Have you ever read something that profoundly affected your outlook – perhaps for a day, a week, or maybe even a year? Ah, but have you ever read something that gave your life a total one-eighty? The following saints were walking south then turned about and went north – simply by something they read.
“Take and read, take and read.”
When St. Augustine departed from this life in the year 430 AD, he could not have fathomed the far reaches of his influence. Generally regarded as the greatest of the western Church Fathers, he was moreover a very holy man. Interestingly, the 14th-century mystic St. Gertrude had visions of heaven and marveled at the high state of his glory.* Before he reached those heights, however, he struggled for years on earth with a wildly passionate nature. He simply could not find the inner strength to subdue his lustful passions nor find the ultimate source of meaning.
The culminating moment came in the year 386 as he sat with friends in a Milanese garden. They listened to an account of St. Anthony of the Desert’s life. Augustine pulled apart from the scene as the emotional turmoil came to a climax. He cried out to God with his whole-soul, “How long, O Lord, how long?” He describes in his Confessions how he then heard a child’s singsong voice repeat, “Take and read, take and read.
He picked up the Scriptures, opened them at random, and his eyes fell on these words of St. Paul, “The night is far spent, the day draws near. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its lusts.” (Rom. 13:13-14) It was as though a bolt from the sky shattered his darkness made him a new man.
After St. Ambrose baptized him the following year, he returned to his home in present day Algeria. By popular acclaim, he was raised to the episcopate of Hippo and commenced a life long effort to defend the Catholic faith through sermons and books. His feast day is August 28.
“I prayed for rain, but this is a flood!”
Blessed John Colombini (c.1300-1367) was a highly respected and wealthy merchant in Siena. He was likewise hot-tempered, avaricious, and generally worldly-minded. He came home from work one afternoon highly steamed because his wife had not prepared his meal. She promptly placed a book in his hands about the lives of the saints to keep him occupied. He was so disgusted that he threw it on the ground. Stung by remorse, he picked up the book and began to read. The life of St. Mary of Egypt so engrossed his attention that he bypassed dinner and continued reading.
By the end of the book, his entire outlook on life was transformed. From that day forward, he started selling his possessions, gave money to the poor, and turned his house into a hospital where he tended the sick. One day, he found a leper at the church door, carried him to his house, and cared for him with his own hands.
His wife naturally became annoyed at what she considered excessive zeal. He reasoned that he was simply trying to make amends for his sins, and she responded, “I prayed for rain, but this is a flood!” Nonetheless, after several years, they decided to amicably separate so that he could give himself entirely to the service of the poor. He divvied up his fortune between three charitable institutions while assuring his wife’s maintenance for life.
He subsequently begged for his daily bread and spent his days comforting the afflicted. Others joined him to the point where the bishop advised him to seek ecclesiastical approval. Pope Urban granted it in 1367. John’s group was nicknamed the “Jesuati” for their fondness for exclaiming, “Praise be to Jesus Christ.” The Jesuati flourished for a few centuries until Pope Clement IX dissolved them in 1668. They are not to be confused with the Jesuits founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola.
From Soldier to Saint
When a cannonball shattered Íñigo López de Loyola’s leg during the Battle of Pamplona (1521), he was far from saintly. He was a typical hidalgo of his times – chivalrous, ambitious, well connected, and amorous. While convalescing from several surgeries on his leg, he asked for something to read, preferably a book of “romances of chivalry,” which he loved to read. The only books in the house, however, were a life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He read these two books simply to allay his boredom. He soon began to relish this reading. He considered – “These were ordinary men, why can’t I also do the same as them?”
After his recovery, he set about living a life of extreme penance while dwelling near the town of Montserrat. He spent long hours in a cave in nearby Manresa. It was here that he developed his Spiritual Exercises. He went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and began to study in earnest upon his return to Spain in 1524. His schoolfellows were little boys who laughed at him since he was by now thirty-three years old.
His studies eventually brought him to the University of Paris. He perfected his Spiritual Exercises and gathered around him a band of disciples from among the students. This group remained united after receiving their doctorates and eventually moved to Rome. They offered their services to the Pope and in due course became the Jesuits. The Jesuits went on to be highly influential in society, especially in education, mission work, and diplomacy. Today they number about 16,000 members, Pope Francis himself being a Jesu
“We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.” St. John Henry Newman
Imagine if you had to make a choice that would smash your career, smear your reputation, and smother long-term relationships. Would you do it? Such a decision faced John Henry Newman as he realized that the Catholic Church was the authentic church founded by Jesus. As an Anglican priest of high standing at Oxford University, he understood the dire consequences yet made the choice to lose all to gain all.
This radical decision came about as he was editing an English version of the Church Fathers in 1836. At the time, it bothered him that so many denominations existed in Christianity; hence, his convictions grew as he studied the early Church’s unity. He believed that if St. Ambrose or St. Athanasius came back to live on earth, they would choose the Catholic communion as the real Church.
Fr. Dominic Barberi received him into the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845. Along with his life of study and writing, he did much to restore Catholicism in 19th century England as an Oratorian priest. Pope Leo XIII rewarded his service by raising him to the cardinalate in 1879. His choice to leave all eventually paid off as Pope Francis canonized him in 2019.
“This is Truth”
Edith Stein was born on October 12, 1891, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). She was the youngest child of a large Jewish family and exhibited a keen intellect from an early age. She later studied philosophy at the University of Gottingen and earned a doctorate under the eminent phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl. She also served as a volunteer nurse during World War I.
While house-sitting for a friend at age thirty, she scanned the bookshelf for something of interest. Her eyes fell on the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. She read throughout the night and exclaimed as she finished in the morning, “this is truth.” Not one to delay, she sought out a priest that very morning and asked to be baptized as a Roman Catholic. The priest informed her that a period of preparation was necessary.
After her baptism in 1922, she sought to enter a Carmelite convent, but her spiritual guide advised her to wait. For eleven years, she traveled and lectured throughout Europe and finally entered the Cologne Carmel in 1933. As a Carmelite nun, Teresa Benedicta (her new name), led the contemplative life of prayer and continued to write. Nazism forced her to flee from Germany and find refuge in the Carmel of Echt, (Limburg) Holland. There she remained until her arrest by the Gestapo on August 2, 1942. Her end came one week later in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Pope John Paul II canonized her in 1998 and proclaimed her one of the five patron saints of Europe in 1999.
Trees of the Lord
Several of the saints described here helped to shape Western civilization – history would read quite differently had there been no Augustine, Ignatius, or John Henry Newman. Their lives would have little influence, however, had they not trodden new ground through reading. Their openness germinated a seedling in their soul. Through cooperation with God’s grace, the seedlings grew into majestic trees of the Lord. To this day, a multitude of seedlings continue to emerge in their shade.
* For a more detailed explanation, see chapters 50-51 of The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude.