READING THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS
In the many weeks spent researching the life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, founder of World Villages for Children and the Sisters of Mary, I had, of course, discovered countless compelling aspects of his personality and priesthood: he had a droll wit, was unbudging on his commitment to prayer, consecrated his life to Our Lady, and obliged rather severe ascetical practices. He was outspoken on the gravity and consequences of mortal sin. He ate sparingly, jogged at least five miles daily, and repeatedly managed to penetrate the minds of the Sisters of Mary with piercing thoughts. Much of the clergy in Korea saw him as a radical and simply didn’t care for his style of priesthood. Fr. Al had a doggedness to serve the humiliated and poor.
A single image, though, still resides most strongly in me. It is this: Fr. Al in a rocking chair in the South Korean early evening, reading the lives of the saints. Damiano Park, his translator and friend of four decades, mentioned that Fr. Al chose to spend a large portion of his spare time under a darketing blue sky pulling inspiration from the saintly paragons.
It was perhaps there on that rocking chair, just outside the condemned shack where he resided for five years in the Korean southern peninsula, that the idea came to found what is now World Villages for Children and the Sisters of Mary, which serves 20,000 of the poorest of the poor in seven countries throughout the world. It is quite possible that by grasping what the saints before him accomplished, the young American priest was emboldened to become a saint himself.
An excerpt from my biography, Priest and Beggar; The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (order your copy here) sets the scene:
Often at dusk, passersby would see Father Al stealing the remains of the day from the rocking chair on the porch outside of his shack. He’d wave and smile his broad toothy grin. A book was usually in his lap.
The image of their pastor at leisure was pleasing to his poor parishioners. It signaled to them that all was well with the foreign priest they were starting to love….
From his rocking chair, Father Al read not only Church documents and Scripture, but also the biographies of contemplatives and saints. He saw the indwelling of Christ most powerfully in the ascetics, mystics, and martyrs, gravitating toward John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, John Vianney, Charles de Foucauld, Damien of Molokai, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, and Catherine of Siena. He wrote in these early days as a priest of being moved by Martin of Tours shearing his cape for the street beggar, by Foucauld launching out into the bleakness of the Algerian desert for the poor and the unbaptized, and by Francis of Assisi throwing off every degree of comfort to renounce his life for Christ. He articulated this severe method of forsakenness in the following way:
In the psalms, the Holy Spirit says, and He is quoting God, “I dwell in a place which is dry and waterless.” God dwells in the desert; He dwells in nothingness, emptiness, extreme poverty. If you want to find God, renounce all your possessions and seek God. Jesus died poor on the cross. He is stripped naked. He has no good reputation. He gives His mother. He is alone. His disciples have left Him, and He has no friends. The blood leaves His body—health and strength and life leave his body…. He empties Himself completely and the figure of Jesus on the cross is that of total, absolute, terrible, frightening poverty. Jesus says, “If you wish to be my disciple, you must renounce all that you possess.” All means visible possessions and invisible possessions. What is on the outside, what is on the inside.”
ALL SAINTS DAYOn this All Saints Day, it suits us to consider the saints that lived like icons in Fr. Al’s soul. Inflation, skyrocketing gas prices, distress over the seemingly never-ending virus, and a steady barrage of distressing news items has certainly managed to disturb and steal peace from my own soul.
It, however, has been the rocking-chair image of Fr. Al drawn to the great saints – most especially St. Therese of Lisieux, John Bosco and the Virgin of the Poor – that has done much to settle my own nerves during these thorny days. In fact, it is due to the charming and peaceful image of Fr. Al relaxing on his porch that has prompted me to commit time to reading the lives of the saints. Most recently, I’ve taken to absorbing the lives of St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas More, and St. Teresa of Avila. These encounters have helped to re-engineer my periodically racing thoughts and set them into a healthier and more tranquil place.
As you prepare for All Saints Day, consider picking up a biography on a great saint. Find your favorite chair, settle in, and see if your life doesn’t take on a different rhythm.