St. Francis de Sales, the patron of my religious community, once said, I am as human as anyone could possibly be. Encouraged by this very open disclosure by one of the great saints and doctors of the church, I have been spending a good bit of time these past several years reacquainting myself with the saintsdrawing and painting them, researching their lives and words, and seeing with adult eyes these figures from my Catholic boyhood, where my love for them began.
I grew up in a home bulging with books, one of which had pictures I loved to peruse on rainy Sunday afternoons. It was Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and thanks to it I learned to decipher the meaning of symbol and how to tell who was who in heaven. Lucy kept her eyeballs on a tray. Martin de Porres was a black guy; and the doctors all held quill pens and rolled their eyes toward heaven. While I loved these illustrations and the stories they told, the characters in them remained remote and otherworldly until I reached my 30’s, when my parents died.
Now that I personally knew two new members of the great communion, my interest in saints was re-energized. Soon commissions came my way to paint saints for churches and publications, and I enjoyed finding ways to put my own twists on tradition. One day for fun, I drew Francis de Sales writing with a computer instead of a quill pen. Next came Mary Magdalene selling perfume, Barbara working at her drafting table, and Peter ready to eat a fish breakfast. Before long I had 28 patrons of careers and occupations doing their thing in contemporary settings.
I took a different approach to a book on Thérèse of Lisieux. Coming from another part of my artistic spirit, this book is a meditative look at the more personal relationship I’ve enjoyed with one saint. A whole new style and process was needed to express the various struggles and shadows of her life (and mine as well!). Instead of bold colors and black outlines, I chose to draw her in sepia washes reminiscent of old photographs and the Carmelite world as I saw it.
Are the saints relevant to us today? Can ancient martyrs and medieval mystics stand beside their postmodern counterparts and still have something of value to teach us? I believe so. I believe they reach across time not to be imitated (as I was taught as a boy) but to show us how we can become ourselves more fully, here and now, and in our own way. That old edition of Butler’s Lives from my childhood is now on a shelf in my studioonly now it has two new companions: Patrons and Protectors, published by Liturgy Training Publications, and Journey with Thérèse of Lisieux, by Sheed & Ward. Everything old is new again.