“Martyrs of Uganda, 1881?”

My Life With the Saints got such good reviews that I decided I’d check it out myself. To be honest, I think I probably had some kind of idea that maybe it would make me think about Damian. I should know better than to bring too many expectations into a book.

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It was engaging, but maybe not quite what I had imagined. I thought it would be more about his life, but instead there were mini-biographies on each of the saints he talks about interspersed with personal reflections and experiences. I patiently read through the chapters on Ignatius of Loyola and Pedro Arrupe, wondering why Robert Ellsberg (according to the cover blurb) called this, “One of the best spiritual memoirs in years.”

And then. The chapter on St. Bernadette. I didn’t know anything about St. Bernadette, but I realized, in reading it, that I’d heard her story before. And somewhere in the middle of that chapter, it all clicked for me, what he was doing. He’s introducing us to each saint in the order that he was introduced to them, explaining their story, and giving us a bit about his connection to them. He even said that’s what he was going to do in the introduction, but I hadn’t quite understood until that chapter exactly how his own story was also unfolding in the pages.

Maybe part of the reason I was kind of detached from the book is that I don’t get into praying to the saints. I think, though, that Protestants can be so afraid of the saints that we don’t bother to learn anything about the people who have gone before us. In reading this (and other books on saints this year), what I am starting to realize is that, even if I don’t get into the mystical aspect, whether Bernadette and Joan of Arc really saw visions and heard voices, there are things I can learn from them about trusting God in the face of opposition. James Martin says, “Bernadette has become for me a symbol of the need to stay true to your own personal vision.” Now, Bernadette saw visions of Mary, which I am not really in the habit of doing, but I do let people’s opinions matter too much. I let negative feedback destroy the way I see myself. Instead of worrying about what others think, I should be focused on God.

After that, it was much easier to enjoy learning more about Mother Teresa (who served even while struggling in her spiritual life), Pope John XXIII (whose good humor and ability to love are an excellent example to us all), Joseph (whose life we know so little about, despite the fact that some call him “the noblest of men,” making him an example of serving others without much glory from the world). All these people had very real ups and downs, and yet managed by the grace of God to be faithful and to serve in the ways that they were gifted. There’s no one way to be a saint. The key is trusting in God.

By the time I got to the Ugandan Martyrs (which Martin said are not well known in this part of the world, although they are featured in Millions), I felt like a whole world had opened up to me. I am still not a fan of praying to the saints, but thinking about the lives of the saints doesn’t have to be about praying to them. It can just be about gaining inspiration from regular people who do extraordinary things. So as I finished the book, when Martin mentioned praying to the saints, I could imagine him as a sort of grown-up Damian, asking for advice and help from Peter and Thomas Merton and Mary as he goes about his day. In the end, I found that paying attention to that great cloud of witnesses was less about slightly strange things like visions and stigmata and more about being faithful in the small things of life, honoring God with the gifts you’ve been given. And that’s something I know Damian would approve of.

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