HAGIOGRAPHY AND BIOGRAPHYIt is a generally accepted fact that biography, and hagiography in particular, exert a very powerful influence on the human mind.
Even more so today, when the public's taste tends towards historical studies in general and the biographical genre in particular.
Writers and publishers are striving to respond to this kind of need, to this demand of culture and the times, by bringing out an excessive number of biographies and hagiographies.
Biographies and hagiographies, often romanticized, that graft arbitrariness and fantasy into the trunk of truth and reality, and end up giving a distorted picture of history.
Conscious of the power and wealth of suggestion, emotion and persuasion of these literary genres, the apostle writer will know the time and place to use them as examples and for cautioning and instructing people.
Builders of empires, rulers of nations, leaders of armies, discoverers of new lands and of marvelous inventions, geniuses of literature and the arts, defenders of freedom and justice, scientists, explorers, philanthropists, inventors, colonizers, ordinary folk... all these are often an occasion for the apostle to wield an invincible power and to attract people to the faith and to virtue.
A greater possibility comes from persons who led an edifying life; especially the saints who gave expression to the purest, noblest and most unselfish forms of heroism.
Hagiography thus merits the first place in this genre of biography. It is to reveal the life of holy people, and allows them to be promoted as an example and recommended for the admiration and devotion of those who find themselves still in statu viæ [on the way].
Knowledge of the saints
Some people know next to nothing about the saints; the understanding that others have of them is
confused, erroneous, and clouded by strange and false prejudices.
Since human beings are naturally led to admire those persons who distinguish themselves for knowledge and valor, the apostle should, at the right time and place, point out that the persons most worthy of note are the saints; in other words, persons whose distinguishing mark is virtue.
The great, in the world's eyes, often give a picture of humanity encumbered with blemishes, faults and mistakes.
The saints, instead, always reflect a superhuman, clear and serene light. Their remembrance is immortal and eternal.
In order to make them known it helps to acquaint people with the story of individual saints, their type (martyrs, confessors, virgins...), the history of holiness in the Old and the New Testament: its nature, time period, its consequences.
A particular help is to clearly set out Catholic teaching as regards the essence of holiness.
Some well-intentioned hagiographers insist and place such emphasis on the humility, obedience and particular virtues of the saints, with such a turn of words, as to make people believe that these are the loftiest virtues of holiness.
Holiness is humility, obedience, mortification,
since you cannot go from faith to love without humility and obedience, virtues in which holiness matures. Humility, obedience, mortification are, of themselves, dispositions, a grounding and condition for reaching God. But the peak and essence of holiness is charity, charity towards both God and neighbor.
At times it will be a help and a necessity to correct the wrong ideas that circulate concerning the saints and the idea of holiness.
Some say the saints are lazy people and of no use to society. On the contrary, they render many esteemed services to society, perfecting it on both a moral and a public level.
Nor can they be accused, even partially, of being suicidal, since their rigid and voluntary asceticism generally benefits health. If it does, in some cases, harm it, that is justified by the greater spiritual good deriving therefrom.
The austerity of their life and bodily suffering does not do violence to nature since it is in the order of nature to subordinate the inferior to the superior; it is in the order of logic to sacrifice a good, a material satisfaction, and even to impose physical harm on oneself, in order to attain a higher good.
No violence is done to those who commit themselves to observe absolute chastity, or voluntary celibacy, since matrimony is not
an obligation on the individual as such, and Christian celibacy is morally more noble than marriage; it does no harm to the prosperity of the human race, neither in a quantitative nor in a qualitative sense.
Hence the saints are not lazy people, they do no harm to themselves or to society. Rather, they are humanity's noblest and greatest benefactors. On them depend often the livelihood, learning, culture, grace and salvation of so many people.
If people have a correct notion of holiness and proper information about the saints it will lead them to admire their greatness and to imitate their way of life.
Imitation of the saints
Created by God for happiness, human beings achieve their goal only if they seek God and become more like him. In a word, if they become holy. "Hæc est voluntas Dei, sanctificatio vestra."1
But God's holiness, as revealed in the person of the Word incarnate, is so sublime as to dismay. If, instead, we see it reflected and, as it were, dissected in people about us who have the same hardships and face
the same struggles that we do, then holiness appears easier and more accessible.
As a matter of fact, holy people are an explanation of holiness, a shining reflection of divine perfection seen from a particular angle, which matches the mission which the Holy Spirit has entrusted to each of them. Every holy person is a genuine and practical school - a stimulus and tool for good.
This is how the liturgy presents them to us, holding each one of them up to us as an example on which we can pattern our own way of life: "Sanctorum tuorum, Domine, exempla nos provocent, quatenus quorum solemnia agimus etiam actus imitemur."2
This is how the apostle is to present the saints for imitation. He must not side with those writers who portray the figure and virtues of the saints to such an exceptional degree, and so far above us as to make them appear as superior beings from the moment they entered this world. And, once departed, they make them appear so distant as to be discerned only by means of a fleeting haloed image, assumed as they are into the heaven of their glory and out of reach.
Nor must he side with those others who restrict themselves to chronicle the saint's activities or, worse, to allow such factors as the worldly, the uncertain,
the human and the emotional to so prevail as to conceal the spiritual and the eternal.
Too much grandeur discourages. Too much humanity will never lead people to a loving understanding of holiness nor will it help them to explore its basic nature.
To succeed in showing how God's grace works in unison with the saint's human striving and to the precise degree that he or she takes up this task, you have to sense and have others sense the link between the saint and this world.
Grace aids those who deserve it, without the human factor of distinction, preference or privilege.3 If faith is God's gift, then holiness is its crown and all are called to compete for it. "The saint is a fighter who has won. The Church has proclaimed the heroic nature of her or his virtues. There is no heroism without struggle and a real struggle at that."
Hence, before portraying the heroic virtues of saints or the heights of their contemplation, depict them as descendants of Adam who, by dint of daily struggle, must patiently labor (and at times with exasperating lack of progress) to bring about the death of what Saint
Paul calls the old man so as to establish, once and for all, their every activity in God.
Portrayed in this way, the saint becomes a practical school of virtue and holiness. On the evidence of the facts that very often mirror the personal situation of readers - somewhat very similar if not identical - they will be compelled to conclude that the ideal of holiness must not dishearten them as if it were an unattainable goal. Hence they will instinctively put the same question as did that great and triumphant fighter, Saint Augustine: "Si isti et illæ, cur non ego?"4 It is a question that often marks the start of earnest and effective resolve.
Veneration of the saints
Apart from admiration and imitation of the saints, the apostle must further show a twofold devotion to them by way of veneration and invocation, following the Church's teaching and its praxis in the liturgy.
We venerate these saints as:
"the living sanctuaries of the Triune God who has deigned to dwell in them, to adorn their souls with virtues and gifts, to prompt their faculties to action and cause them to elicit meritorious acts, and to grant them at last the crowning grace of perseverance to the end;
- the adopted and well-beloved children of the Father, who surrounded by His paternal care knew how to respond to His love and to grow more like Him
in holiness and perfection;
- the brethren of Christ, the faithful members of His mystical body, who drew from Him their spiritual life and cultivated it in abiding love;
- the temples of the Holy Ghost, as His docile servants, who allowed His inspirations to be their guide rather than blindly follow the bent of a corrupted nature."5
Such basic truths convince us that by venerating the saints we venerate in them Jesus Christ, God himself. We will clearly see shining and reflected in each saint, in varying ways and degrees, the image and glory of God.
Invocation. The apostle must also rightly point out that, in virtue of the consoling and wonderful dogma of the Communion of Saints, we can and should pray to the saints in order to obtain more easily, through their powerful intercession, the graces we need.
True, the mediation of Jesus Christ alone is necessary; however, since the saints are members of the Mystical Body they join their prayers to his. Thus the whole Mystical Body prays and does sweet violence to the heart of God. The saints help us in
Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ helps us by means of the saints.* * *The aim of all hagiography and of every initiative that the apostle undertakes or produces in this field is to lead readers to the knowledge, imitation and veneration of the saints.
Moreover, since the saints are friends of God and our friends, too, they are glad to help us contribute to God's greater glory and to support us, their brothers and sisters, seeing our plight and recognizing that it was once theirs.
As regards hagiography in particular, the narration of the life of the saints is to unfold in such a way as to make them known. The presentation of their virtues and of their written or oral teachings should be a catalyst for imitation. The account of their veneration and miracles, concluding with appropriate liturgical prayers, should instill in people's hearts a twofold devotion to the saints of veneration and intercession.
1 * 1 Thess 4:3: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification."
2 * "May the example of your saints, O Lord, urge us on, so that by celebrating their feast we may imitate what they have done."
3 It is true: "divisiones gratiarum sunt"["there are varieties of gifts"] (1 Cor 12:4), but no less true is it that "Deus vult omnes homines salvos fieri" ["God desires all to be saved."] (1 Tim 2:4). Everyone is called to holiness and to achieve this everyone must respond to God's free action. We are not born holy; we train ourselves to become holy.
4 * "If these men, those women [have managed], why can't I?"
5 A. TANQUEREY, The Spiritual Life, [n. 178].