One of the biggest blessings I’ve ever received in my life is a father who loved telling stories. It started with comics. He would tell me the origin stories of various superheroes from Spider-Man to Green Lantern, as I’d listen with rapt attention. But eventually, he started telling me stories of the Saints as well. There was, for example, St. Maximillian Kolbe, who so heroically gave his life for a fellow inmate in Auschwitz, and the three children in Fatima who received a visit from Our Lady. These tales were every bit as exciting to me as the comic book ones, and to me those Saints were every bit the heroes Batman and Superman were.
So having always loved the stories of the Saints, I eventually started to realize that some of the stories actually seemed to give them superpowers. From the ability to talk to animals to surviving grievous injuries, the further back you went it seemed like these stories grew more and more incredible. Then you start noticing strange things like the story of Saint Christopher – was his name literally ‘Christ-bearer’ even before his conversion? Were these stories true?
Your modern non-Catholic or anti-Catholic historian is always misunderstanding, underestimating, or muddling the role played in the affairs of men by great and individual Personalities. That is why he is so lamentably weak upon the function of legend; that is why he makes a fetish of documentary evidence and has no grip upon the value of tradition. For traditions spring from some personality invariably, and the function of legend, whether it be a rigidly true legend or one tinged with make-believe, is to interpret Personality. – Hillaire Belloc, St. Patrick
On this Feast of All Saints, I’d like to take some time to ponder what these legends of the Saints, or ‘hagiographies’, add to our Catholic faith. For some people, the answer is ‘nothing much’, and that’s perfectly fine. These stories aren’t necessary for our salvation, but in their proper place, I believe they do have their part to play in the formation of young Catholics.
It may be prudent to start off by talking about who the Saints are and why they matter. Simply put, a saint is someone who, by the holiness of their life on earth, have shown themselves to now dwell with God in Heaven. From there they continue to intercede for us who are still on earth. The “Communion of Saints”, then, implies the idea of a family, God’s family, stretching back to the founding of the Church and including us and our descendants as well.
So what are we to make of these fantastic legends? Why do they seem so much like Catholic fanfiction? Saint George slaying the Dragon? Saint Martha taming the Tarrasque, a fearsome chimeric beast that terrorized French towns? Probably because they were fanfiction, or at least similar in concept. Many of these legends were compiled around the 13th century, hundreds of years after these martyrs and saints lived and died. News coverage not being what it is today, these stories only grew with the telling.
Should this understanding shake our Faith? I do not think so. The first thing to note is that there is a great difference between these legends of the Saints and the Gospel narratives. For one, the dating of the Gospels put them much closer to the events they describe than these legends of the saints, such as The Golden Legend, do. Mark, the earliest Gospel, is thought to have been written around 70 AD. There would likely have been people still alive who had lived through the events described (it was only a matter of 30-odd years) and surely would have called Mark’s bluff if he exaggerated events. This is a simplified argument, definitely, but the core foundation of our Faith remains intact. Secondly, consider this statement:
“There was once – twenty or thirty years ago – a whole school of dunderheads who wondered whether St. Patrick ever existed, because the mass of legends surrounding his name troubled them. How on earth (one wonders) do such scholars consider their fellow-beings! Have they ever seen a crowd cheering a popular hero, or noticed the expression upon men’s faces when they spoke of some friend of striking power recently dead? A great growth of legends around a man is the very best proof you could have not only of his existence but of the fact that he was an origin and a beginning, and that things sprang from his will or his vision.” – Hillaire Belloc
I think Belloc makes an interesting point, that you only really tell stories about friends whose lives have moved or impacted you in some way. And while people may exaggerate details or embellish actual events, the core of the person’s character remains mostly intact. We may never know how much of the legends of a saint are true, but we know that they were holy men and women, who were willing to die for the Faith. To just dismiss them as fairy stories would be to take the position of the ‘learned men who never learned to learn’ that Chesterton describes in his poem, The Myth of Arthur, who conclude ‘From towering smoke that fire can never burn/ And from tall tales that men were never tall.’
So all that may be interesting as an intellectual discourse, but how does it affect us as modern Catholics today? For me, I look back on my dad’s stories as something that planted the seeds of my faith, as hearing them made me interested enough to find out more on my own. In this day as we scratch our heads about how to properly form our young and instruct them as Catholics, perhaps there’s something to be said for supplementing their spiritual development with these fantastic legends. Think of a family gathering where a cool but somewhat eccentric uncle regales the kids with tales of their past ancestors. Your great-great grandaunt’s cooking was legendary, I tell you, legendary! And her husband? He was so brave that he wrestled a bear single-handed!
Perhaps one day, when the kids have matured, they will be able to look back and laugh at uncle’s silly tales. But underneath that laughter, perhaps they may also realize that those stories were not the main point, but they were simply a factor in showing them that they belonged to a great and loving family.
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng