Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh (foreword by Lauren Winner). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.
Summary: Brief vignettes of the lives of twenty-five “saints” and how reflecting on them may inspire and challenge us.
It is one thing to be a Christian and another to understand how one might live well the Christian life. Certainly reading scripture is indispensable, both for precepts and examples. But throughout the history of the church, reading “the lives of the saints” has been found a valuable aid as we see fleshed out examples of the life of faith. This book is a contemporary contribution to that genre, giving us vignettes on the lives of twenty-five “saints” (not all are canonized as saints in the Roman Catholic Church) and the author’s reflections on what they teach her about the life of faith, and how they challenge her.
The book is organized into two parts around two key ideas in Jeremiah 6:16, asking and walking. Under “Asking” she writes about Soren Kierkegaard, Augustine, Therese of Lisieux, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther, Amanda Berry Smith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A. W. Tozer, Mother Teresa, and Brother Lawrence. Under “Walking” she offers accounts of the lives of Thomas Merton, Benedict and Scholastica, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Wesley, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, Mary Paik Lee, Aelred of Rievaulx, Ignatius of Loyola, Juana Ines De La Cruz, and Sophie Scholl.
Each account typically runs seven to eight pages, making it ideal for one’s devotional reading. Marsh mixes biography and her own reflections about how learning about this saint speaks to her own experience. I particularly appreciated the lesser known figures she writes about, a number of them women. Reading the account of Sophie Scholl’s faith-inspired resistance to Nazism that resulted in her martyrdom raised the question of when is it right to risk one’s life in a righteous cause. Then there is the sharply contrasting picture of the Mexican Catholic sister Juana Ines De La Cruz who remains in her cloistered cell and writes beautiful poetry and philosophical theology to God’s glory and then renounced it for a life of contemplation and service. I’ve read much of Martin Luther King, but it was a delight to read of Howard Thurman, his mentor.
Lauren Winner, in her foreword, encourages noticing which saints we are drawn toward, and which saints trouble us. I’ll give you one of each from this collection.
I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard as my life has gone on. Wright’s account of his reaction to the comfortable conformity of Danish Christianity appeals to me even as it challenges me. She writes, “Abandon your calculated safety for a reckless, wholehearted life of faith in Christ. Continue to become. Grow. Risk. Take that radical leap of faith right now.” I find myself drawn as one who has lived in that awkward tension of longing for comfort and yet knowing that it is in the risks of faith that life is its most intense and real.
Dorothy Day has been troubling me for the past couple months, as I’ve read a narrative of her life, as well as the shorter account here. At one point she has an abortion. When she converts, she leaves her marriage to follow Christ. She gets herself arrested numerous times, even at seventy-five. She employs her considerable writing talents on a penny newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and pours out her life serving the working poor. Marsh writes of her:
The human, more colorful Dorothy comes through in her confessional writings. Yes, she admits, it really is raving lunacy to give up your own bed, food, and hospitality to any old stranger in need. But that needy person hasn’t arrived to simply remind you of Christ. No, in “plain and simple and stupendous fact,” your guest is, quite literally, Jesus. The Bible shows how ordinary people like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha welcomed Jesus and so can you; there’s no excuse. Christ is all around you, meeting you in friends and outsiders. The glass of water you give to a beggar is given to him.
Dorothy insists that in the end we will be judged by our acts of mercy, so heaven hinges on the way we act toward Jesus in his frail, ordinary human form. So long as families still need bread, clothing, shelter, Dorothy says, “we must keep repeating these things. Eternal life begins now.” So don’t point to some distant dream of glowing redemption—let’s make life today look more like heaven. Get out there and make a difference in Jesus’ name.
Dorothy forces me to ask the uncomfortable question of whether there are times I’ve failed to recognize the Lord Jesus in a needy person seeking help.
One of the things one comes away with in this collection are that there are probably as many ways of “being a saint” as there are human beings. These people are so different from one another. If there is anything they have in common, it is simply to be captivated by the love of God and the person of Christ and what it means to live out this love in the days and years we are given. This is a book that both challenges and offers hope. Each of these people is indeed a saint and a sinner, both one responding to the call of God, and doing so out of the messiness of his or her life. In these pages, they beckon us to join them on the Way.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.