Posted by: anna | July 24, 2009

hagiography

Who writes the lives of saints? Do they want their lives written about? So many of the saints whose lives come down to us were hermits, people who left human society. Did they welcome visitors, did they discuss their lives and spiritual experience in the wilderness? Did they write autobiographical notes? Or were they spoken about, did they become oral legend after their strange lives and obscure deaths, until somebody (and for what reason) took quill in hand? We don’t tend to hear about what the Church Fathers thought, what made them laugh, whether they noticed the nasty taste of locusts and desert herbs.

I say this somewhat provocatively, at pretty much the beginning of my own investigations into the lives of the saints, but so far I don’t have much of a picture of people who lived a day to day life.

Why should we look at their lives? Why does it matter? Can we possibly be expected to believe that people who chose to live in such strange ways were really doing what God wanted of them? Holy toledo, don’t tell me God wants me to go and eat dirt in the desert! Have the stories been distorted, confused, conflated, interfered with by hagiographical agendas? How seriously am I supposed to take these often frankly weird stories? If I do try to take them seriously and understand their example, how do I get through all the historical skepticism? What am I supposed to learn from them? What am I supposed to do with that?

In fact, I don’t have a clue – I can’t relate to the lives of most of the saints at all. I’m starting from zip, and while starting to get acquainted with the bare bones of saints’ lives is as easy as checking an online calendar, I don’t know what I’m looking for or how I should approach them, or indeed if there is a should or a how. These days there is so much information around that nobody sits down and chews over one story for a week, a month, a year, to understand it. I don’t know how to slow down a corner of my life for that kind of medieval monastic reading. But I hope that by reading the lives of the saints (and posting is like teaching – there’s no better way to learn than to try to explain to somebody else, even a theoretical online somebody else) regularly – indeed frequently – and prayerfully, I will learn. Something.

In the meantime, holy saints of God, pray for us.

(July 09/January 10)

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