I hadn’t heard of Peter the Aleut when I was first asked by an inquirer if the nineteenth-century native Alaskan convert to Russian Orthodoxy had been tortured to death in California by Franciscans, but something about the story struck me as off. On a hunch, I looked at a map.
Hmm, I wondered, how did a native Alaskan manage to get thousands of miles away from home? If, as some sources claimed, Peter and his companions were captured by Spanish sailors, why would the sailors take the Aleuts thousands of miles to California so Franciscans could torture them? Those who fell afoul of the Spanish Inquisition—which was largely over by that time—were put to death by the secular government, not by the clergy, who mainly acted as theological advisors. It turned out to be relatively easy to show that the story of Peter the Aleut, at least as it is popularly told, lacks historical credibility.
Sometimes though, stories of saints are historically accurate but are read uncritically by Catholics.
One of the stories often told of the childhood of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is that she would count her sacrifices each day on a string of beads. The story is well established historically, having first been told in a letter by Thérèse’s mother, Zelie. Evidently, Thérèse’s older sister Marie gave her a chaplet of sorts on which Thérèse could use the beads to keep track of all the good deeds she’d accomplished throughout the day.
If you do a Web search for “Saint Therese sacrifice beads,” you can see how popular the practice is today, with instructions widely available on how to make the beads. I’ve read enthusiastic recommendations of the practice in Catholic parenting books, blog posts, and online discussion forums. No questions about the practice seem to be raised. If a Catholic saint did this as a small child, it must be a good spiritual discipline for Catholic children, right?
But was the practice necessarily a good thing for Thérèse to have engaged in as a child? If you read the story in the context of Thérèse’s entire autobiography, a different picture emerges.
In the two centuries before Thérèse’s birth, France was wracked by Jansenism, a heresy sometimes considered to be the “Catholic Calvinism” because of its view of grace, free will, and moral rigorism. Although largely defeated in France around the time of the French Revolution, the spirit of Jansenism continued to pervade French Catholic spirituality well into the nineteenth century.
In her spiritual autobiography, Thérèse recounted how she was extremely sensitive as a child, unable to process the slightest criticism without bursting into tears. She believed that it was only because of a special grace from God, received at Christmas when she was thirteen years old, that enabled her to overcome her childhood immaturity. Between the latent Jansenism of her time and her own anxiety about doing good lest she be chastised, it’s not hard to imagine that the “good deed beads” Thérèse carried as a child were more of a hindrance than a help to her spiritual development.
What are we to make of this instance in Thérèse’s life then? That “good deed beads” are necessarily bad? That her sanctity is somehow in doubt?
No to both questions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the sacrifice beads Thérèse carried. In fact, some parents might find them useful in helping young children with lax consciences or entitled attitudes to grow more conscientious about refraining from sin and serving others. But, as Thérèse’s own story shows, the beads may not be appropriate for all children, especially those who are deeply sensitive or scrupulous.
What can we learn from these stories that can be applied to other hagiographies we encounter?
Don’t take claims at face value. Just because a story has been told for centuries doesn’t necessarily make all aspects of that story true. Hagiographies are especially prone to being gilded in pious legend. The Church recognized this problem when it reorganized the liturgical calendar and downgraded or removed certain saints, such as St. Christopher, whose stories couldn’t be considered historically reliable.
If a saint story seems “off” for some reason, don’t be afraid to check it out. Follow up on the details by looking at maps, cross-checking dates, and comparing the saint’s story to known historical data for the period.
Don’t assume saints are perfect. Many Catholics tend to assume that canonization acts as God’s seal of approval on a saint’s entire life. The fallacy of this assumption is readily seen in a saint’s life before he or she definitively started down the road to sanctity, such as when St. Paul approved of the murder of St. Stephen, or St. Augustine’s lapses in chastity, or St. Olga’s ferocious reprisal against the tribe that murdered her husband. Even after their conversions to sanctity, saints may have acted imperfectly and sinned.
Sanctity is not living a perfect life; rather, sanctity is practicing a life of heroic virtue to the best of one’s ability in cooperation with God’s grace. We’re only assured of fully achieving sanctity once we’re dead; while we live, there’s always the possibility of sin.
Don’t assume you need to do exactly as a saint does. St. John Paul II was reported to have spent an hour every morning lying prone before the Blessed Sacrament. St. Francis of Assisi allegedly stripped in the town square to divest himself of clothing his father had given him. St. Thérèse’s parents didn’t consummate their marriage for months after they were wed, thinking they should live together as “brother and sister.”
All of these actions worked within the context of these saints’ lives to move them along on their own road to sanctity. But that doesn’t mean that you have the same access to the Blessed Sacrament and time to spare each morning that John Paul did, or that you should strip naked in public as did St. Francis, or that you should consider giving up marital relations with your spouse as did Louis and Zelie Martin.
Rather, the saints’ examples can inspire us to find our own road to God within the context of our unique circumstances and state in life. Or, as the pope emeritus Benedict XVI put it when he was asked how many ways there are to God, “As many as there are people. For even within the same faith, each man’s way is an entirely personal one.”