Saints are, to rebaptize a term much in use these days, the populists of spirituality. They emerge from the fertile soil of ordinary and extraordinary moments in religious life so that with their deaths they are transformed by the exercise of popular piety into objects of veneration and sources of inspiration. That establishment elites—read: the popes—formally beatify and canonize these holy women and men is a relatively late development in the process, and is by tradition almost incidental to their wider appeal.
Anyone who has found inspiration or consolation in the stories of the saints is most likely familiar with the writings of Robert Ellsberg, who in his latest book, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives, confesses that he finds himself surprised to have become a hagiographer, a word that has become identified with “a particularly saccharine, credulous, and pious style of writing.”
Ellsberg’s writing is none of those things, nor are his saints. Indeed, this compact volume is a wonderful read whether you are familiar with his earlier work or merely curious about saints.
Echoing Pope Francis’ exaltation of the “middle-class of holiness,” Ellsberg prefers to describe saints simply as “those who walk in the paths of holiness.”
Ellsberg underscores Pope Francis’ admonition not to get “caught up in the details” of the lives of saints or in determining whether they were perfect or pious, because they were not. And that is the point. Echoing Francis’ exaltation of the “middle-class of holiness,” Ellsberg prefers to describe saints simply as “those who walk in the paths of holiness.”
That allows him to range widely and tell numerous stories (including his own saint-inspired conversion) about men and women who may never make the official calendar of saints but whose lives help Ellsberg “rehabilitate” the very concept of holiness—and help us along the way.
Lesser-known names like Madeleine Delbrêl and Ellsberg’s own friend Daria Donnelly are highlighted along with well-known but still uncanonized figures like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Flannery O’Connor. A personal favorite of mine is Charles de Foucauld, a spoiled aristocrat who became a happy hermit in the Algerian Sahara, where he was martyred in 1916.
Ellsberg’s retelling of de Foucauld’s story shows how truly odd holy people can appear by the world’s standards. De Foucauld died alone and in obscurity, his dream of founding a religious community come to naught. Yet his death inspired the founding of several congregations of religious, and it shows how a single, seemingly insignificant life can shake the world.
From such examples we should draw hope for our own modest efforts at holiness, and we could have no better guide than Ellsberg’s new book.