Comment Comment and Features

Sins of the saints

A 19th-century view: the saintly Olaf

When Catholics discuss saints who were once great sinners, the first one that comes to mind is St Augustine of Hippo. And for good reason: as a teenager Augustine abandoned the Catholic faith in which he had been raised by his mother, St Monica, moved in with a mistress, and together they had a son out of wedlock. Catholics who are well read in the Fathers of the Church might mention St Jerome, the linguist and translator who gave us the Vulgate Bible, and who was also the most thin-skinned, short-tempered and cantankerous of the Doctors of the Church.

After that, the conversation is likely to peter out, because for generations well-meaning parish priests have presented all the other saints as just so, well, saintly. And that is not helpful for all of us who are wrestling with venial and mortal sins pretty much on a daily basis.

It was not always thus. In the early centuries of the Church and all through the Middle Ages, writers were perfectly candid about saints who initially were far from saintly. It is from these ancient sources that we learn of St Mary of Egypt trolling the streets of Alexandria for new sexual conquests and St Olaf’s imperfect understanding of how to convert a nation.

Without minimising the seriousness of Augustine’s sins, or dismissing how unpleasant it must have been to be on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing from Jerome, compared to other sinners-turned-saints, Augustine and Jerome were underachievers.

So how did we go from candor to the sanitised stories of the saints we have heard since childhood? We can blame it on writers of the 19th century (or perhaps earlier), who went out of their way to gloss over the more embarrassing years of their lives with the phrase “he/she was once a great sinner”. When I was a kid and I ran across that phrase, I couldn’t help thinking, “I wonder what he did”. I don’t doubt the hagiographers’ good intentions, but it was misguided to edit out the wayward years of a saint’s life.

The purpose of reading about the years when some saints had fallen well short of the mark is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world. Every day, all day long, God pours out his grace upon us, urging us, coaxing us, to turn away from everything that is base and cheap and unsatisfying, and turn toward the only thing eternal, perfect, and true—that is, himself. And that is the reason why for so many centuries hagiographers gloried in the lives of great sinners who became great saints, because it delivered a very reassuring message: if these people can be saved, then so can you!

St Matthew the Apostle (1st century)

In the gospels tax collectors (also known as publicans) are frequently mentioned in the same breath as harlots, and they deserved their lousy reputation. Under the Romans, the governor of each province could subcontract tax collection to private individuals.

These freelancers profited from this arrangement by overcharging or extorting as much as they could get out of the taxpayers. The Romans didn’t care—as long as they got the full balance of their share. The Jews, on the other hand, saw Jewish tax collectors as shameless crooks who collaborated with heathens and preyed upon their own people.

Matthew, also called Levi in the gospels of Mark and Luke, was a tax collector at Capernaum, a Roman garrison town. He was sitting at his table in the customs house, shaking down his neighbours, when Jesus walked by. Our Lord had just healed a paralysed man; now he was about to reconcile a sinner. “Follow me,” Christ said. To the surprise of the Roman guards, the clerks and taxpayers, Matthew got up, left the money where it lay on the table, turned his back on a life of government-sanctioned thievery, and joined the handful of men we know as the apostles.

When the Pharisees complained that Jesus had no business dining with a notorious tax collector, Christ answered, “I came not to call the just, but sinners.”

St Moses the Ethiopian (c.330-c.405)

Moses, a lustful, vengeful, violent man, was the leader of a gang of 75 men who were almost as wicked as he. Moses and his brigands became the terror of the Egyptian desert, raiding villages and robbing and killing travelers who made the mistake of trying to cross the gang’s territory. The governor of the province sent out troops to wipe out Moses and his men, but the bandits drove off every squad sent against them.

The day came at last when the governor sent a force strong enough to destroy the brigands. Faced with such a large body of troops, the robbers scattered. Moses traveled alone through the desert until he reached the monastery of Petra in Skete, one of Egypt’s most renowned monastic communities. In Moses’s mind, this was the perfect hideout. He would hole up with the monks until the situation settled down, then go back and round up whatever remained of his band.

One look at this crude giant of man and the monks must have known he was not the garden-variety pilgrim. Nevertheless, they gave Moses a cell, fed him, treated him kindly, and asked him no questions. As time passed, however, something unexpected began to happen to Moses. The monks’ goodness transformed him. He no longer wanted to return to his life as a robber and murderer; he wanted to start a new life at Petra.

It wasn’t easy. Moses found abstaining from wine hard, and chastity proved especially difficult. The temptations he felt were so strong he almost abandoned the life of a monk. Guided by the abbot, St. Isidore, Moses learned to overcome his sinful impulses. Once, just before dawn, Isidore and Moses climbed to the roof of the monastery to watch the sun rise. “See how long it takes for the light to drive away the darkness of night?” Isidore said. “It is the same with the soul.”

St Mary of Egypt (c 344-c.421)

Mary, the child of an Egyptian Christian family, was only 12 years old when she ran away from home to live in Alexandria. One of the greatest, most populous of the cities of Rome’s eastern empire, Alexandria also offered something Mary longed for: sexual adventure. She gave up her virginity soon after she arrived in the great city, and began a 17-year-long career of unbridled promiscuity.

Contrary to what some capsule biographies of St Mary of Egypt say, she was not a prostitute. As she told her biographer,
Fr Zosimas, she did “free of charge what gave me pleasure”. She especially enjoyed corrupting young men. As she confessed to Fr Zosimas, “There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher.”

One day she saw a crowd of men waiting to board a ship in the harbour. A bystander told her the men were pilgrims about to sail for the Holy Land. The notion of seducing an entire passenger list appealed to Mary, so she joined the party. In Jerusalem, Mary joined a crowd heading to the Church of Holy Sepulchre. But as the throng entered the church, Mary felt an invisible force keeping her out.

All at once it occurred to Mary that the powers of heaven were keeping her away from the tomb of Christ. As the full realisation of everything she had done broke upon her, she was filled with shame and self-loathing.

Through her tears she saw an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary above the entrance of the church. “Help me,” she prayed to the Mother of God, “for I have no other help.” Her prayer was answered. The force that had barred her way released her. Inside the church she made her confession to a priest, attended Mass, and venerated the relic of the Holy Cross.

Afterwards, she went into the desert across the Jordan River to live a life of penitence. For many years she endured powerful temptations to return to her old life, but in time, as she told Fr Zosimas, “after the violent storm, lasting calm descended”.

St Olaf (c 995-1030)

Olaf was only 12 years old when his father entrusted him to an experienced Viking. On raids in the Baltic, Olaf learned to destroy cities, pillage monasteries and kill soldiers and civilians, all with a clear conscience. In the colourful metaphors of the Norse sagas, by his war-like exploits Olaf had “sated the wolf’s brood”, “roused the steel-storm”, and “convened the assembly of arrows”.

Then, inexplicably, when he was about 18, Olaf converted to Christianity in Normandy. Two years later he returned to Norway, became king, and set about making his subjects Christian. The old-fashioned methods of conversion through preaching, good example and persuasion, were slow work, and Olaf was in a hurry.

Anyone who would not abandon paganism risked execution, blinding, or having a hand or foot lopped off. When anti-Christian rebels drove Olaf from his throne, he left his wife and daughter and went into exile with his mistress and illegitimate son. Perhaps he missed a few catechism classes where these topics had been covered.

Olaf returned at the head of an army and, in a climactic battle for his throne and the soul of his kingdom, he was cut down. Immediately, Norse Christians hailed him as a martyr and a saint.

That was common at the time, yet it is safe to say that under the formal process of canonisation that has been in place for the past several hundred years, Olaf would never have made the cut.

All of these saints – and there are quite a few more – teach us that holy men and women will not be infallibly perfect all the time. But just as the old storytellers did not whitewash the misdeeds of the saints, neither did they minimise the effort involved in conversion.

A conversion experience is not magic; it is only the first step in a lifetime of striving to avoid the old sins, to grow in virtue, and to conform one’s unruly, rebellious will to the will of God. All that is hard to do, but the reward is eternal.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (07/8/15).

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