For your soul food five days after Toussaint, All Saints’ Day November 1, 2014, this anthology of 365 fellow saints is a benedictive breakfast.
God’s not done with me yet: All Saints by Robert Ellsberg reviewed by Mike Foster on Nov. 5, 2014
Just as the body requires its breakfast bacon, the soul too needs sustenance for what awaits it in this sweet and sin-filled world each day.
Robert Ellsberg’s 1997 book, subtitled “Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time,” provides 365 brief biographies, beginning with Jesus’ mother Mary on Jan. 1 and ending with St. Melania the Younger, a Roman wife, mother, monk, and friend of Sts. Augustine, Jerome, and Paula (also featured in All Saints) whose pilgrimage ended with her death in Bethlehem Dec. 31, 439.
St. Melania is not the only little-known holy one cited in Ellsberg’s canon. The usual suspects—Peter, Paul, Matthew, assorted Thomases and Francises and Johns and Ignatii—are there. But so are two Mechtilds, Hackeborn and Magdeburg, not to mention St. Victricius, the Roman soldier convert who threw down his arms and became bishop of Rouen.
Ellsberg’s communion of saints is catholic in the small “C” sense. It includes holy folk from other faiths, like Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Etty Hillesum, and Mahatma Gandhi. In this book’s heaven, there’ll be not only mystics, missionaries, and martyrs, but also Mozart.
Peacemakers, as children of God, are numerous: Peter Maurin, Henry David Thoreau, A.J. Muste, Ammon Hennacy, Franz Jagerstatter, John Leary, Sojourner Truth, and Fr. James “Guadalupe” Carney. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Oskar Schindler, and the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham rub shoulders with popes and cardinals, nuns and abbots, hermits and theologians.
Beginning with St. Caedmon, literature is well-represented: Flannery O’Connor, George Herbert, Thomas Merton, Leo Tolstoy, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante Alighieri.
Ellsberg, the son of Daniel Ellsberg who made Pres. Richard Nixon’s enemies list for releasing the Pentagon papers which revealed the dire truth about the state of the US war in Vietnam, begins each of these one- to two-page entries with an epigraphical quote from the day’s beatifee.
Take English poet, journalist, lecturer, and apologist G.K. Chesterton, whose May 29 birthday falls between American bittersweet novelist Walker Percy on May 28 and French warrior-woman and martyr St. Joan of Arc.
Ellsberg quotes Chesterton: “A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” A succinct, spirited biography follows, generously larded with quotes: “All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”
Chesterton’s populist views and epigrammatic style are extolled, as is his patriotic opposition to the Boer war. Distributism as aptly defined as “a sort of economic democracy based on principles of decentralization of property and power.” Entries conclude with a further reading reference; in this case, Margaret Canovan’s G.K. Chesterton: Radical Populist and Nigel Forte’s collection A Motley Wisdom.
Readers will meet heroes they never heard of, like Hans and Sophie Scholl, whose secret White Rose Society published leaflets and graffiti opposing Hitler in late 1942, convicted of treason and beheaded Feb. 22, 1943.
Commemorated Dec. 8 is Fr. Walter Ciszek, the Jesuit priest imprisoned in Siberia in 1941, where he risked his life saying Mass and administering sacraments in brutal conditions. Presumed dead, he was released in 1963, and preached God’s providence in New York until he died 21 years later.
Critics may quibble inclusions—St. Catherine of Alexandria, who never existed—and exclusions—C.S. Lewis. Some would be reluctant electees: “When they call you a saint, it means basically you’re not to be taken seriously,” Dorothy Day often said.
My birthday, Dec. 28, is the bloody feast of the first martyrs, the Holy Innocents, the poor boy-child infants slain by the paranoid King Herod as is chronicled in Matthew 2:13.
I will be 68.
Co-editor, co-blog publisher, and fellow writer Brandon C. Hovey, who will be 25 on June 27, 2015, shares his feast day with English underground Jesuit priest John Gerard who died on that day in 1637 after bravely preaching his faith to British Catholics during the bloody and torture-filled reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
My 2014 re-reading of All Saints will conclude Nov. 13, the eighteenth anniversary of Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s death, which will be commemorated in seven days in this space.
More pages will be dog-eared and annotated before it returns to the shelf.
Add it to your library if you lack it.
A year from the day you do, you will thank us.