In an ordinary year, summer movies would be a hot topic for conversation. But as movie theater seats have been replaced by couches and recliners for many of us, the Catholic saints celebrated in July provide us with extraordinary biographies that would be fascinating if told through the movies.
The dramatic martyrdoms of sixteen French nuns who were executed during the French Revolution are a perfect example. Actually, Francis Poulenc already proved that by writing an opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, about them.
The basic story is very simple. Officials during the French Revolution executed a lot of people, for almost any reason or no reason at all, but the Catholic Church was a particular target. When sixteen nuns of the city of Compiegne were arrested and sentenced to be executed on July 17, 1794, it was nothing new or remarkable. Well, it wasn’t remarkable until these brave, faithful women marched, one by one, up to the guillotine with the peace and calm of Christ, as if they were renewing their religious vows rather than being brutally beheaded. Not only were the jaded onlookers in Paris moved by the sight, the Reign of Terror ended soon afterward, as if God had accepted their pure act of self-oblation and stopped the bloodshed Himself.
The life story of a saint commemorated on July 24 is less dramatic but contains a powerful object lesson. Saint Euphrasia (380-420) was related to the Roman emperor, but she grew up with her widowed mother in a convent in Egypt. When she reached the age of twelve, she was old enough to inherit her father’s considerable wealth, but she instead chose to give it all away and become a nun. Several years passed, and she began to be tempted by thoughts of the life she had left behind. Her superior was a wise woman, and she gave Euphrasia an interesting chore. She asked Euphrasia to move a pile of rocks from one place to another. When she was done, Euphrasia was ordered to move the same rocks back again. This happened several times, until Euphrasia recognized, through her acts of seemingly pointless obedience, that giving her life to Christ gave her greater joy than any amount of money or power. (The next time your boss or family member asks you to do something as stupid as moving rocks from one place to another and back again, remember Saint Euphrasia. Your chore will seem less pointless.)
If the life story of Saint Godelva, who died on July 30, 1070 in Gistel, Belgium, was made into a movie, it would be a tearjerker. Born into the nobility, she was married to a young nobleman when she was eighteen years old. But Godelva found out how bitterly she was hated by her mother-in-law even before the wedding reception was over. Her mother-in-law locked Godelva in a small room, and she later starved and mistreated the young woman for days, then months. When her mother-in-law won her husband over to her side, he too treated Godelva with cruelty. This abusive situation became publicly known, and the bishop tried to intervene, but not before Godelva’s husband ordered two servants to drown her in a pond. Everyone knew who was responsible for Godelva’s death, but of course it couldn’t be proved. However, that heartless husband remarried and eventually had children. One of his children, a girl, became blind. When numerous other people in the area claimed to be healed through Godelva’s intercession at the same pond where Godelva was murdered, he too prayed for his daughter’s healing at the site. The daughter’s miraculous healing is why this forgiving young woman is now known as Saint Godelva.
The biography of Saint Christina (1150-1224) would sound like outrageous fiction if there weren’t so many witnesses to tell us otherwise. She and her two sisters were young adult orphans living in Belgium when twenty-two-year-old Christina died. That is, everyone thought she died. During the funeral Mass, she not only suddenly sat up in the coffin, she flew out of it and (somehow) perched on the beams in the roof of the church. The priest finally convinced her to come down and explain what was going on. Christina said that she had truly died, but she had traveled to Heaven, Hell, and purgatory. She recognized friends and family members in all three places. Then, she said, God gave her a choice: come to Heaven now or go back to life on earth and do penance for sinners. Christina chose the latter, and for the remaining fifty-two years of her life, she did precisely that. She lived away from people, in part because she said she could smell their sins. She prayed in awkward positions as a penance. She did strange things, such as jump into a river in winter, climb trees, and escape under the mill race of a mill, which should have killed her. Any movie depicting her life would have to make a decision about her motivation: was she mentally unbalanced, merely pretending, or truly trying to humiliate herself as a penance to save souls? The Church would claim the latter. Christina begged for her food and lived alone for many years before she moved to a convent, where two women also considered holy women by the Church, Blessed Mary of Oignies and Saint Lutgardis, were convinced of Christina’s holiness. It’s not surprising that the title she’s most commonly remembered by today is Saint Christina the Astonishing. She’s commemorated on July 24.
Unfortunately, as astonishing as all these women’s lives were, our secular world could never make an accurate film about their lives, precisely because it would not understand the motivation behind their decisions. If you don’t believe that there is such a thing as truth, why give your life for it? If you have the chance to be rich and powerful, why would you ever turn your back on it? If someone treats you cruelly, why would you ever forgive them? If other people are suffering for their supposed “sins”, what does that matter to you?
For those who don’t believe in God, Christians will always seem astonishing.