Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Look past the halo: Saints had sinful starts

By Cathleen Falsani, Religion Writer
Chicago Sun-Times
October 27, 2006

In honor of All Saints Day next week, I intend to hoist a couple dozen stiff drinks, start a bar brawl, sucker-punch a co-worker, walk around the neighborhood nude and maybe rob a bank.


That's what some of the officially recognized, church-sanctioned saints did.

Sticklers for truthiness that I know my readers to be, in fairness, most of the saints did those things before their conversions. But I bet most of you didn't know that there were whoremongers, boozehounds, swindlers, and card-carrying sociopaths among the heavenly hosts?

That's because our saints have been bowdlerized, according to what Thomas Craughwell, author of the new book Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints, was telling me the other day.

See, Thomas Bowdler was an English physician back in the 18th century who removed all the naughty bitsthe parts he found offensivefrom William Shakespeare's work and called his "clean" edition Family Shakespeare.

"They did the same things to the lives of the saints," Craughwell said. "They would just take out all of these juicy passages that had survived from the early centuries of the church and all through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and they used this cant phrase, 'He/She was a great sinner.'

"And since most of the one-volume collections of saints' lives that are still on the market today are based on the 19th century models, we still don't get" the real stories, said Craughwell, a medievalist by training who has written a number of books on saints.

The inspiration for Craughwell's most recent saint book comes from an unlikely source: the Enron scandal.

No sins unforgivable

He wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal called "Saints for Swindlers"covering everything from guys who cooked the books to government bailouts.

"In the research I ran into saints who had especially non-saintly beginnings," he said.

So in his breezy, witty, and delightfully educational Saints Behaving Badly, Craughwell goes about setting the record straight.

"It's surprising how often you can really find out, but you have to dig and you have to go back to the old sources," he said. "They're still there. They haven't been burned. Because for most of the life of the church this wasn't considered scandalous, this was considered inspiring."

So Craughwell writes about St. Matthew (the apostle) who was an extortionist, and St. Fabiola, the bigamist. There's St. Moses the Ethiopian gang-banger, St. Olga the mass murderer, St. Augustine the heretic playboy, and St. Mary of Egypta nymphomaniac who once seduced an entire ship of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land and then after her conversion wandered naked in the desert as a hermit for 47 years.

Craughwell's favorite sinnerly saint is Callixtus the Embezzler, a sticky-fingered 3rd century Roman slave who was (stupidly) put in charge of the first bank set up for Christians. His investments were awfulEnron awfuland he had a nasty habit of helping himself to money in the coffers as well. He was in and out of trouble and jail before having a true change of heart.

"Callixtus was the perpetual pimple on the butt that won't go away," Craughwell said.

"The thing I like about his story is that when he finally comes back to Rome for the last time and Pope Victor looks at him and goes, 'OK,' he takes care of him. But he moves him way the hell out of town. It's both charitable and prudent."

Callixtus eventually was elected pope, and during his short reign earned a reputation for his mercy, insisting that any sinnerno matter how horrible the sin committedcould be forgiven. It wasn't a popular notion at the time, and it still isn't.

My favorite saint in Craughwell's book is not technically a saintyet. But he sure should be, in my humble, Protestant opinion. His name is Matt Talbot and he was a quintessential Irish drunk who died penniless on a Dublin street in 1925 on his way to mass.

The miracle of sobriety

"Venerable Matt Talbot, Chronic Alcoholic," as he is dubbed in Craughwell's book, was born in 1856, the second oldest of 12 children in his working-class family. Talbot's father was a drunk, as were he and most of his brothers. As the story goes, Matt Talbot stumbled home drunk for the first time at the age of 12.

Talbot was a pathetic drunk. He sold everything he had to buy booze, then drank on credit, and then turned to stealing. Once he even stole a homeless man's fiddle and pawned it to buy hooch.

At the age of 28, at what I suppose we'd today call rock-bottom, Talbot took a spiritual pledge to not drink for three months. And he didn't. Then he took another pledge. And another. And it is said he never had another drink, crediting his sobriety with the intervention of the Virgin Mary and the grace of God.

An unskilled laborer, Talbot spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his previous sins.

He spent hours at church and in prayer, slept on a plank with a block of wood for his pillow, wound chains and ropes around his body to mortify his flesh, apparently, and paid off all the debts he'd incurred from the friends and family he'd borrowed money from during his 16-year bender.

It's said he spent years searching for that homeless man whose fiddle he stole. He never found him.

Talbot gave the bulk of his modest salary to charity. He died on his way to mass at St. Dominick's parish in Dublin, on the street, surrounded by kind strangers.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI declared him to be venerable, a step on the road to canonization as a bona fide saint.

"Last year, the people in Dublin handling his cause [for sainthood] sent all this documentation to Rome saying 'We think we had a miraculous cure,' " Craughwell was telling me. You need two miracles to be deemed a saint. "Rome said, 'It's really not convincing enough. Can you send another one?' "

I could send them a couple. Do you know how hard it is to stop drinking if you're an addict, never mind turn your life around into one of asceticism and thoroughly altruistic, humble service?

I know more than a few alcoholics, some in recovery, some not, and getting sober is a miracle. Every time.

Matt Talbot might not have had anything to do with the sobriety of the millions of people who've found it since his death. But I'm sure he had everything to do with at least two.

The man's already a saint in my book. But it's time somebody made it official.