Why I Wrote A Communion of Saints
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
When I was seven, I wanted to experience stigmata. That’s where one day you’re walking along or praying or something, and all of a sudden you get the wounds on your body that Our Lord and Savior received during the crucifixion. This would include fifty or so thorn cuts across your forehead and all around your skull, nail holes in your hands and feet—all of them, of course, trickling blood—and a nice big spear wound in your gut gushing with blood and water. The nuns had told us all about it, and how perfect and holy you’d have to be for it to happen to you, and I was quite eager to go through it.
Almost as eager, in fact, as I was to die in a major World War II battle in Germany on our little patch of front lawn, propelled by mortar fire into an ornamental hedge.
Regarding this latter desire, my dad, I should tell you, had been a Second Lieutenant in the army during the war and, although he never saw action, he made it clear to us at dinner most nights that he’d have been happy to die for his country. I think in my play life I was probably confirming his disposition in this regard, because the best part of playing Combat with my friends was the part where I got to fly gloriously into that ornamental hedge—wearing, by the way, my dad’s Second Lieutenant’s shirt, with his field canteen belt around my waist, and his gutted parade rifle in my pudgy little hands.
By the time I was eight, though, I wanted stigmata even more than I wanted to die that death my dad, thank God, had never gotten to die.
That’s because on a daily basis the nuns had more access to my imagination than my hard-working dad did, and they were good advocates for things like stigmata, martyrdom, world-historic visions of the Virgin Mary, and other species of vita interrupta. They convinced us, or at least me, that, short of a happy death or, even better, ascending into Heaven, experiencing stigmata was just about the best thing that could possibly happen to you in your time here on earth.
It didn’t happen to just anyone, though. And it wasn’t a DIY. You couldn’t download a step-by-step for it off the internet. This was largely because there was no internet then. Nor anything remotely like “downloading.”
Except from Above—and only the nuns, the priests, and the pope could do that. They had a main-frame, if you know what I mean. We didn’t.
Besides, that wasn’t how it worked. It wasn’t the sort of thing you built with a specific set of tools in your workshop. It didn’t come as the result of a determinate series of determinate actions. No value-added process. No necessary and sufficient. It wasn’t even remotely fact-based.
There was a prerequisite for it, though, and that was—for want of a more precise and scientific term—holiness.
Extreme holiness, that is, prolonged and rigorous, purged of anything that might be remotely associated with human desire. It came to you, this holiness, of its own accord, so to speak. You couldn’t make it come because that would be an expression of your desire for it and . . .well . . . you know . . . ix-nay on the desire.
However, the good nuns had made clear that there were numerous ways to tell if someone had become the recipient of this sort of holiness. They regaled us with all sorts of exciting and morbid stories about various saints who had received the stigmata, or been blessed in other ways with painful bodily transformations, and they were always careful during the “rising action” of each particular tale to provide helpful commentary that isolated for our consideration a kind of behavioral symptomatology for this holiness—which, in list form, might have amounted to a very good description of what you could do if you really wanted to act like you were as insane as you in fact were.
Sister Anagnasia was one of the more artful promulgators of these sorts of tales. She had a rich and instructive repertoire, and her skill at telling about all these amazing men and women drew heavily upon her own faith in what she told. These stories were not curricular “building blocks” to her, nor prompts, nor anecdotal springboards for broader and more consequential theological considerations. They were living, breathing realities, and that’s why Sister Anagnasia was one of the most gifted teachers I ever had. Like all great teachers, she believed without the slightest sense of self-qualification in the existential necessity of her material.
Put more simply, when Sister Anagnasia told a story, she was in it whole hog. She wasn’t telling it for herself. She was telling it entirely for the praise and glorification of the soul featured in it as its halo’d protagonist.
I suggested a few paragraphs ago that these saints seemed a bit insane. But the point of my book, A Communion of Saints, which this blog is attempting to explain, is that that observation only makes sense from a contemporary—that is, a post-Enlightenment—perspective, in which the idea of actually knowing God has almost no traction. Clinically speaking, anyone who told their therapist that they had been filled with God the other day, and that’s why they’d drunk an espresso cup filled with their own urine—well, that person would be placed under very careful scrutiny. In the Middle Ages, though, which is the period of history I inhabited during the school day at my wonderful parish school in Northeast Philadelphia, this person would be treated with care and respect. Maybe even venerated.
That is, they’d be a saint.
You know. With a small ‘s.’
The nuns, I’m happy to say, were far more interested in the medieval take on people who drank their own urine than on the more clinical twentieth century one.
Sister Anagnasia definitely was.
One of her favorite stories, for instance, pertained to Ann of Foligno, who considered The Feast of the Holy Eucharist the high point of her year. On that day, sister told us in her lilting singsong voice, after having fasted for forty days and forty nights, Ann traveled barefoot fifteen miles to the local leper colony, where she proceeded to eat the scales of skin she found on the ground there, lifting each one on high with her two hands and saying “Corpus Christi” as she solemnly administered it to herself. Then, proceeding to the open-air bathing trough, she would drink prolonged draughts of the lepers’ communal bathwater, scooping it up in a beautiful gold chalice that had appeared in the air before her during her journey to the colony. She praised God all the while, raising her eyes to Heaven, munching on the scales, gulping down the bathwater, and pleading to be assumed into the clouds and the sky to find Jesus and kiss His holy feet.
All this in Latin, mind you, which she had never actually learned, since her native language was Tuscan and she’d been too poor to receive instruction in the classics. How could she be insane when she could speak with such fluidity, even urgency, in a dead language that she didn’t know?
Anyway, the lepers didn’t think she was crazy. They thought she was holy, and they rolled on the ground and wept and prayed to her, and praised God, and some of them were healed.
Or there was St. Erasmus—AKA St. Elmo, famous for the maritime phenomenon whereby fire was often observed shooting off a ship’s topsail mast after a storm.
Elmo, Sister Anagnasia explained to us, was so obsessed with preaching and praising God that once, on shipboard, he stood main decks professing the gospel in the middle of a tempest, undeterred when a bolt of lightning struck about a meter or two away from him. Indeed, Sister had him preaching even as the ship went down, but this, I discovered later, stood in direct contradiction to the more exciting and therefore more accepted version of his death—which was that the crew of the ship, understandably perplexed by Elmo’s obsessive homilizing, slit open his belly and tore his entrails out with the ship’s capstan—as he continued preaching, of course, as robustly as ever before finally giving up the ghost.
Elmo aside—or, perhaps, St. Sebastian, who was hard to resist tied to that tree with all those arrows stuck in him—Sister Anagnasia and the other nuns tended to emphasize female saints and, especially, the extent to which they were willing to go by way of self-mutilation in order to protect their virginity, which was often conflated in the good sisters’ minds with their faith. Many of these stories took place in Roman times during the persecutions, when young women of high birth, faced with the prospect of having to marry the pagan aristocratic suitors their fathers had chosen for them, seemed suddenly to have embraced both Christianity and virginity at one and the same time and with considerable alacrity. To discourage unwanted suitors, who, of course, being Romans, were not of the faith, they would lacerate their cheeks with bodkins and mauls, or rip their hair out, or gouge out their own eyes, or even cut off their breasts and pointedly carry them around on trays.
This, of course, was heady stuff for a seven-year-old boy who hardly even knew what breasts were, having, as far as I know, been bottle-fed.
Other tales told of more gratuitous physiological signs of divine favor. St. Rita, as Sister had her, received the Holy Wounds on her forehead after meditating on The Passion for about a month, give or take, without eating or sleeping, and only sipping a little bit of water now and then—holy water at that. Saint Catherine of Alexandria was so devoted to her faith that, after the famously aborted attempt to rip her body apart on the wheel, the emperor Maximelius, a devoted persecutor of the devoted, finally had her beheaded. So far so good, maybe, but the best was yet to come, and she wouldn’t even be alive, strictly speaking, to know of it. You see, immediately upon the separation of St. Catherine’s cranium from the rest of her spinal column, milk glubbed from her neck cavity instead of blood. Sister Anagnasia was radiant.
There was a clear pattern in all of this, which I found both compelling and daunting.
If something like stigmata was to be in the cards for me, I would have to seriously consider undergoing, at the very least, some form of radical self-deprivation, or, to the even greater glory of God, mutilation, dismemberment, immolation, or disembowelment. Anything self-inflicted, however, would be ill-advised. Scholars were divided, for instance, about the wisdom of St. Apollonia’s throwing herself into the fire her torturers had appointed for her anyway before they could have the satisfaction of conveying her to it themselves. When I was in eighth grade, St. Apollonia was even demoted from the liturgical calendar to the status of a local cult saint, all because of this willful embrace on her part of her own suffering.
Her demotion, by the way, occurred in spite of the other part of her suffering, which was precedent to the culminating moment and may even explain it—and which she did not embrace at all. I refer, of course, as any hagiographer would know, to the smashing, twisting, wrenching, and yanking out of all her teeth—molars, canines, and incisors—by a crowd of rioting idolaters. In this regard, it is interesting that, in fact, no steps were taken at the time of her demotion, which as I’ve mentioned was during my eighth year under the good nuns’ tutelage, to divest Saint Apollonia of her status as the patron saint of dentistry.
Faced with this caveat—that in the pursuit of holiness seeking one’s own destruction amounted to a disqualifying behavior—I thought a long time about various ways I could at least deprive myself of foodstuffs that appealed to my sensual appetite. At the time, I was a great consumer of a brand of packaged chocolate cakes called Devil Dogs. They only cost a nickel down at Al and Lou’s Unity-Frankford Market and they were, well, chocolate. Sort of. I don’t know exactly what was in them, but they passed for chocolate with me, and they went very well with a bottle of something called Yoo-Hoo, which purported to be chocolate milk, but which we all agreed was actually chocolate water. They also tasted good, in an odd sort of way, if you had a wad of Double Bubble bubblegum in your mouth. Chocolate and bubblegum go quite well together. Really. Don’t scoff if you haven’t tried it.
I also liked the various other comestibles for sale on the shelves and freezer racks at Al’s and Lou’s: candy bars, Moon Pies, ice cream sandwiches, orange creamsicles, potato chips, chocolate covered pretzels, cheese puffs, and caramel popcorn balls. Accompanied by a nice Frank’s Root Beer, or a bottle of the aforementioned Yoo-Hoo, these delicacies were estimable substitutes for a nourishing meal like, say, a hot dog, or a slice of pizza, or a bologna and cheese sandwich, especially when I didn’t feel like going home for lunch.
So it was not entirely with regret that I ultimately decided against depriving myself of these items, not only because my friends would laugh at me if I did, but also because I couldn’t possibly succeed at actually starving myself , the way a saint would, since, at least at home, I lived quite decidedly in a post-Enlightenment world. This meant that I had two parents who, upon the advice of all the most popular pediatric doctors who were writing at that time, insisted on a pattern of regular meals and wouldn’t have brooked any discussion of self-starvation, even if it was in the service of holiness and eventual stigmata.
Nor was it at all realistic to hope for, say, beheading, or evisceration, or having my eyes singed to jelly with hot pokers, or being ripped apart by wild animals, all of which options I considered quite seriously but realized would be far too difficult to achieve. I lived in Philadelphia, for God’s sake. Northeast Philadelphia at that. There were no Roman hordes stampeding the streets looking for Christians to torture and kill, no lepers suppurating in the gutters, no sea tempests to test my willingness to praise God while lightning splintered the deck of the ship I was standing on. Everything was calm and orderly. The houses were sequentially numbered and had little lightning rods on the peaks of the roofs with wires leading down to the ground. There was no such thing as leprosy or Bubonic Plague and, even if there were, there were hospitals and doctors’ offices everywhere, and we had calamine lotion and Pepto Bismol.
In a squeeze, even, we had penicillin.
You could see lions at the zoo, but nobody would throw you in the cage.
For a young boy aspiring to experience stigmata it was a real wasteland.
Even my little medieval parochial school had a school nurse.
By now you are probably sort of getting my point, especially since I alluded to it earlier along with the notion that it was, in its way, the impetus for writing my first book of poems, A Communion of Saints. The world I lived in outside of school—and, the older I got, would have to live in more and more decidedly—was not the same world as the medieval one with which the dear nuns, especially Sister Anagnasia, had inflamed my imagination on a daily basis. I could desire a stigmata, of course, but I couldn’t get one, or at least I couldn’t arrange my life so that it would look like the life of somebody who might receive one.
Eventually, I matriculated at a very fine and scholarly Jesuit prep school where, if I was unguarded enough to bring them up, the priests would chuckle, by and large, at the good nuns’ imaginative constructs.
Then I attended a small liberal arts college so dedicated to post-Enlightenment rationality that I kept my past to myself most of the time and just read my Hobbes.
So, in spite of my tendency in my salad days to internalize not only the gruesome details of Sister Anagnasia’s wonderful stories but also her full-fledged belief in their empirical reality, I actually matured into a generally sane adult who understands germ theory, most of the laws of physics, and all the protocols and precepts of modern jurisprudence. Post-Enlightenment rational culture, that is, succeeded eventually at suppressing, at least for a time, my over-active imagination to the point where I was happy to relegate all of dear Sister Anagnasia’s stories of holiness to something called “claptrap” or “superstition.”
An interesting correlative to this healthy intellectual development on my part was that I was also able to accept without question that Einstein and the physicists who came after him were entirely justified in building the theory and methodology that brought us all into an age in which the world could be completely destroyed at the touch of a single button.
According to Enlightenment theory, that wasn’t insanity, it was progress. You know. Along the same lines as penicillin.
That, in a weird way, is why we don’t have saints nowadays.
Besides the fact that we aspire as avidly towards self-destruction as towards the destruction of killer viruses, it is also true that anybody with the potential for holiness is likely nowadays to be diagnosed and treated—medicated, mostly, their lives and souls, if you will, having been reduced to collocations of behavioral syndromes. If we don’t have saints, though, we do have good scientists, which I’m generally glad about, along with canny political thinkers, inspired liberal humanists, even pop stars who have the courage to writhe naked on stage at the age of fifty-two to show the world that they haven’t given in to the aging process.
This leads me to my final attempt to articulate why I wrote A Communion of Saints.
I think at the most elemental level I wrote it for Sister Anagnasia, who I’m sure has by now departed this world, but, more importantly, whose very world has departed from us. As a liberal humanist myself, I can’t render saints and sainthood as she would have and, besides, I don’t possess her genius in performance, her ability to create in young children’s minds such vivid, suffering, lonely, and, yes, holy individuals out of the scraps of whatever she read in the Imprimatur-ed hagiographies that may have been lying around the convent at Holme Avenue and Colfax Street in northeast Philadelphia in the nineteen sixties.
I decided, though, to at least emulate her commitment to the possibilities of holiness.
In this light, I made up my own saints. While many live in late medieval milieus, I also wanted to find some in the twentieth century, and this was not an easy task. The ones I did conjure ended up being flawed, or alienated, or sexually tormented—but I stand by their holiness, and I spit on anyone who would hurl them to the everlasting bonfire just because they’re human. On earth, perhaps, the point is to at least try to be holy. Sure, we’re descended from apes, so our fate in this regard is to fail over and over, but failing means we at least tried, and this is more than a scientist, a humanist, a political firebrand, or an aging half-naked pop icon would have us do.
The church’s notion of The Communion of Saints is that there exists a feedback loop of sorts between the living faithful and those who have made it to the Heavenly Jerusalem. The living pray for, or to, the dead, and the dead intercede on behalf of the living. In this way, we failing saints on earth are vitally connected to the ones who’ve made it to the Heavenly City, and they are actively rooting for us and reminding the divine ear that, after all, we’re only human. In medieval paintings this feedback loop was often represented as a circle of souls that connected Heaven and earth, recycling spiritual and redemptive energy between the two realms by way of constantly resurrecting the very notion and possibility of the sacred.
That’s the concept I offer my much-loved post-Enlightenment world in these poems. As painful as it may be for us to admit, the Enlightenment didn’t simply reject a lot of things from the past. It lost them.
All art, I would argue, is restorative. Poetry, for its part, is especially so, driven as it is by memory. Poetry’s mission, in this light, is to attempt the quasi-magical function of restoring what is constantly lost—to a person, a society, a civilization—when it attempts to define itself against its own past, which is one of the primary ways a self gets defined.
This is the ritualistic and Dionysian aspect of poetry as Nietzsche defines it in his essay on tragedy, and this, I think, is what I was trying to do when I wrote these poems.
A Communion of Saints (2011, Anaphora Literary Press) is available from
terenceculletonpoetry.com or from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other similar online venues, as well as select local bookstores.