IN MY MOST RECENT POST, I talked about the problems created when we insist on “facts” rather than truth—the modern obsession with being “scientific,” as if that were a guarantee of “truthiness.”
The modern Christian hagiographer faces a similar problem when seeking to portray the sanctity of men and women whose lives and deeds are shrouded in (often quite fanciful) legend. Surely it is much easier for a modern writer to deal with a Therese of Lisieux, a Maximilian Kolbe, or a Theresa of Calcutta—whose lives are thoroughly documented (complete with photographs, personal mementos, and video footage), whose miracles have been vetted and certified by scientists and medical experts—than to make a six or seventh century saint emerge from the mists of legend and come to life for modern readers.
Fortunately, however, some writers are willing, and able, to rise to the challenge of bringing obscure ancient saints to life. Several months ago, I commended the first volume of Andrew M. Seddon’s Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints series, called Saints of Empire. Now he has come out with a second volume called Celtic Paths (the full title is Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints: Volume II Celtic Paths). In the new collection, Seddon has taken on an even more challenging task than he did in Saints of Empire: working from confused sources, confusing names, and a tissue of legend and fantasy, he brings to life saints that most of us have never even heard of, such as Ailbhe, Senan, and Tewdrig, as well as others whose names, at least, will be a bit more familiar: Brigid, Columba, and Brendan.
(An aside: Actually, I believe I was the one who suggested that Andrew include a story from the wonderful account of the mystical voyages of Saint Brendan the Navigator, whom he originally had not planned to write about. I have no idea whether my suggestion influenced the “science-fictiony” character of that particular tale. In the science fiction novel I’ve been working on, I have named a priestly order of missionaries to the stars the Order of Saint Brendan the Navigator. Learn more about the historical Brendan here.)
I should note that “Celtic” does not necessarily mean Irish. The Celtic peoples, when they migrated to Western Europe, settled all along the Atlantic seaboard, from the northern coast of Spain to the British Isles. Therefore, the stories in Celtic Paths include saints from Armorica (St Leonore) and Brittany (St Ruadhan), as well as others from Wales, Scotland, and, of course, Ireland.
One of the things I particularly like about the stories in Celtic Paths is the way the stories capture the flavor of the ancient Celtic imagination, in which the supernatural realm is not “up there” in the distant heavens, but overlays and penetrates the natural world, bleeding through into ordinary life in a most unpredictable way. In such an atmosphere, we can well believe that an obscure monk might command sea monsters, tame wolves, or even wander into the distant future and return to tell about it. (Yes, all those things happen in these tales.)
Sanctity is much more than wonder-working, of course. After all, in the modern process of canonization, miracles are the last test of sainthood, not the first. The stories also nimbly convey the Celtic temperament, which is seldom one of simpering piety. This brings us to another difficulty that Seddon must have grappled with: how to show the holiness of these obscure, ancient saints. In the author’s Foreword, Seddon admits:
They weren’t all sweetness and light. They could be fierce, impetuous, prone to outbursts of anger, ready to hurl curses, possessed of severity and an ascetical bent. They could also be hospitable, show concern for animals, and enjoy humor over a barrel of ale.
In other words, they were people just like us! I find it refreshing to be reminded that one need not be bland and saccharine to be holy. Many of these saints also share a notable canniness—a shrewd understanding of human nature. This is illustrated in the story of St Colman, who catches the conscience of a king in much the way that Nathan the prophet caught King David’s. This shrewdness is not only a sign of their holiness (i.e., they share the mind of Christ, who often knew people just by looking at them), but is also a one of the traits that endears them to this reader.
Celtic legend, both Christian and pagan, is full of wonders, of course. If fantastic myths are all we crave, we need look no farther than the Mabinogion. But the stories in Celtic Paths recount the lives and deeds of holy Christians, not pagans, so the challenge is to hint at their sanctity while preserving the hallowed haze of legend. This Seddon achieves by a variety of means, including acknowledging the iffy nature of legend. For instance, in the story of seventh-century abbot Adamnan who had taken on the task of writing a biography of St Columba, who lived a century before him, Adamnan himself has to figure out how to sift through conflicting, and perhaps incredible accounts, the only material he has to work with.
He wished to be honest. But he also wished to be edifying. And what, really, did he know about a battle fought so long ago? He had heard different reports. Some said that Columba encouraged the battle to avenge the wrongful death of a young man snatched by King Diarmait from Columba’s sanctuary. Such things happened in Ireland. Others said that it was because Columba had made a copy of St. Jerome’s psalter belonging to St. Finnian and refused to give it up. Adamnan couldn’t credit this. Or was Columba involved simply because his royal blood drew him into the conflict between the northern and southern cousins of the Ui Neill? Who knew? So far removed in time, Adamnan felt unable to sort the wheat from the chaff.
I won’t tell you how Adamnan solved his dilemma—read the story if you want to know—but I will tell you that he became famous for his biography of Columba. Andrew Seddon accomplishes a similar achievement in his stories, crafting appealing tales that I think will appeal to a wide audience.
If you like stories about saints (or even if you don’t!), you should definitely try these well-crafted, entertaining tales of Celtic Christians from long ago. (Read another review of this book here.)