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Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith Hardcover – June 12, 2012
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In retrospect, it would have served us all well to have read Colin Dickey's Afterlives of the Saints as a primer. Dickey frames the saints as something to be wondered at. Their example should not inspire us to follow them. But it will certainly shock us into evaluating our lives with new urgency. Dickey writes, "The saints...are there to show us how to be human being by showing what we could never be."
For Dickey, reflection upon the saints is an act of memento mori (remember your death). Classically memento mori is represented in art by a man or woman contemplating a human skull. Dickey writes, "The tradition of memento mori is self-reflexive: One is meant to meditate not on the death of the skull's owner but on one's own death--the skull before the viewer is always and only the viewer's skull." This is the posture we have before the saints. The death they provide is their own, often self-inflicted, destruction of their desires and bodies. But the focus always slips away from them and back to us.
the stories of the saints aren't complicated by human desires and ambitions. Much like a human skull is cleaned and dried in the sun for months before it can be used in memento mori, the saints are given to us petrified, purified by hagiography (writing abut the lives of saints). Dickey tells us that "in hagiography, the story is written to tell us not the facts about that person's life but rather how that person's life exemplifies the glory of God. The true protagonist is always just offstage, in His heaven."
The saints stand before us apocalyptically. They reveal their mysteries by "push[ing] what it means to be human to the breaking point, and then beyond." For Dickey the saints magnify the mysteries of faith:
what has repeatedly struck me is how far [the saints] seem to deviate from what most of us understand to be orthodoxy -- there are saints who murder, saints who gouged out their own eyes and hold them out for inspection, saints who minister to the petty and the bizarre and the maligned. Put another way, the history of these saints helps enlarge our concept of faith.
Dickey follows the stories of the saints long beyond their death and inspects how they have haunted us through the centuries. In some cases, like the connection Dickey makes between St. Jerome and Borge's "Library of Babel", the haunting is autobiographical. More often the haunting is historical as Dickey shows in Flaubert's obsession with St. Anthony. (The story of Flaubert reading his 500 page bio-epic of St. Anthony to his friends over four days only to have them say he should burn the whole thing and never mention it again is laugh-out-loud funny.) Dickey's account of St. George (of dragon slaying fame) as a saint who has been adopted by both Christians and Muslims exemplifies the enlarging work that the saints provide. That St. George was once a part of Medieval propaganda encouraging Christian Crusaders has done nothing to temper his popularity with Muslims.
Like the man meditating upon a human skull, what we gain from the saints is not a easily digestible axiom about how to live 'good' lives but a moral gravity that grounds our feet for spiritual pilgrimage. Dickey tells us, "It is easy enough to say that one believes or doesn't believe in the saints. It is harder to say how one believes, or how one comes to no longer believe, in a saint." Here we finally return to The Desert Fathers. The fathers speak to us from an age where martyrdom was desired but not available. So they inflicted a martyrdom of asceticism upon themselves. This shocking example reminds us that it is not if but how we believe in God that is the hardest question in the life of faith.
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Instead the book is more a meditation on selected saints. Each short essay has a theme, some ridiculous and interesting facts, loads of cultural and literary allusions, and a meditation on life and death. If you like interdisciplinary work (which I absolutely do) than you will enjoy this. There is history and philosophy and religion, but it's lighthearted and educational and not at all self indulgent.
I received a free copy of this in exchange for a review on LibraryThing.