Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Andrew Seddon's Saints Alive!

Saints Alive! by Andrew Seddon
I love the way the blogosphere can bring like-minded people together, especially when it means I get a wonderful new book to read. This happened recently when Andrew Seddon sent me a nice email after visiting my science fiction blog. When I learned he is a writer, too, I asked if he would like me to review one of his books, and he kindly sent me a copy of his Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints.

There are a number of things I like about this book, the first being that he chose to write about saints that most of us probably know very little about (many of whom you've probably never even heard of). The saints selected for this volume all lived in the first four or five centuries of the Christian era, before the Roman empire collapsed, and many of them died as martyrs to the faith. But they lived so long ago that many of them have fallen into obscurity.

For a writer, this presents a challenge, as Seddon admits in his introduction, because so much of the little we do know of these heroes of the early Church is based on legends that have been so embroidered by the Christian imagination that it is difficult to tell how much of what has come down to us might be based on, or at least inspired by, fact.

Why take such a risk? Seddon indicates his reason in the book's forward:
In many ways, Imperial Rome resembled our own culture. Rome was an expanding, powerful civilization which catered to the rich at the expense of the poor. [...] But some refused to collaborate with the pagan society, and paid for their faith with their lives. The situation is no less dire today [...] It is my hope that these stories, based on the lives of real people [...] will inspire us to courage and faithfulness in the challenging times in which we live.
He goes on to say that he hopes the stories will make a valuable contribution to the current Year of Faith, and I think they do.

Bernini's Santa Cecilia

A few of the saints, or at least their names, will be familiar to many readers: St Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop whose letter to the Romans has been preserved; St Cecilia, to whom an ancient church in Rome was dedicated and is often visited by tourists and pilgrims today (and Bernini's famous sculpture also immortalizes her in our imaginations); St Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier turned Christian hermit, who was tricked into letting himself be made bishop. But I'm sure that most of the saints chosen -- Saints Ariadne, Sabinus, John the Dwarf -- will be unfamiliar to most readers.

Despite their obscurity, Seddon manages to shed light on each of them, not by recounting their entire life stories but by narrating a key moment in their lives -- often, but not always, the moment of their deaths -- which illuminates the distinctive  sanctity of each. These moments are well-chosen and well-narrated, turning the accounts into enjoyable short stories as well as instructive examples.

Saints Alive! will appeal to adults and youngsters alike. In fact, I think they would lend themselves to being read aloud and discussed afterward -- wouldn't that make a nice project for this Year of Faith! I think you'll find that these stories really do bring these early saints to life in your imagination. And if you do fall in love with these heroes of the early Church and would like to know more about these saints, you can turn to the "Notes & Sources" at the back of the book.

You might also want to read some of Andrew Seddon's other books.

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