I have, as part of my devotional life these days, been reading Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, a 250-year-old book telling the stories of various early, medieval, and relatively late (canonized by the early 18th century) Roman Catholic saints. It is, like most books, a product of its time and its prejudices (Butler was an English Catholic priest writing in 1750s, at a time when England was still paranoid about Catholics, what with a Stuart pretender still out there lurking in the shadows somewhere).
Still, it’s valuable to read and hear such stories.
Today — Friday, June 1 — is the day that marks the martyrdom of St. Justin the Philosopher. He lived in the second century A.D., died around 167, and is said to have gone looking for God by means of philosophy, eventually he was led to the teachings of Christ:
“When I heard the Christians traduced and reproached,” says he, “yet saw them fearless and rushing on death, and on all things that are accounted most dreadful to human nature, I concluded with myself that it was impossible those men should wallow in vice, and be carried away with the love of lust and pleasure.”
None of these Christians are asking for $54 million private airplanes, apparently.
Justin was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius by a vigilant Roman official ever on the lookout for impiety and atheism, and was one of a number of Christians put to death on that occasion because they failed to sacrifice to the gods of Rome:
The martyrs were forthwith led to the place where criminals were executed, and there, amidst the praises and thanksgivings which they did not cease to pour forth to God, were first scourged, and afterwards beheaded.
Not quite “we’re tired of being stepped on.”
There is something tawdry about the way both progressive and conservative Christians are battling it out for influence and control over the public square, trying to write out opponents as sinners beyond the pale whose sins endanger the well-being of the whole community by bringing down upon us the wrath of God. Granted, Butler wrote in Christendom and of Christendom (and in opposition), but so far, no one I have read in the last two months or so of saints days became a saint for how they governed (even if they were king of someplace medieval, and there are more than a few of those, along with a couple of cooks and a few hermits), but for how they lived. Granted, there are a few things common to all these lives — kindness, mercy and liberality to the poor, and continence (Butler’s good old fashioned word for celibacy) — and in ages where people could not live out their piety in democratic politics (a piety I find both increasingly hollow and cloyingly self-righteous), they could find a rough equality in kindness, mercy, and abstinence.
The more I read of the saints, especially those moved to found churches and convents and monasteries (apparently a frequent happening in late antiquity through the middle ages; you didn’t wait upon the institution, you started something, and then either appealed to the institution to recognize you or simply got too big and too influential to ignore), the more I want to do just that, to disappear from the world (also a frequent desire) and devote my life to worshiping God.