Lately, I’ve been considering teaching my son Matthew about the saints. At the big-boy age of 5, he’s surely old enough to become captivated by their stories. But then I realized that when you talk about the lives of the saints, you also have to talk about their deaths.
Therein lies the problem.
Not every saint had a gruesome death, of course, but quite a few of them did. And for a kid whose imaginative diet consists of nothing more sinister than the dragon that Harold draws with his magic purple crayon, I can hardly fathom telling him about St. Agnes, whose head was cut off, or St. Lawrence, who was literally grilled alive. My child already has an innate fear of the dark; I don’t need to tell him stories that will encourage it.
Maybe I am projecting a bit here. When I was 8, I got a Picture Book of Saints for my first Holy Communion. It was something I’d really wanted, but when I actually read it, the pictures and stories spooked me out completely. There was St. Stephen, the first martyr, with blood rolling down his head from his stoning. There was Mary Magdalene curled up in a cave with a skull at her feet. There was a saint — the name escapes me — who was lying in bed and reacting in shock to seeing the statue of Jesus reach down from the crucifix and touch him. The book became rather like my good friend’s collection of ghost stories: I could read it easily enough in the light of day, but once bedtime came, I keenly regretted having done so. It got so bad that I finally gave the book to my mom, who hid it high out of sight in her closet.
It put me off of the saints for years. I don’t want my little boy to have the same experience.
Honestly, I’m struggling to think of a good way to make the saints seem relatable to him. Even when you remove the gruesome martyrdom stories, most pictures of the saints make them seem otherworldly and inaccessible, with their eyes rolled up to heaven and their halos burning bright. They seem more like heavenly superheroes than beings you could actually get to know. Simply put, the saints can easily feel very remote. And that is a feeling that can persist for a long time if we don’t find something to shake us out of it.
Luckily, in my case, something did. Senior year of college, when I was going through a particularly bad romantic breakup, my uncle — a medievalist who made folk art in his spare time — gave me a homemade wooden plaque of St. Raphael, one of the patron saints of love and health. It was simply drawn, in bright primary colors, and I loved it. I wasn’t particularly Catholic at that point in my life. In college, I had been eager to shuck off the coat of my parochial school upbringing — but after all the heartbreak, I was looking for emotional relief anywhere I could find it. I fired off some prayers to St. Raphael, asking for his intercession, because I’d learned as a child that we could go to the saints and ask for their prayers if we needed them. It was undeniably comforting to think that there was an extra someone — for me, a gently smiling angel in a cheerful red tunic — who was on the case. He wasn’t bloody, and he wasn’t spooky. He was just helpful.
That was my first baby step in coming to see the saints in a positive light.
Years later, I began to seriously explore and meditate on the lives of the saints. The more I did so, the more I realized that we make a mistake when we assume that they were perfect. They weren’t. No saint walked around in life with a halo, eyes rolled to heaven, clutching the instruments of his or her martyrdom. They were ordinary, sometimes flawed people who happened to live their spirituality in extraordinary ways. And there are lessons for us in their lives. Every saint realized that when you are faced with something hard — suffering, injustice, a crisis point — you can either respond in a way that makes you feel closer to God, or in way that doesn’t. And they all chose the path that, to the best of their knowledge, would align them more closely with the divine. That’s why we remember them, and that’s why we honor them. That’s why I now love them, in fact: because they are, to me, a vast collection of fascinating, sometimes curious people who lived in a way that I would like to live myself.
I would love to express all of this to Matthew. I know that he can’t possibly understand this kind of thing at the age of 5, though, and that’s okay. Perhaps there are developmental stages of understanding the saints: you have to see them as the shining superheroes first, the people up there on the stained glass pedestal, before you can grow into awareness that they are more complex and nuanced than that. And who knows? A few years from now, the stories of gruesome martyrdom may end up being the very thing that fires my son’s boyish imagination and makes him want to know more. “Mom, St. Erasmus had his intestines pulled out. Sick.”
I won’t test that theory yet, though. Whenever he and I have our first big talk about the saints, I’ll start with someone who is more benign, more upbeat, more comforting.
St. Raphael just might do the trick. I won’t need to search for a good visual aid, either. I’ve already got one.