The boring business of being a (girl) saint

Somewhere in purgatory there must be a very large room filled with artists and writers doing time for the bad paintings, statues, and biographies of female saints they produced during their lifetime.

I do not want this to be the case. Yet, when I think about all the images of consumptive 14-year-old girls that adorned the holy cards of my youth or all the silly stories about saintly young women who would rather die than disobey their parents, I fear it must be so.

I’m sure, of course, that Christ and the holy women those artists gravely misrepresented have forgiven them their sins. But those sins did damage and that damage must be atoned for. Thanks to them, countless Catholics (and non-Catholics too) are running around this world thinking sainthood a boring business and female sainthood more boring still.

For a long time, I was one of those Catholics. Somewhere along the way, between bad religious art and even worse religious storytelling, I picked up the idea that lady saints were like so many of the statues that represented them: cold, untouchable, and decidedly not real. How could they be real? They seemed to have so little life in them, so little blood—never speaking a cross word or giving a cross look, never getting angry, never even thinking a bad thought.

Those plaster women were not like any woman I’d ever met. And they were most definitely not like me, with my red hair and temper and excessively strong opinions. Maybe they were real, I concluded at one point. But they were also the rarest of birds, and neither myself nor anyone I knew could so much as hope to join their ranks.

Then, I met St. Teresa of Avila, who was a giddy flirt, even as a nun, until a mystical encounter with Christ brought her to her knees. When she got back up, she launched a reform of the Carmelite order. Her superiors tried to stop her, but she didn’t give up in defeat. Instead, she launched a letter-writing campaign to King Phillip, begging him to intervene. Which he eventually did, bringing the inquisition against her to an end.

Around the same time, I met St. Catherine of Siena, who in 1376, marched off to Avignon and told Pope Gregory to get himself back to Rome post-haste and stay there. He obeyed.

Next I met St. Perpetua, who faced the lions of Carthage more calmly than I can manage to face the field mice in my kitchen. A lot more calmly.

Then, there was St. Joan of Arc, who commanded a motley crew of surrender-happy French soldiers and began her letters to the English army with the salutation, “Dear Heretics.” Continue reading


Emily Stimpson is a freelance writer, based in Steubenville, Ohio.


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