Saints Gone Wild
Some of the Church’s very best people did some very bad things. A conversation with author Thomas J. Craughwell.
By John D. Spalding
Many Christians are familiar with the virtues of St. Mary of Egypt, who lived in the desert as a hermit for 47 years, devoting herself to God in prayer and meditation. But even the most devout Catholic might be forgiven for not knowing that, before her conversion, Mary had a wild hare that would make even Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan blush.
Mary was a seductress extraordinaire, who spent 17 years insatiably prowling the streets for sexual conquests. One day, she spotted a crowd of men—pilgrims, it turned out—waiting to board a ship bound for the Holy Land, where they planned to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Mary knew a party when she saw one, so she joined the voyage, and by the time the ship crossed the Mediterranean, she’d slept with the entire passenger list. She particularly enjoyed instructing young men on how to please a woman. As she later confessed: “There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher.”
And as Thomas J. Craughwell’s new book, Saints Behaving Badly, shows, St. Mary of Egypt was not the only saint whose early life was less than saintly: St. Augustine, arguably Christianity’s greatest theologian, was a heretic and a playboy; St. Alipius, a student of Augustine’s and later a bishop, was obsessed with Roman blood sports; St. Moses the Ethiopian, a pacifist devoted to a life of prayer, had been a violent gang leader. In fact, all 32 of the holy men and women portrayed in Craughwell’s delightful book walked on the wild side before grace intervened. Some strayed really far, like St. Olga. A princess who tried to convert a land that now includes Ukraine and part of Russia to Christianity, Olga was also a vengeful mass murderer, responsible for the deaths of almost a thousand people.
Carefully researched and utterly fun to read, Craughwell’s series of brief biographies, a “veritable rogues gallery of sinners-turned-saints,” is intended to inspire, and it does. As Craughwell says of his struggling subjects, “If these people can be saved, then so can you!”
Recently, I sat down with Craughwell, the author of 12 books and a respected Catholic diocesan newspaper columnist, to discuss the saints’ wicked ways—and how the Church managed to clean them up.
* * *
Finally, a book in which the saints aren’t depicted as creepy, plastic super-humans!
I know exactly what you mean. I’m 50 years old, so I grew up in the last gasps of the pre-Vatican II church. In all the statuary and holy pictures we saw, the saints not only looked good, they looked cloyingly good. It just seemed impossible that they could have ever said so much as a cross word, let alone have really waded into mortal sin.
I’ve been studying the saints more or less formally for 25 years, so I knew bits and pieces of some of these stories when I started my research. But the deeper I dug, the more I was shocked by how naughty these guys could be. Of course, as much as the stories are fun to read, there’s always that moment in the saints’ lives when grace moves in and the conversion starts.
And their conversions are never easy…
Right, and that’s one thing I really liked about these stories. Time after time, you hear the saints saying just how hard their conversion was, and how they had to struggle with it all their lives. Take Margaret of Cortona, the patron saint of single moms. She hung around as the mistress of a rich man for nine years, always convinced that he’d eventually marry her—some things never change. At the end of her life, she was still saying that she had trouble with her overactive libido. Conversions aren’t magic—as if the moment of grace comes and it’s all smooth sailing after that.
Which explains why there’s a hell of a lot more drinking, gambling, whoring, and ass-kicking in your book than some might expect.
It’s sort of like the Old Testament!
I vaguely knew that, for example, St. Francis had a “past.” But you spell it out—he drank, he danced, he chased girls.
Yes. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, discussed how St. Francis, well, got to know the seedier parts of Assisi.
I love the quote you provide. He "wallowed in its filth as though basking in cinnamon and precious ointments." Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the history of canonization? When did saint making begin, and what was its purpose?
It really started out as popular acclaim. For the first 400 years, virtually no one was canonized—or at least called a “saint”—unless he or she had been martyred. The process started to become more formal after Constantine, when local bishops began declaring saints within their own dioceses. Soon it expanded to include people who were not martyrs. Then around the year 900, the pope stepped in and formally canonized St. Ulrich, the Bishop of Augsburg in Germany.
About a century later, the Vatican decided to take over the process completely because there had been a lot of abuses. The wrong people were being called saints. The notorious example you always find stems from a barroom fight in some little town in Gaul, or Germany, in which someone got knifed, and the victim’s friends started calling him a saint and a martyr. The local bishop tried to suppress the growing cult, and when the story got back to Rome, they finally said, “OK, that’s it.” They not only reserved the authority to name saints for themselves, but they also created a formal process.
What did that involve?
The process required testimony about the life and virtues of the saint. For example, there had to be testimony regarding miracles the saint had performed. Over time, they added more criteria. They set certain time limits. They used to wait 50 years before starting the canonization process. John Paul II moved it down to five. And, of course, exceptions were made for Mother Teresa and for John Paul II himself.
Why the sudden urgency?
Truthfully, I think five years is a little too short. The Church had good reason for establishing a longer waiting period. It’s easy to get people worked up into a kind of popular hysteria, and you don’t want that figuring into the canonization process. You want a certain degree of distance. You want to be able to look at a candidate dispassionately. If everything falls into place, and the guy gets made a saint, then fine. And if it all doesn’t fall into place, that’s okay, too. It doesn’t mean the guy is roiling in hell. It simply means that, for whatever reason, the will of God is not operating in that particular direction. I really don’t like this rush to judgment, which says, “Hey, everybody loves John Paul II, let’s start the process!” No. Let’s let the emotions simmer down a little first, and then think about it.
On the other hand, I believe the 50-year pause is too long. I mean, after 50 years, almost all the eyewitnesses will have died.
When did the saints start becoming so squeaky clean?
Well, that really began in the Victorian period, when they started sanitizing even Shakespeare. They’d insert this cant phrase that he or she was “once a great sinner.” Now, the Victorians were always concerned about family consumption—stories had to be suitable for children, nothing your mother couldn’t hear—and that’s fine. I understand what it means to have to appeal to your audience. But for somebody like me, I read the phrase, “he was once a great sinner,” and I immediately wonder, “Gee, what did he do?”
Amen, brother. Your book taught me some interesting facts about swearing in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance…
Back then, they had all the same foul terms we have today, but there was a big difference. They paired vulgar obscenities with the names of God, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, or whatever other holy figure came to mind. So they swore on God’s body, or God’s teeth, or, as Chaucer mentions, on Christ’s nails and blood. Our idea of cursing completely avoids the sacred—except for “goddamn it.” But in the Middle Ages, when they were so steeped in a religious mindset, the sacred figured into everything they did, including swearing. Which, for truly holy people, was just appalling.
So that’s why, in your book, we learn that St. John of God’s vices included gambling, heavy drinking, visiting prostitutes, and—hold onto your seat—swearing!
Well, St. John was a soldier, and the soldiers were really good at swearing, as they continue to be. One of my grandfathers was in the Navy during World War II, and he was so good at cursing it was almost musical.
Go figure—a Navy man who swore like a sailor… But your saints did worse things than curse. The Venerable Matt Talbot, for instance, stole an old homeless man’s fiddle and pawned it off to buy liquor. When they fall, they really fall, don’t they?
They do. And to think, St. Augustine got all worked up because he stole a bunch of pears! I’m sorry, but that just pales in comparison to robbing an old homeless man of his only way of making a living, just so you can buy another round of drinks.
And Thomas Beckett wasn’t always the best friend of the homeless, either.
No, and he was obscenely rich! He had his own navy, essentially. He owned six ships. And on one God-awful cold winter day, he and the king, Henry II, arrived in London and found a beggar sitting in the streets, nearly naked and almost dead from the cold. Henry told Beckett that since he was a deacon he should give the man his cloak. And Beckett refused—he absolutely, flat-out wouldn’t do it. He would rather see the man die in the streets than hand over something of which he had more than enough.
And then, to make it worse, the two of them turned it into a joke. They started having this mock wrestling match to see if the king could pull the cloak off Becket and hand it to the poor man. Not only is the guy freezing to death, now he’s being humiliated.
One of my favorite chapters was about St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors. What a conversion story. But boy, did the Romans ever put the theater to some perverse uses…
Yeah. A lot of actors were slaves back then, and for the death scenes they’d bring in condemned criminals and execute them onstage. Genesius was a comic actor during the reign of Diocletian, the emperor who attempted to rid the Empire, once and for all, of all Christians. So when Genesius’ troupe was told to perform before Diocletian, they wrote a play they thought would appeal to the emperor—a farce mocking Christian baptism.
Genesius played the convert, and another actor played the priest. And when the actor-priest poured the water over Genesius’ head and said the words of baptism, grace actually flowed over Genesius along with the water. All of a sudden he stood up and walked down to the atrium of the stage and started berating the emperor. Diocletian thought this was hilarious—part of the skit! But then he realized Genesius was being earnest, and they hauled the poor guy off and tortured him to death.
Romans—so civilized, yet so barbaric…
Exactly. They had what we’d call a “disconnect.” They didn’t consider criminals or the people they conquered to be Romans, and if you weren’t a Roman, you weren’t fully human. All bets were off. The Romans considered Christians to be criminals, so they thought they could do with them whatever they wanted, and they did.
When did people start praying to saints for things like their bunions, or some luck at the track?
Well, that goes right to the notion of patron saints, which also comes to us from Rome—the patron-client relationship. The patron was the rich, influential guy in the big house at the end of the street, and the clients were the poor neighbors down the street who would go to him for favors. The idea was totally steeped in Roman society, and it segued easily into Christianity. If the saints are in heaven with God, they thought, why not ask them to use their influence with the Lord to ask for favors on their behalf? It made perfect sense to Roman Christians.
Ah, I now understand “The Godfather” on a whole new level… How did people know which saints to pray to?
At first, you went to whatever saint you had a personal relationship with, regardless of your needs. “St. Agatha is my patron saint because she always answers my prayers.” But then things shifted, and the saints started becoming specialists.
How did that happen?
People looked at the lives of the saints and saw them doing things that related to specific needs in their lives, and eventually the saints became assigned to those needs. If you had a health concern, you’d pray to Cosmas and Damian because, in life, they were doctors. They’re now the patron saints of physicians. St. Christopher carried on his shoulders travelers who were trying to cross a dangerous river, so he became the patron saint of travelers. The saints still relate personally to those who pray to them, but now they specialize in what they do.
While working on this book, did you have a favorite conversion story?
I really did like them all, and I have a weakness for rascals like Camillus de Lellis and Moses the Ethiopian, and party girls like Mary of Egypt. But if I’m going to have to name one, I’m going to go with St. Callixtus, the embezzler who became pope. He just seemed like the constant bad seed, the constant pimple on your butt. Not that he was steeped in wickedness, but he was always getting into trouble. I mean, embezzling was not a good thing. Nor was starting a riot in a Jewish synagogue on a Saturday morning. And, yet, even he turns around and becomes not only a very devoted, responsible Christian, but he gets elected pope!
Obviously, your book excludes saints who were good from birth to death. Did you find many stories of saints who were just salt-of-the-earth, decent people all their lives?
That’s hard to know. You have to go back to the primary sources, as much as you can, and that’s not easy territory. You have to read critically. There are certain predictable patterns in the stories of saints that you can edit out. For example, if you run into a story that says, “Saint Nicholas was pious even in his infancy, and he would not nurse on Wednesdays and Fridays”—well, you can assume there’s some exaggeration involved there.
St. Nick fasted as a newborn?
It’s in the legend! And, by the way, it shows up in the legends of a lot of other saints. There’s this tendency, starting later in the Middle Ages, to make the saints seem saintly all the way back to the womb, if possible, and I don’t find it particularly useful. So it’s very difficult to find a really good biography of the saints in that period.
In Beckett’s case, for example, when they were collecting the testimony after he had been murdered in the Cathedral, people who knew what a stinker he’d been were trying to rehabilitate him, saying things like, “Yeah, he was vain, and he was boastful. He broke all his vows. He was avaricious. But one night I happened to walk in on him and he was lying on the bare floor, ripping himself.” Well, you know what, that’s not likely. Human psychology tells you that if someone is that selfish and proud outwardly, it’s very unlikely that privately he led this totally ascetic existence.
The same thing happens today when they start interviewing people in the canonization process. People don’t want to tell you if the saint was ever cranky, or lied, or stiffed the diner waitress out of her tip. People immediately go into life-of-the-saint mode. But the further back in time you go, the more candid the lives of the saints are.
I’m not really sure, but I suspect they had a more realistic view of how one becomes a saint. The biographies from the 5th, 6th, 7th centuries—those chroniclers, those biographers, were not at all shy.
So the doctoring really began in the Middle Ages.
Yeah, and that’s the right word for it, doctoring. They also started changing what saints did. Before the publication of “The Golden Legend,” which was sort of the bestseller of saints’ stories in the Middle Ages, the saints basically solved problems. They helped people. No matter how bad your situation was, the saints would fix it. But after “The Golden Legend,” the Church was feeling vulnerable, maybe because of the Cathar Heresy, and all of sudden the saints get vengeful. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, the saints will come after you. Even the Blessed Virgin started getting angry.
Really? Oh, do give an example…
In one story, a university student treated the Blessed Virgin like a knight treated his lady, and he swore that he would be hers forever and never marry. She’d be the only woman he would ever love. Well, before you know it he met a pretty girl and got engaged. That night, the Blessed Virgin appeared in his room, mad as hell, and scared the man half to death. The next morning, he broke off his engagement.
Of course, the Blessed Mother would never fly into a jealous rage. But for one brief, shining period in the Middle Ages, she, like all the saints, really was a rough character.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Tequila Sunset.
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