers. It is helpful to know the detailed account from With God in Russia, but not necessary if you are looking for a good spiritual read. In many ways, this may be considered a companion book to Abandonment to Divine Providence, showing how one priest discovered the simple truths expounded in that work through his heart-wrenching experiences in Soviet Russia.
Although the book deals with severe struggles in the context of dehumanizing evils, making it more appropriate for adolescents and adults, it is an easy and relatively quick read. He does a very good job of applying the spiritual principles he learned to the situations of his readers in much less intense situations—which is, after all, his intent in writing this book.
Be consoled, you idiot, I said to myself, but don’t be fooled! It was the same God who arranged for that joy in order to strengthen and console you and who now has arranged your abrupt and humiliating departure from the scene to remind you once more that all things on this earth are governed by his providence and not man’s efforts. That was yesterday, and today is today. You haven’t done anything yet in the Soviet Union except by his grace and his will.
The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
Few autobiographies have attained the popularity of this little book. It is the story of St. Therese of Lisieux, who details even the smallest moments of her life with a clarity of vision which brings to light the workings of God’s grace in an individual soul. Therese promotes in this book her “little way”—that of doing small, ordinary things with heroic love.
Although for some it will be easier to draw fruit from Therese’s thoughts and struggles than for others, this is an appropriate book for people at all levels—and one that can bear fruit in different ways each time it is read.
I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects—not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.
Early Christian Lives, Edited by Carolinne White
This collection by Penguin Classics goes in tandem with the “Early Christian Writers” collection. It includes various early lives of saints (primarily of the early desert monks), largely written by other saints. Reading early Christian “lives” is a unique experience: the actions of these saints are, in a sense, sensationalized in order to draw out lessons for Christian living. Aside from teaching the lessons they intended to teach, then, these lives give us a sense of how the early Church understood herself and the ideal of Christian perfection.
Although it is important to understand the historical context of these works which accounts for their remarkable difference in style to modern biographies, the works themselves are easy to understand and interesting to follow.
…while he was on his way to church as usual, he came to think of how the apostles had rejected everything to follow the Savior… Turning these things over in his mind, Anthony entered the church. It happened that just at that moment the Gospel passage was being read in which the Lord says to the rich man, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell everything you possess and give it to the poor and come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.” …He immediately went home and sold the possessions he owned.
Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain
Twain’s account of Joan’s life, written from the point of view of her fictional page, seems to have little to do with anything else Twain ever wrote. It is also unique among biographies of saints. Twain himself was not Catholic, but he had an incredible admiration for Joan of Arc, and considered her to be the one example in history of a true hero. This admiration is certainly conveyed in his writing. Also conveyed is his awareness of historical details—he spent twelve years studying historical sources in order to write the book.
Because of its length, and because Twain’s portrayal is more romantic than it is spiritual, however, this is not necessarily the best saint’s biography to read for most people. At times, the spiritual, the superstitious, and the romantic are mixed in almost scandalous fashion. Even so, it may indeed be—as he himself staunchly maintains—the best of Twain’s books, and worth a read for discerning readers who can parse out such difficulties.
But the character of Joan of Arc is unique. It can be measured by the standards of all times without misgiving or apprehension as to the result. Judged by any of them, judged by all of them, it is still flawless, it is still ideally perfect.
The Confessions, by St. Augustine
Widely considered to be the first Western autobiography, The Confessions tell the story of Augustine’s life with a view to understanding and praising God for the movements of grace which he experienced and which drew his heart away from indulgence and sensual pleasure and towards goodness, truth, and beauty. Aside from being a spiritually fruitful read, this work is foundational for all of Western culture.
Because of the mature discussions regarding his own life of dissipation before conversion, this book is best read by mature adolescents or adults. It is included in the adult category primarily because it also includes philosophical digressions which make it a somewhat dense read at times, and which may keep adolescents from appreciating the work.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you… You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
Catherine of Siena, by Sigrid Undset
Penned by Sigrid Undset, who had very deservedly won the Nobel Prize for her historical fiction years earlier, this extraordinary account of St. Catherine rings not only with the sanctity of the life portrayed, but also with the depth of human understanding so characteristic of its author. Undset had good reason to write this biography. Her conversion to Catholicism was attributed, in part, to the impression left on her by studying the medieval saints—St. Catherine especially. Indeed, Undset herself became a third-order Dominican, in no small part due to this saint’s influence. Catherine also resonated with the best of turn-of-the-century feminism, which Undset embodied in her thought and writing. The result of Undset’s love for this saint is a vivid and compelling portrait which reads like a novel, despite its being a well-researched biography of a saint, including frequent quotations of primary sources.
Because of the extraordinary nature of St. Catherine’s life and experiences, not to mention the political and ecclesiastical context in which she lived, this book may be difficult to understand or draw fruit from for younger readers. All the same, Undset does a good job of pulling out spiritual and practical insights as she relates the story. With her help, St. Catherine’s story comes to life in a way that can be better appreciated by the modern reader.
The Blessed Sacrament was now her only food. She could not manage to swallow anything else, not even a little water, although her breath was like hot air from a glowing furnace. Once again, and for the last time, the hidden fires were to leap up, and then the soul consumed the long-suffering body and flew off to become one with the “Love which moves the sun and all the stars.”
The Cure D’Ars, by Francois Tronchu
Many versions of this great saint’s life exist, but is the first and in many ways the best. It is compiled directly from the documents used in the process of St. Jean Vianney’s canonization, as well as from diaries, letters, and other manuscripts of eyewitnesses and of the saint himself. St. Jean, a diocesan priest in a poor country parish, was known for his asceticism and his undaunted determination to sanctify the people with whom he was entrusted. He turned around the little town of Ars and soon found himself hearing countless hours of confessions each day for hundreds of pilgrims who came from every corner of France.
The book is long, somewhat confusingly organized, and comprehensive. There is also much in it that is difficult to understand from a modern, American context. All the same, St. Jean Vianney remains inspirational in his fatherly zeal for the salvation of his parishioners, and his life is well worth the read for those who have a good understanding of the faith.
Many of the inhabitants were pagans in practice, and if all faith had not vanished, very little was left… People felt no scruple in missing Mass from the most trivial motives. Unnecessary work was done on Sunday, especially during harvest time. Adults, youths, and even children had contracted the execrable habit of blaspheming… He saw miseries which other eyes might have failed to detect. However, instead of wasting time in idle regrets, he set to work. He did not pretend to convert the world; the field he meant to till was the tiny village that God had entrusted to him.
The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Herself
In this autobiography, Teresa weaves episodes in her life with important reflections on prayer and on the workings of grace. It is very much a spiritual work as much as it is an autobiography. In this work, Teresa gives us the metaphor of the soul as a garden, for which water is drawn in successive stages of prayer—each giving more water as the soul advances in union with God, and each involving less work from the soul and greater receptiveness to God’s grace. The extraordinary example of her life and her insight on prayer continues to bear fruit in the Church today, in part through the autobiography that she left us. When Edith Stein found this book on a friend’s bookshelf, she ended up reading it overnight, telling herself: “this is the truth,” and converting to Catholicism—going on to become a saint: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
St. Teresa of Avila has a way of frequently digressing and of moving from one idea to another without warning—and then returning to the first idea again. It can be difficult to follow the progression of her thoughts. In addition to this, her spiritual experiences can be misunderstood or can be confusing to younger readers. For this reason, this book is best read by adults.
Mental prayer is, as I see it, simply a friendly intercourse and frequent solitary conversation with Him who, as we know, loves us.