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Fact, Legend, and the Perils of Modern Hagiography: Andrew M. Seddon’s Celtic Paths

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.

St Brendan and the whale, manuscript illumination

Saint Brendan and the whale

(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 my science fiction novel, which will be published soon, 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 Foreward, 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.

Saints Alive, Vol. 2, Andrew M. SeddonCeltic 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.

(Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of the manuscript, so that I could write a book blurb for it. You’ll see the blurb on the back cover, and inside as well. But I really do like these stories. I’m not
recommending them because I got a free book! If you’d like a second opinion, read another review, by a different reader, here.)

©2014 Lisa A. Nicholas

Review: Ad Limina, by Cyril Jones-Kellett

Ad Limina: A novella of Catholics in space, by Cyril Jones-Kellett
The future is no escape — the Church
will always be under fire.

A few weeks ago, I promised a review of Cyril Jones-Kellett’s Ad Limina: a novella of Catholics in space, and I’ve written and posted it over on my science fiction blog. What I’d like to mention here relates to the “Catholic” aspect of it, something I allude to briefly in the full review:

While the story is, on the face of it, a grand adventure, another way to read it is (and details in the story suggest that this is how the author hopes we will read it) as a spiritual trial, from which the soul in question emerges purified and hardened against the wiles of the Enemy. Bishop Mark Gastelum’s spiritual journey takes him into the wilderness where he is tempted in many ways; at the end, having endured these temptations without succumbing, he is spiritually mature and ready to take on greater challenges.

Modern novels don’t always have a “hero” – in fact, one of the hallmarks of the novel, the thing that distinguishes it from earlier narrative forms, such as the epic and the romance, is that the protagonist is an ordinary person dealing with ordinary human problems (not literally wrestling gods, for instance, as Achilles does in The Iliad). However, as I’ve mentioned before, the Christian writer – at least when he is writing as a Christian – will naturally tend to create a Christ-like protagonist, Christ being the greatest hero of all. This works very well in the modern novel, because Christian heroism is not showy and vainglorious as the pagan epic heroes were. In becoming man, the almighty, infinite God had to squash himself down into a very lowly form, and then proceeded to live a very lowly life and allowed himself to be killed in the most ignominious fashion. So it is perfectly possible, and even fitting, for a modern novel to have a protagonist who is also a Christian hero.

Bishop Mark Gastelum, the protagonist of Ad Limina, is a small man, in his own estimation – that means not only that he exhibits a decorous Christian humility (as we might wish every bishop to do), but also that he underestimates what God will require of him. The journey he undertakes in the novel serves to enlarge him and his view of things, and also to expand his understanding of what it means to represent Christ to a troubled world. Like the Lord he imitates and serves, he is sent away from his cozy world, out into the wilderness of space where he will be tempted and tried in many ways. Like Christ, he will learn firsthand that religious authorities do not always conform to the will of the God whom they putatively serve – his life will even be endangered by some of them.

Temptation of Christ cartoon by Tony McGurk
Our modern temptations tend toward the comfortable,
rather than the grandiose.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that most of the temptations that our futuristic bishop feels are those that present themselves to many Catholics today – the temptation to create a “Catholic ghetto,” for instance, in which we withdraw from, and ignore, the troubles of the larger world. The temptation to convince ourselves that some of the more ambiguous lures of modern life really won’t hurt us if we enter into them cautiously or partake of them moderately. The temptation to believe that we can be true Christians while avoiding the real cost of discipleship.

Even if you don’t care for science fiction, I recommend that you read Ad Limina. It is a “good” book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term:

Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight.

It is also a “good book” in the sense that it holds up well when re-read. I’ve read it a couple of times and enjoyed it even more the second time.  I believe it is also, as the best science fiction always is, a “philosophical” story, in the sense that Aristotle used that term – it invites us to learn something about the truth of our human condition, by projecting ourselves into the persona of the protagonist. On both these grounds, then, I heartily recommend this book to my readers. Now, go here to read my full review or go here to buy the book (at least read the sample!).

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Review: Andrew Seddon’s Saints Alive!

Saints Alive! by Andrew Seddon

I love the way the blogosphere can bring like-minded people together, especially when it means I get a wonderful new book to read. This happened recently when Andrew Seddon sent me a nice email after visiting my science fiction blog. When I learned he is a writer, too, I asked if he would like me to review one of his books, and he kindly sent me a copy of his Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints.

There are a number of things I like about this book, the first being that he chose to write about saints that most of us probably know very little about (many of whom you’ve probably never even heard of). The saints selected for this volume all lived in the first four or five centuries of the Christian era, before the Roman empire collapsed, and many of them died as martyrs to the faith. But they lived so long ago that many of them have fallen into obscurity.

For a writer, this presents a challenge, as Seddon admits in his introduction, because so much of the little we do know of these heroes of the early Church is based on legends that have been so embroidered by the Christian imagination that it is difficult to tell how much of what has come down to us might be based on, or at least inspired by, fact.

Why take such a risk? Seddon indicates his reason in the book’s forward:

In many ways, Imperial Rome resembled our own culture. Rome was an expanding, powerful civilization which catered to the rich at the expense of the poor. […] But some refused to collaborate with the pagan society, and paid for their faith with their lives. The situation is no less dire today […] It is my hope that these stories, based on the lives of real people […] will inspire us to courage and faithfulness in the challenging times in which we live.

He goes on to say that he hopes the stories will make a valuable contribution to the current Year of Faith, and I think they do.

Bernini’s Santa Cecilia

A few of the saints, or at least their names, will be familiar to many readers: St Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop whose letter to the Romans has been preserved; St Cecilia, to whom an ancient church in Rome was dedicated and is often visited by tourists and pilgrims today (and Bernini’s famous sculpture also immortalizes her in our imaginations); St Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier turned Christian hermit, who was tricked into letting himself be made bishop. But I’m sure that most of the saints chosen — Saints Ariadne, Sabinus, John the Dwarf — will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Despite their obscurity, Seddon manages to shed light on each of them, not by recounting their entire life stories but by narrating a key moment in their lives — often, but not always, the moment of their deaths — which illuminates the distinctive  sanctity of each. These moments are well-chosen and well-narrated, turning the accounts into enjoyable short stories as well as instructive examples.

Saints Alive! will appeal to adults and youngsters alike. In fact, I think they would lend themselves to being read aloud and discussed afterward — wouldn’t that make a nice project for this Year of Faith! I think you’ll find that these stories really do bring these early saints to life in your imagination. And if you do fall in love with these heroes of the early Church and would like to know more about these saints, you can turn to the “Notes & Sources” at the back of the book.

You might also want to read some of Andrew Seddon’s other books.

Kindle freebie, Amazon reviews

download my book free

.Just a quick note today — I’m running a freebie promotion on my little book on all the helpful uses of diatomaceous earth around the home
. Saturday, 15 June through Sunday, 16 June, you can download the book for free!

Those who don’t have a Kindle can purchase the paperback version, which is currently being offered at a 13% discount.

interested in having a “greener” home, using healthier products to get
rid of bugs such as fleas, ants, even bedbugs, or just “getting back to
nature” will enjoy this book. Think of it as my little gift to you. If
you like your gift, please post an Amazon review saying what you like.

The Christus Experiment by Rod Bennett

If you’d like to know what I’ve been reading lately, you can take a look at my reviews on Amazon or on Goodreads. Among new works of fiction I’ve read lately, probably the most interesting book for readers of this blog is The Christus Experiment, by Rod Bennett, author of Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words. The premise is fascinating — what if you could go back in time, kidnap Jesus, and bring him into our own day? I got suckered in by the glowing praise by high-profile Catholics such as Mike Aquilina and Mark Shea, but I have to say that this “high concept” novel disappointed me. If you’d like to know why, read my Amazon review.

Right now, I’m reading mostly science fiction novels from the great writers of the ’50s and ’60s, some of whom I discussed recently on my science fiction blog. If you hop on over there, you can also read my latest post about the novel I’m writing and the series I’m planning. Catholic science fiction! Saints in outer space! What’s not to like?

The Hunger Games left me hungering for more … but not the way you think

It’s been quite a while since I posted here, simply because I’ve been very busy working on my Catholic science fiction novel — in fact, I’ve finished the first draft, so it was time well spent. Now, however, the draft is “resting” while I think about what I want to achieve in revision (a lot, as it happens), so I can turn my mind to other things for a while.

Hunger Games trilogyI have been doing some reading along the way — a lot of it has been
advice on how to write great fiction (which I won’t bore you with), but
some of it has been books that you might be interested in yourself. So
here’s a run-down of a few things I’ve read over the last couple of
months, and what I thought of them. The first one was Suzanne Collins’s
runaway bestseller Hunger Games

Since I’m working on science fiction of a futuristic sort, I’ve been concentrating on speculative fiction of various sorts, to get a feel of what sort of thing is getting read these days. So I was excited when Amazon offered the entire Hunger Games trilogy for Kindle download for just $5. I hadn’t read any of the books – and, frankly, hadn’t intended to, until I saw the movie based on the first one and thought, “That was pretty good.” I’d heard the film was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, so I was interested in seeing how close the two were (I’ve already had my rant about what makes a good film adaptation of a novel). I found that, as far as the story itself goes, the two are remarkably similar (just one or two minor characters who get dropped in the film), but the effect of reading the novels was completely different.

The books are narrated by Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, so the reader never gets any relief from her attitude, which is bitter and cynical. I never really understood why she was as bitter as she was, since other characters who had to endure many of the same hardships she did were much more sympathetic and likable.

I kept thinking that her love for Peeta and/or Gale might help her to overcome a measure of her bitterness – surely she would grow and mature? Instead, her creator, Suzanne Collins, kept subjecting her to more and more nightmarish tortures, making her more and more deeply damaged emotionally. After reading the entire trilogy, frankly, I was sick of Catniss and her world. By the end of the third book, other characters had moved on, literally and figuratively, but Catniss and Peeta, and even their children, remained haunted by their grim world. At a climactic moment near the end of the final novel, I realized that the whole trilogy was little more than an anti-war screed, which explains why the author insisted that Catniss could never live happily ever after – because she was the poster child of the “war is hell” message, and to suggest that the evils of war could be transcended would undercut that message.

This touches on the thing that I found most irritating and unrealistic about these novels: total lack of any kind of transcendent hope or faith. Although the stories are set in a North America of the far future, and traces of regional culture remain (the hard-scrabble coal miners of Appalachia, field gangs of virtual slaves in the deep South), none of the people of any of the districts of Panem seemed to have any kind of religious or philosophical belief that suggested there was any way to transcend the harsh conditions of their lives. It was a world utterly without hope. Leaders on both sides in the rebellion were equally cynical and corrupt. Even after the rebellion succeeded and life was moving on, there was no sense that anything was, or ever would be, better.

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur

I was hoping that, despite the disagreeable personality of the lead character, I would find that the Hunger Games would be a good book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis defined that term in An Exercise in Criticism — i.e., one that makes the reader feel “enlarged” or in someway better off for having read it. Alas, this was not the case. Instead, I felt damaged by its corrosive commentary on life. In the end, I was heartily glad to say goodbye to Catniss Everdeen and her dreary, soulless world.

I’m sorry that I found the books so toxic. On the face of it, they have a lot to offer — a modern up-dating of the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, a technically well-structure plot, some very inventive “games.” But it was like eating a feast at a chain restaurant — looks good, smells great, all your friends say you’ll love it, but too late you realize that every dish is full of chemical additives that provide no real nutrition and may actually prove indigestible.

Fortunately, I went on to read something much more satisfying, if not perhaps a lot more nutritious. I’ll tell you about that next time.

An Odd and most-endearing protagonist

Kindle cover of Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz

Afflicted with a gift most of us would reject, Odd Thomas remains serene and humble.

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz‘s Odd Thomas stories lately, supernatural thrillers with an unusual twist. Generally speaking, I’m not interested in supernatural or paranormal stories, but I like Odd Thomas, the protagonist who sees dead people and bodachs (dark, wispy spirits who sniff out violent death before it occurs), and who can track soon-to-be mass murderers using something he calls psychic magnetism. What I like about Odd is the fact that he is, in many ways, quite an ordinary young fellow, but one with a great sense of responsibility for his fellow man. Although his strange “gift” is obviously a burden to him, he does not complain or whine about it (or about anything else), but regards it as a talent he has been given for the good of others.

Read more

Fellowship of the Book: T. M. Doran’s Toward the Gleam (Review)

Toward the Gleam cover art, John Herried, Daniel Mitsui, T. M. DoranChristmas is upon us, and Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit movie has recently premiered, which reminds me of a great book I’ve been meaning to recommend. Anyone looking for a Christmas gift for fans of Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth should take a look at T. M. Doran’s novel, Toward the Gleam (from Ignatius Press, available in hardback, ereader, and audio editions; get the Kindle version from Amazon.) It is both an homage to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a gripping tale in its own right.

The makers of the book’s trailer (see below) definitely wanted to draw attention to the connection between Doran’s novel and Tolkien’s.The cover art design for the book should also remind readers of LOTR. Here’s Toward the Gleam, cover designed by John Herreid and executed by a wonderful Catholic artist, Daniel Mitsui. You can see that it incorporates some of the design elements from the well-known covers of the 1986 Houghton Mifflin edition (below), such as the runic message around the edge, and iconic scenes from the story. Herreid’s design actually incorporates lots of little visual clues to important elements of Doran’s story, which takes place not in Middle Earth but in Britain and Europe during Tolkien’s lifetime.

Without providing spoilers, I’ll just say that Toward the Gleam is chockablock with thinly disguised fictional versions of real life figures from Tolkien’s life and times, which readers will have fun recognizing. More importantly, however, is the way this real-world (but entirely fictional) tale parallels that of Tolkien’s famous romance, Lord of the Rings. (To say more about that would spoil the fun.)  Additionally, imbedded in the plot is an exploration of the various modern philosophies that gave rise to the two great wars that plagued Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and that continue to cause grave problems in our own day. Besides all this, Toward the Gleam is a suspenseful tale with a love story embedded in it. There’s something for everyone!

Lord of the Ring Covers

For many years, I owned, read, and re-read this edition of Lord of the Rings.

No Tolkien or Inklings fan should fail to read this book. Even those who have not read Lord of the Rings or who know little about Tolkien can enjoy this novel, but I suspect they will be intrigued enough to want to read Tolkien after they have finished Toward the Gleam.

UPDATE 2015 I’ve re-read this book and am happy to say that it passes my “good book” test — i.e., it is even more enjoyable upon rereading. The second time around, I was less preoccupied with recognizing the historical figures and philosophical arguments, and better able just to enjoy the story-telling. You certainly don’t have to be a Tolkien fan to read this book — but you will probably want to read (or re-read) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings after you finish Doran’s Toward the Gleam. Full of good stuff, and still highly recommended!

©2012-15 Lisa A. Nicholas