Thursday, August 1, 2013

On Choosing a Book on the Lives of the Saints

Books on the lives of the saints are almost a dime a dozen nowadays.  Even in the popular bestseller section of any mainstream bookstore, one is bound to find some kind of book on the saints.  But which book should one choose?  Be warned, not all books on the lives of the saints are worth purchasing.  Here, I'll show you a few that are worth getting, from the classics to recent.

Now, there are several styles of these kinds of books.  Many of the more recent books come in the form of either field guide-esque identification books or as "fun" and half-serious works often infected with New Age oddities.  While the field guide style work serves its purpose for those who are interested in sightseeing and "saint-spotting", they often are quite short on content.  At all costs, avoid Richard McBrien's Lives of the Saints - if you are wondering why, do a search on reviews of his major work Catholicism.  Skipping past the dregs, let us examine the works of a more quality nature.

I think it fairly obvious to say that the best work, by far, on the saints is Fr. Alban Butler's classic work Lives of the Saints.  Words do not describe how wonderful, how impacting, how quintessential this work is.  I cannot do justice to how much I love Butler's work - and I only own a shorter version of the monumental original, the 1894 edition reprinted by those lovely folks down at Dover Publishing.  The general rule here is to get as old of an edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints as possible - as time has gone by, so-called "modernized" versions of the work have come to fruition.  Sadly, these modern versions, while still serving their purpose, are often dry, skeptical in nature (following the modern world's general rule that "the more interesting it is, the less true it probably is"), and infected with the spirit of demythologization.

Therefore, skip the modern editions unless there is somehow nothing else available.  Obviously, few are able to afford, let alone find outside of their church library, the complete multi-volume set of Butler's full work.  In our day, we generally have to settle with a more concise, abridged version.  Thankfully, there are several out there - the best version, in my opinion, is the Dover Publications edition, which is a republication of the 1894 edition.  It is thankfully free of modernist and secular influence, and is a riveting, powerful read. 

One modern work that actually stands out for me, however, in terms of its traditional Catholic approach and originality is Ann Ball's wonderful two-volume Modern Saints: Their Lives and Faces.  I think that one day this work will be considered a classic in its own right, a kind of Butler's Lives of the Saints for the modern era.  In its pages, one will find famous saints such as St. Gemma Galgani and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, all the way down to lesser know saints such as St. Julie Billiart.

But if you want the original bestselling writing on the saints, then I heartily recommend Bl. Jacobus de Voragine's treasured classic, The Golden Legend.  In the middle ages, this work was the work on the great saints of the Church.  As a read, it is eminently engrossing - though where modern works often fail in terms of overly-stripping the lives of the saints of anything thats fall outside of dry historical-critical reading, The Golden Legend sometimes descends into overly legendary material.  Nonetheless, I prefer to take the writings of past authors as they are - it is the same way I approach Herodotus.  If there are mistakes or errors, so be it; this certainly does not take away from the edifying nature of this wonderful body of writings, the original Western lives of the saints.  Indeed, it was the book that turned a man named Ignatius of Loyola into St. Ignatius.

11 comments:

  1. In the past, you gave some excellent suggestions to beers, then I already bought Fr. Alban Butler book (Dover). I will read with a trappist beer.

    Best regards,
    Pedro Erik

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  2. I just purchased The Golden Legend! Was looking for a highly recommended book on the lives of Saints. It should be here tomorrow. Thank you!!!
    Cristina

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  3. The original 12 volumes can be found (for free!) in various formats (PDF, Kindle) on the archive.org web site. For example, volume one is found here:

    http://archive.org/details/livesfathersmar08butlgoog

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    1. LOTS can also be found in html format, somewhat easier to read, along with many other wonderful documents, here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/lots/index.htm

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  4. I would also recommend a standard Orthodox source, the Prologue from Ochrid (also spelled Prolog from Ohrid) by the Serbian Orthodox bishop, St. Nicholas (Nicholai) Velimirovic (various spellings of this, too). It's available in 2 volume and 4 volume hardcopies and free on line on various sites.

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    1. Jack,

      I know well of the Prologue...it's been recommended to me. I would love to have a copy - if you know where I can find it online, let me know.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.
      Jason

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    2. I found an online copy here:
      http://holyascensionofchrist.org/ochrid.htm

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  5. I think you'd also appreciate Bert Ghezzi's Voices of the Saints as a cleaner, leaner option.

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    1. Thanks Scott, I'll check it out!

      ICXC NIKA
      Jason

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    2. I use it as a dinnertime devotion for my family. It is somewhat "infected with the spirit of demythologization." As the title suggests it focuses on what they say and quotes them at length when possible. Often it fails to recount the stories of how they died. That can take something away from the saints.

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  6. In a similar vein I'd recommend "The Victories of the Martyrs" by St Alphonsus de Liguori

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