All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. – book reviews
Robert Ellsberg. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997. 576pp. $39.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
Some cynics, hastily reading the title, might jump to the conclusion that All Saints is a “non-book,” a scissor-and-paste assemblage of a saint for every day, with pious reflections. Such a judgment, however, would only betray ignorance of its author, editor-in-chief at Orbis Books and author of solid books on Dorothy Day, Fritz Eichenberg, and Mahatma Gandhi. Ellsberg, well aware of the stereotypes in which the lives of saints are usually presented, has composed crisp, discerning sketches of men and women notable for the originality of their vision and the challenge their lives continue to present to our complacent mediocrity. His realistic perspective is indicated in his “Introduction” where, after referring to many certified martyrs, he speaks of “countless others who suffered persecution or humiliation – not from ostensible ‘enemies of the faith’ but at the hands of their fellow Christians.”
Wide reading and measured judgment are evident in the 365 minibiographies, but Ellsberg is concerned with something more than scholarship or even good writing. Dipping regularly into the pages of All Saints becomes a delightful way to absorb a great deal of Christian history and rediscover some of its most luminous figures; it is also a means of enlarging our understanding of holiness. Ellsberg does not restrict himself to the official Roman Catholic canon of saints; his very title is a reminder of the feast celebrated on November 1 which commemorates the “countless men and women whose holiness is recognized by God alone.” Those who know of Ellsberg’s years with the Catholic Worker will not be surprised to see Dorothy Day included in this book, as well as such recent Catholic heroes as Archbishop Romero, Thomas Merton, and Mother Teresa; some readers may be surprised, however, to encounter Bonhoeffer, Schweitzer, Wesley, and Martin Luther King, as well as non-Christians like Gandhi, Heschel, van Gogh, and Camus. Far from wanting to “annex” such figures to Christianity, Ellsberg wishes to point “in the direction of the God who (according to St. John) is ‘larger than our hearts,'” and quotes Heschel:
Holiness is not the monopoly of any particular religion or tradition. Whenever a deed is done in accord with the will of God, whenever a human thought is directed toward Him, there is the holy.
All Saints is a powerful corrective to the recurring temptation “to equate holiness with moral perfection.” Ellsberg is well aware that the lives of some of his subjects include contradictory aspects: someone who has read a recent biography of Tolstoy or suspects that the wrath of Leon Bloy was not always holy could be tempted to create a more exclusive heaven. Recalling Christ’s proclamation that “there were those who were blessed simply because they gave a drink of water to a thirsty stranger,” Ellsberg recognizes the ambiguity and weakness in many of those he includes, but insists that their witness “nevertheless, was redeemed by one great deed, by one special gift, or simply the earnestness of their intention.”
Predictably, Ellsberg provides a generous sampling of non-violent saints, from Vinoba Bhave and Helder Camara to Eberhard Arnold and Franz Jaggerstatter. Nor is it surprising to be reminded of Ellsberg’s fondness for fellow-writers, whose inclusion, whatever their imperfections, could be justified in terms of both their gift and their intention. Best of all, this is a book which makes the notion of a communion of saints come alive: Chico Mendes, the martyred rubber-worker form Brazil, is at home with Soren Kierkegaard; one begins to imagine Cardinal Newman contemplating the life of Sojourner Truth, and John XXIII praying with modernist George Tyrrell.
All Saints will be especially effective in suggesting what holiness might mean today if we do not read it passively. Ellsberg has pondered his material deeply, and combined psychological shrewdness with spiritual depth in his selections and commentary; his book should encourage us to wonder about others, perhaps leading hidden lives in our own communities, who might be added to his “cloud of witnesses.” Such a search on our part will reinforce his argument: “to call someone a saint means that his or her life should be taken with the utmost seriousness.”
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