Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Review: Saints in Love

“Saints in Love: The Forgotten Loves Between Holy Women and Men and How They Can Make Our Relationships Divine”
by Carole Hallundbaek
New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2007

When we think about the saints, we often lose some of their humanity. We become acquainted with them through short biographies that idealize their life and work. In art, they are depicted in glowing forms to illustrate their holiness. This is all well and good. The saints are indeed holy and their relationship with God is at the heart of their being. But their relationships with others were also important. Like all of us, the saints existed here on earth where they had to co-exist with other people. They experienced human emotions like loss and frustration. They also experienced friendship and love.

In “Saints in Love: The Forgotten Loves Between Holy Women and Men and How They Can Make Our Relationships Divine,” Carole Hallundbaek explores the powerful life-changing friendships that existed between four pairs of saints: Clare and Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Pope Gregory XI, and Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. “These relationships often shed light on marriage, work, family, healthy attachments, emotional healing, and more. . . Their discoveries offer valuable lessons for our relationships today – at home, at work, in community, and with God.” It is interesting that she chose male-female pairs. She illustrates that contrary to popular wisdom, men and women can be friends without a physical sexual relationship although sexual complementarity certainly does play a role in the relationships.

Hallundbaek begins each chapter with a short biography of each saint, which is very helpful for placing the saints in context. She is less concerned with their individual lives, though, than with the way that their lives intersect, the impact that they had on each other, and what we can learn from their relationship. Francis and Clare lived in an era of courtly love. They were the best of friends, lived separately and never consummated their relationship, yet they were truly two people in love. “They held God first in their heart and vision; then they held each other.” They “turned to each other, forsaking all others, all earthly options, all worldly distractions, both wills rooted in the love and service of God. Placing our spouse or partner beside our image of God creates the basis for a permanent longing and intimacy, because in the end, our desire for each other is our desire for God.”

Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were sixteenth-century mystics, both eventually named Doctors of the Church. Together they would work to reform the Carmelite order, to bring it back to its roots and its emphasis on poverty. Unlike Francis and Clare of Assisi, who were very similar people, John and Teresa were opposites. They appreciated the holiness in each other, but aggravated each other with their differences in management style. They were co-workers who despite their mutual appreciation sometimes struggled to get along. “Teresa and John were able to work, to love, and to be profoundly creative, through all manner of challenge, obstacle, illness, and even persecution . . .With God at the beginning and the end of all their hopes, goals, and endeavors, Teresa and John were able to take personal conflicts and limitations in stride and overcome much larger obstacles with grace.”

Hallundbaek refers to Catherine of Siena and Pope Gregory XI as the “Peacemakers of Metropolis.” The pair lived in the 1300s. Catherine lived in Siena, Italy where she became a Dominican at the age of 16. Gregory was “a good and honest man living in a time of great conflict and corruption.” He was one of the Avignon popes during a time of great confrontation between Italy and France. Gregory decided to restore the Papacy to Rome, but it would not be an easy process, nor would he do it alone. His first advisor was St. Brigit of Sweden. When she dies in 1373, he sought out Catherine, who had become widely known for her wisdom. “Their exchanges would range over a variety of issues, but overarching these was their common desire for peace in Italy, the reform of clergy, and the return of the papal seat to Rome.” This pair lived at a time of great upheaval. Through it all, they sought to live authentically, to be true to God and to themselves. They also shared a great concern for the world at large. “Catherine and Gregory always experienced and understood the interdependence of people, of families, of neighborhoods, of courts, of city-states, of countries . . . of our world with God. As a result, their ultimate goal was a community of heaven.”

Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal would found the Visitation Order in the seventeenth century. He had become a lawyer to please his family, but he would eventually give it up to follow his true calling of becoming a priest and bishop. Jane was a widow who had loved her husband deeply. After his tragic death in a hunting accident, she worked to ensure the financial solvency of her family which included four children. Once that was on sure footing, she became desolate, unsure of what to do next. The pair met when Francis delivered a sermon in Dijon in 1604. “He stressed the importance of finding God right where we are, at any place, at any time, and under any circumstances.” He became Jane's spiritual director. In 1610, they would found the “Congregation of the Visitation of Holy Mary.” It was an order open to those who often were not welcome in other communities: widows, those in poor health, the elderly, and the physically challenged. As a true sign of the modern spirit of this movement, Jane was allowed to bring her youngest daughter with her to the community. “She would be able to raise her there, while continuing to build the order and live out her calling. . . Jane was allowed to be a mother at work.”The Visitations sought to bring spirituality to the common people. “With Francis and Jane, God is experienced not only in church; God comes out of the temple and into the streets, the office, the shops, the schools. . . They understood that God is at the center of our life and all our relationships.

Hallundbaek has a poetical writing style. Her words resonate off the page, bringing the relationships of these holy pairs to life. The book is beautiful, an enchanting and insightful read, which invites the reader to discover the Holy in his or her own relationships and to learn from these masters how to love God in loving others.

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