Thursday, August 1, 2013
On Choosing a Book on the Lives of the Saints
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.