My formal religious education ended at age 6, when I moved from an Episcopal kindergarten into a secular elementary school. I remember an early childhood that included weekly church services and Bible stories, but nothing like the immersive environments described by my friends who received the bulk of their education in Catholic or Jesuit schools.
Maybe that’s part of the reason I found Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints so fascinating.
(Full disclosure: Colin is my friend and grad school colleague. If I’d hated or even been indifferent toward his book, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it here. But I loved it, hence the review.)
For those who grew up surrounded by stories of religious martyrdom and miracles, the names of Agatha, Barbara, Foy, George, and other saints chronicled in Afterlives are probably familiar. But Afterlives moves beyond the familiar versions of these stories, including fascinating details and a critical perspective that help to breathe new life into very old tales.
For Dickey, saints exist in a liminal space between human and god, their bodies subject to seemingly unendurable torments in their desire to transcend mortality. It is their mortality, in fact, that makes their suffering poignant. They are defined by their physical selves, and more specifically by the body parts they lost, or by the tortures they endured (sometimes self-inflicted).
There’s Saint Simeon, who sat atop a pillar in the Syrian desert for thirty-seven years. Saint Lawrence, who as he was being burned alive said to his tormentors, “This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite.” St. Agatha, whose breasts were cut off and is often depicted holding them on a tray. Dying for one’s beliefs, it seems, wasn’t always enough to achieve sainthood–one had to die or be killed very, very creatively. Hearing some of these stories for the first time, I genuinely wondered how any young Catholics or Jesuits were able to sleep at night.
Dickey himself is a product of Catholic and Jesuit schools, but he notes that the full stories of the saints were very different from those he had been taught. He calls them “an alternative history of early religions and nations,” adding that it was through the saints that he “first began to understand that history is not a solid, purposeful arc from the darkness of the early ages to the enlightened modern era. It is, instead, full of strange detours, odd obsessions, embarrassments that were often meant to be forgotten.”
Afterlives effortlessly weaves the stories of saints with references to modern literary theory, film, and pop culture, which serves to make their stories all the more immediate, moving them out of the confines of religion and into the realm of the everyday, or at least the extraordinary everyday. Early on in the book he compares the saints to Ridley Scott’s replicants, who were described as “more human than human”: “Unlike the Christ, (the saints) are not divine, though divinity may pass through them. They may be miraculous, but even so they remain fully, stubbornly mortal. But while they participate in a common humanity, they lie at the very limit of that humanity–they have pushed what it means to be human to the breaking point, and then beyond. They have taken their own humanity and shattered it.”
Indeed, for someone never exposed to stories of religious devotion taken to comical extremes, the stories of the saints are first and foremost stories of bodily endurance. Saints don’t just suffer, they turn suffering into art. And for Dickey, it’s all right to occasionally laugh at their extremes. He recalls the Jesuit chemistry teacher who told the story of burning Saint “turn me over and have a bite” Lawrence: when the whole class laughed, the chemistry teacher reprimanded them, saying that the story was “not funny.” Dickey writes: “But of course, it is funny. It’s not for nothing that Lawrence is recognized now as the patron saint of comedians…My chemistry teacher snapped at us because he, like so many believers, conflated the sacred and the solemn.”
Afterlives takes its subjects seriously, but it’s also full of humor and unexpected connections between religious martyrdom and modern life. There’s a sense of wonder throughout the book, whether Dickey is describing the illustrations in Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the vertigo-inducing depths of Borges’ Library of Babel, or the way that Saint Sebastian’s death reminds him of Joe Pesci’s brutal beating in Casino. As its subtitle indicates, Afterlives is ultimately about much more than the lives of saints. It’s a reflection on what it means to be human, on the often thin line between madness and sanity, and the ways in which devotion and obsession could drive someone to push the boundaries of both.