Books

If These People Can Become Saints, So Can Almost Anyone

Thomas J. Craughwell’s "Saints Behaving Badly" is encouragement for everyone

I am always drawn to Rahab the Harlot (Joshua 2:1–24). She ends up a central figure in the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho. She is the Jericho prostitute who sheltered Israel’s spies as they scouted the city ahead of the Israelite army.

When the spies first arrived in Jericho, they made a beeline for Rahab’s house. I suppose, before we jump to any conclusions about why the two spies went to her first, they expected to get information. What brothel madam doesn’t pick up the news? The king of Jericho learned of spies in the brothel and sent her a message to give them up. She lied to the king, telling him they went thataway and said they left by the city gate before the nightly curfew.

For her service in misdirecting the pursuers, she asked only that when the city fell, she and her household would be spared.

There’s some resolute negotiation, some self-interest at work, of course. But in the end, picture this: a scheming call girl is caught up in God’s work.

That is part of our fascination with saints. The thing about the saints is not, to my mind, their saintliness. It is instead their sheer grittiness in the task of human living, the dogged, persistent earthiness of their lives, their complete and utter humanity. It is this sort of saint who reveals to us an authentic humanity that challenges us.

I am not much impressed with the hermit saints, those denizens of self-denial and bodily self-excoriating neglect. Nor am I impressed with stories of levitating holy men, flowers sprouting where feet pass and tales of that kind. Nor do I like gushy sanitized stories told of saints, the hagiographic fantasies that seem tilted more to the hagiocracy while skipping the graphic.

No, I want my saints close, with their sleeves rolled up. I want saints who can speak to me. I could say something of the five patron saints of beer brewers. I tend to invoke them every time I start a new batch of my own homebrew. Considering the uneven quality of my product thus far, I cannot say they have yet responded in any satisfactory way.

Nonetheless, if you are looking for saints of a distinctly un-saintly deportment, why bother with mere brewers when you can read Thomas J. Craughwell’s Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Conmen and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints?

The book was first released in 2006; sounds out of date but it is not. If you have read it, read it again. If you have not, make a point of doing so. These are saints for grownups, not Sunday school books. These saints are not tame, not even after they found their lives upended by the call to serve God. Even their goodness becomes unpredictably good, a burning, scorching goodness that could singe the people in their lives.

On becoming archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, Thomas Becket proved to be a stubborn, recalcitrant and, in some noticeable ways, spendthrift bishop; it chafed him that he was stuck with the smallest diocese in England. He once refused to give a poor man his cloak, so it’s said. His overall behavior as a bishop earned him a chiding letter from Pope Alexander III.

As to his conflict with the king, he refused to bend, not even for a former drinking buddy. The king wanted priests charged with criminal offenses tried in his secular courts like anybody else. Becket refused, leading to his six-year exile in France. It was not an unreasonable notion, one law for the whole realm. The conflict with King Henry II, and Becket’s refusal to accept much of any compromise, exasperated the pope. The king of France wasn’t really keen about it either. Reading Craughwell’s account, one gets the idea that Becket never served his priesthood half as well as he did when called to serve it by martyrdom.

There are 27 other saints whose lives and conversions (and re-conversions) are sketched by Craughwell. These aren’t light, once-over sketches, nor are they fawning. We get to see the characters we are dealing with thoroughly enough.

The point made, I guess, is if these people can become saints, so can almost anyone.

 

Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist at First Things magazine who lives in Kansas City, Missouri.