STANDARD-BEARERS OF THE FAITH:
A Series of Lives of the Saints for Young and Old
by Frances Alice Forbes
(Tan Books, 100pp, $12.00 each. ISBN: Saint Ignatius Loyola 978-0-89555-624-3; Saint Monica 978-0-89555-618-9; Saint Athanasius 978- 0-89555-0623-5. Available from Freedom Publishing)
When a very dear friend of mine was given Butler's Lives of the Saints by her saintly father I devoured it voraciously. I love the stories of saints' lives since I find it the easiest way to seek the answer to the perennial question, "Wherein lies the good life, the life well-lived?"
To find such courage, determination, burning passion and successful endeavour in those still encased in mortal flesh never ceases to captivate me. The present series of little books are written for children but I was still keen to read them.
Written by Mother Frances Alice Monica Forbes, the author is of interest herself.
A late vocation, she was a convert from Presbyterianism at 31 and became a sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart, Scotland. A short biography can be found at the end of some of these slim volumes. She wrote many lives of the saints in a series titled Standard-bearers of the Faith: A Series of Lives of the Saints for Young and Old.
Originally published in the early 1900s by R. and T. Washbourne Ltd, London, and republished by Tan in 1998, the series includes St Ignatius Loyola, St Monica and St Athanasius, which are the ones I have read. Others include St Don Bosco.
They are pocket-sized and therefore only give the barest details. This may make them seem appropriate only for a child. But I think they work on both levels - child and adult. The story line is necessarily spare and confined to the main or pivotal events in the saints' lives. But they convey the essential essence of the character of each saint, the raw material God had to work with; the obstacles of character that each saint had to overcome to conform to God's will; and the shining goodness of character that resulted earning them the title of "Saint".
For a child any flaws of character must be drawn lightly and sparingly with due regard for psychological immaturity, while the adult understands where such flaws can lead. St Ignatius Loyola, when told that as a result of the injury to his leg at the Battle of Pamplona one leg would be slightly shorter than the other, demanded that the doctors reopen the wound, saw off part of the bone and then stretch the leg in an iron machine in an effort to make the injured leg the same length as the other. His vanity was alarmed, as Mother Forbes put it: "Ignatius was not a little proud of his good looks and his graceful carriage."
A child will just marvel at his courage in facing such painful treatment while the adult will understand the depth of vanity involved and also see the irony in Ignatius' decision.
It was during his long convalescence from this operation that he found himself with little to do other than to read a "Life of Christ" which led to his conversion of heart and to a religious vocation. So in the end it wouldn't have mattered if one leg were shorter than the other because dancing and courting and cutting a fine figure in fashionable hose was not destined to be any part of his future life.
Similarly, in the life of St Monica, the description of Monica's married life reads on one level for a child and on a much deeper and more nuanced level for the adult. The child only sees the marital relationship from the outside while the adult understands how difficult and indeed painful it can be when there is coldness or neglect or even just misunderstanding in that intimate relationship between a husband and wife.
Even though the saints whose lives I read were not great sinners, the weight of their labours and the denial of self involved in doing God's will is made clear. As is the extraordinary success of their lives' works despite many seemingly overwhelming odds or setbacks.
St Athanasius is described as saintly from childhood but he suffered exile five times for defending Catholic belief in the divinity of Christ. St Monica, also apparently a pious child, suffered the "unkindness" of her husband. The adult reader will understand the infidelity, neglect and humiliation which that "unkindness" entailed. The difficulty of their struggles will be understood at different levels by the child and the adult.
For the adult these thumbnail sketches, if they capture the imagination and make one think, "Yes, this is someone I want to know more about", offer a beginning for finding out more about them.
Christ is the centre of our faith and it is ultimately Him we must imitate. For those who could do with a human companion along the way, such can be found in a favourite saint. This is my response to those who would say these stories are "mere" hagiography: what's wrong with that? Shouldn't we all wish to be uplifted, inspired and fall in love with the saints who are not forever separated from us but are part of the Church Triumphant which we surely hope to join in Heaven.
If an adult reader finds these little books too "childish" they are still a wonderful gift for a child or grandchild to read or have read to them. From ages 10-11 children could read these stories for themselves, while ages 7-9 would be of a suitable age to be read to.
I intend to read more of the volumes in this series and hope I will find a "favourite" saint to be a comfort and guide on the rest of my journey through this world. I have the same wish for any readers who may be inspired by this review to read either this series or any other lives of the saints.