Telling life stories.
EVERY LIFE TELLS A STORY, AND OFTEN THE STORY left behind by one life shapes the lives that come after. Or maybe it's that we tell our own life stories in answer to the stories we have been told. At least that's one way of looking at five recent biographies of some ancient and more modern folks.
Saint Augustine invented the autobiography. From a North African outpost of Rome's crumbling empire (Hippo), this relatively unnoticed bishop-judge offered the first truly modern voice, creating in his Confessions the genre of "the journal of a soul." The result was a theological, psychological, and literary masterpiece rarely exceeded or equaled in the 16 centuries separating us from this ancient "father" of the church. So it is no mean compliment to suggest that Garry Wills' crisp new biography of St. Augustine (Viking, 1999) has rendered the saint's world and intellect so fresh and immediate that one can almost taste the grit of a sirocco blowing across the African plain.
Two things are striking about the Augustine who strides out to meet us in the pages of Wills' book--his humanity and his genius. Rejecting popular images of Augustine as a creature haunted by sexual appetites or a domineering mother, Wills nonetheless introduces us to a complex, introspective, and occasionally blind pilgrim, We encounter here a man who was, for 15 years, faithful to the only woman he ever slept with, but who also had her, the mother of his child, sent away when he believed it was time to grow closer to God.
Here, too, is the convert who was Christianity's greatest apologist for the transforming power of God's grace--but also the churchman whose defense of violence against heretics laid the groundwork for the Inquisition. In spite of these complications and frailties, it's hard not to be impressed and engaged by Wills' portrayal of a soul whose insatiable hunger to probe and grasp the mysteries of God and the human heart was matched by an intellect nearly equal to the task. The author of more than 93 books and over 700 sermons and letters, Augustine was--according to nearly everybody--the greatest Christian thinker of the first millennium, and perhaps of all time.
ALSO TO BE RECOMMENDED ARE TWO RECENT AND EXCELLENT biographies of a pair of very different Renaissance nuns. Cathleen Medwick's Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul (Knopf, 1999) recounts the extraordinary and more than slightly adventurous life of the 16th-century Castilian mystic and Carmelite reformer--one whose ecstatic levitations inspired Bernini and whose spiritual classics (The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection) contributed to her being named a Doctor of the church. The other is Dava Sobel's Galileo s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love (Walker, 1999). It tells the story of Sister Marie Celeste, the illegitimate daughter and favorite correspondent and confidante of the convicted heretic and genius who came to be known as the father of modern science.
Oddly, there are unhappy shadows of Augustine's life cast over these "nun stories." More than a millennium after the bishop of Hippo lived, Teresa and Marie Celeste found themselves in a church still obsessed with punishing heretics and still committed to having "problem women" sent away. The Holy Office of the Inquisition cast a pall over both these lives--Teresa, because her grandfather had been a Jew and because of the untamed passion of her faith; Marie Celeste, because her father dared to pose questions for which the ancient world had no answers. And both of them discovered at an early age that whenever there were sexual problems it would always be the woman who was sent away. At 13, Virginia Galilei was sent to a convent of St. Clare (where she took the name Marie Celeste) because, as an illegitimate daughter, her prospects for marriage were dim. At 15, the rather wild Dona Teresa was dispatched to a Carmelite nunnery because her family was unhappy with a budding romantic liaison.
What is heartening about these tales is how well these two women were able to fashion the story of their own lives against such restraints.
Infirm most of her adult life, Teresa was a spiritual earthquake ripping through the Castilian countryside, sending ripples down through the centuries. She founded 17 reformed convents, wrestled successfully with church authorities, drew countless admirers and disciples, inspired at least three other saints who took her name, and was the first woman ever to be named a Doctor of the church. Marie Celeste leaves a smaller trail, but one replete with grace, faithful as she was to her father throughout his trials. Her correspondence is shot through with wit, humor, and a loving support offered freely and warmly to one who had also been sent away to his own cell.
DIFFERENT AND DISTINCTIVELY MORE modern tales about women are recounted in another two recent biographies, these about women who were both writers and wives. In Elegy for Iris (St. Martin's, 1998) John Bayley writes about his life with Oxford don, philosopher, and prize-winning novelist Dame Iris Murdoch, and about living with his wife's slow and tragic descent into Alzheimer's.
Meanwhile, Susan Hertog's Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Doubleday, 1999) tells the story of the woman who was both copilot and partner to America's first superstar--aviator Charles Lindbergh--and a bestselling author in her own right.
Unlike their Renaissance predecessors--or perhaps, in part, because of them--the two women in these stories didn't have to fear being shuttled off to convents. Indeed, Murdoch lived in a world where the stunning gifts of her intellect were internationally welcomed and esteemed, a world where both Teresa and Augustine could be great thinkers. A professor at St. Anne's College, Oxford, she was the author of 26 novels and several books on philosophy; she was named a doctor by numerous universities and made a Dame of the British Empire.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh found herself in an age where she could fly through the very heavens to which Augustine had long ago prayed, through which Galileo first spotted the moons of Jupiter. Even more, she found herself in a time in which her own proto-feminist "confessions"--her bestselling Gift from the Sea--would be on more bookshelves than Augustine's.
But that doesn't mean these two women lived lives without crosses. John Bayley's Elegy is a haunting memoir tracking the gradual disappearance of a beloved, a spirit held onto in memory as her presence slips between the fingers of the moment. The sting and insult of Alzheimer's seems all the more severe as Bayley contrasts the brilliant Iris he once knew--a prodigiously complex thinker and author--with the increasingly confused and obsessive child left behind.
It is only his love, his unwillingness to abandon the one who remains, that lifts this sad tale above despair, suggesting that the heart, too, can sail as high as the mind. If there is a lesson here, it is that no one needs to be sent away.
In Hertog's account of Lindbergh, the pilot's wife bears two crosses, both typical of her age. Though not whisked off to a convent, the busy mother, housekeeper, and entertainer soon discovers why "saints were rarely married women." Pulled in a thousand directions by countless demands, she finds it hard to hold onto her own center. In the household and the world of her generation, there is no "room of one's own," no place to be a self, to find a voice.
At the same time Lindbergh carries that special burden of the public wife, the woman who is obliged to keep a smiling, silent presence beside her often troublesome spouse. The infamous Lindbergh-baby kidnapping aside, it is a familiar tale for many of us who live in more modern times, echoed in the ongoing sagas of the Kennedy women and most recently in Hillary Clinton's brittle smile. It is also a story that needs a different ending.
And yet, in spite of these burdens Ann Morrow Lindbergh was able to find and fashion a voice that moved more than her own generation and that put some cracks in the wall of silence.
Augustine's life casts lights and shadows on the lives that came after, and the lives of Teresa and Marie Celeste, of Murdoch and Lindbergh, have cast their own lights and questions on those of us who hear their tales.
By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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|Title Annotation:||Review; modern biographies of Catholic saints|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2000|
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