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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!

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

Review: Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes Her Début

Catholic Philosopher Chick

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One of the things I want to do for the newly begun Year of
Faith is write more reviews of books by Catholic authors. Today’s selection is
a book that I’ve just read and really enjoyed, but I almost didn’t read it.
Rebecca Bratten Weiss, co-author of Catholic Philosopher Chick Makes Her Début
(double-billed with Regina Doman), was a classmate of mine in the Institute of
Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, and when I saw on Facebook
that she had a new novel published I immediately downloaded the Kindle sample
from Amazon. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking at some of the
featured reader comments on the Amazon web site, one of which was, “Highly recommend to anyone searching for an clever
addition to the so called chick lit genre, or anyone who needs a quick brush up
on philosophy!” It wasn’t the “brush up on philosophy” remark that put me off
(actually, that was one of the features that interested me!), but the “clever
addition to chick lit” crack. 

As far as I know, I’ve never read anything that could be called “chick lit,” and didn’t really want to, but I was interested to see what Rebecca (quite a clever chick herself) had come up with. But I must have been
feeling irritable the day I began to read the sample – I was already wary
because of the “clever chick lit” label and the first page or two seemed to
validate my impression that this book would be flip and superficial, so I quit
reading and deleted the sample. I was glad that Rebecca had written a fun novel
and glad that some people enjoyed reading it, but didn’t feel I needed to be
one of them. That was my mistake.

Somewhere in the back of
my mind, I felt guilty for jumping ship so quickly from Catholic Philosopher
Chick
, so when I’m glad that I recently saw this review on the First Things blog
I was quickly persuaded to download the full Kindle
edition
and get reading.
Part of the fun for me in the novel was recognizing people
and places I know first-hand. Although the story is set on the campus of the
fictional Dominican University
of Houston, it is clearly modeled,
in large part, on the University of Dallas
where Rebecca and I were graduate students together. Cate Frank, the
protagonist – a Jewish Catholic convert who has abandoned a career in fashion
journalism in New York to pursue a doctorate in philosophy in Texas – shares a
lot of biographical points with the novel’s two authors, and the faculty and
students of Dominican U certainly reminded me of particular individuals I’ve
known personally, as well as evoking “types” that will be recognizable to
anyone who has ever spent time on a university campus. Catelyn’s ill-matched
on-campus roommate, a bubble-brained bimbette with little interest in academics
or intellectuals, reminded me of the girl I got matched up with my first
semester in college (ooh, painful memories I’d thought long buried!).

The young
men in Cate’s seminar on the Summa
Theologica
of St Thomas Aquinas (the “Suminar”) also reminded me potently
of classmates from both my bouts of grad school experience – proud of
themselves for being able to sling the jargon of their academic specialty, but
really not nearly as wise or knowledgeable as they pretended to be. (As a grad
student, I shared Catelyn’s delight in popping their bubbles of pomposity and
pretension.)

If this novel had simply allowed me to laugh at the
(sometimes painful) memories it evokes, however, that really wouldn’t be reason
for me to recommend the book to others who might not share those memories.

Fortunately, this novel has a lot more going for it than just being an in-joke
for readers who can figure out which U.D. philosophy professor resembles the
fictional Dr. Paul Hastings, teacher of the Suminar. The story is built on
themes that many college and graduate school students have struggled with,
particularly intelligent, intellectually-inclined young women: trying to figure
out where your life is headed and why, wanting to make your parents see that a “useless” academic degree is worth sacrificing some of life’s pleasures to pursue, juggling the balance of academics and romance, struggling to see how Truth, Beauty, and Goodness intersect in the messiness of our real, mundane lives.

The major theme that runs through the whole story is the
question of a woman’s place in the world. As the first and only female in the “invitation
only” Aquinas seminar, from the first day Catelyn finds herself battling to win
respect from her male classmates; at the same time, she is hoping to find “Mr.
Right.”

Finally! I had escaped. I had fled the frenetic rat-race of the Eastern seaboard and come, like a modern-day hermitess, to the Texan desert, in search of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful…

OKAY! I admit it! And the Perfect Guy!

At 24, I was already starting to feel like an old maid. With no dates in two years I was beginning to wonder anxiously if perhaps God had other plans for me. Yikes! Still, I continued to hope brazenly that God had that Special Someone in store. Preferably before I turned 30.

Perhaps it was pretentious of me to expect I would find the Perfect Guy while studying philosophy at the Dominican University of Houston. One does not usually associate the words “Philosophy” and “Perfect Guy.” But then again, one would not normally associate “Young Jewish Catholic Woman” and “Lover of Saint Thomas Aquinas” either. Yet here I was.

I had left my fashion magazine job—given up the world of Dior dresses and Louboutin shoes—to devote myself to the writings of a thirteenth-century monk. But I liked to think of myself as a post-modern penitent, snatched from the fires of Cosmopolitan and caught up to something higher and purer.

As you can see, Catelyn is a bundle of inner conflict, but by the end of the novel – after plenty of false starts and wrong turns — she has triumphed in both her pursuits, to make her mark as a Catholic Philosopher Chick and to find the perfect guy.

Two of my favorite things in this novel were (1) the clever (mostly Latin) title names for the chapters (even if you don’t know Latin, some of them will be familiar) and (2) the scene early in the story when Catelyn analyzes the possibility that the Perfect Guy might actually be one of the students in her Suminar class, using St Thomas Aquinas’s famous dialectic method. (Very funny for anyone the least bit familiar with the Summa, but also amusing to the uninitiated.) This scene nicely illustrates Cate’s struggle to find a real-life application for the theoretical wisdom she is amassing.

I’ll admit that I found the frequent references to Catelyn’s designer clothes and shoes a bit tedious, but they did remind me of how I, too, once sweated over the details of self-presentation in any social situation. Lots of other female readers, not yet as dowdy and middle-aged as I, will be more entertained by the protagonist’s fashion consciousness. My only other mild beef with the story is the character of Nat the nihilist, who is more of a “type” than an individual. I can understand how his type needed to be represented in the cast of characters, but he seemed little more than a prop. I was secretly hoping that, by the end of the story, he would have begun to see the light, or at least in some way have been changed by his time at Dominican U. Still, neither of these complaints would dissuade me from reading (or re-reading) this smart and funny novel.

I don’t know if the Catholic Philosopher Chick will be making a return, but I’m sure many readers hope she does. A prequel detailing how she came to be a Jewish Catholic convert interested in Aquinas would also be an interesting tale.


By the way, although this is Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s first novel, her co-author, Regina Doman, already has quite a few titles to her name. Many readers will be familiar with her best-selling children’s picture book, Angel in the Waters. (Click here to read Angel in the Waters online.) She has also published a string of novels for teens, based on well-known fairy tales, updated. Find out more about them all on the Chesterton Press web site.