More July Saints for the Movies

Saint Simeon Stylites; Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain.

As explained in a previous post, not all Catholic saints enjoyed peaceful, quiet lives. Several male saints commemorated in July also had life stories that would make them great subjects for the movies.

Saint Simeon Salus would seem a poor choice on the surface for a visual media like film because he spent almost thirty years living as a monk in the Sinai Desert in Egypt in the sixth century. It would be hard to turn that experience into an action picture. (Note that many Christian men and women had begun to live in the desert in the sixth century because of the inspirational example of Saint Anthony the Great. Anthony was not the first Christian hermit in the desert, but he was certainly the most famous.) But after decades of silent, penitential living, Simeon recognized that God was calling him to return to his native country of Syria and serve the needy. So he did. However, to avoid being treated as a living saint in the town, he humbly pretended to be very unintelligent. He was so successful that the people gave him the nickname “Salus”, which means “stupid”. One can imagine many humorous incidents occurred in Simeon’s life until his neighbors realized he was saintly, not stupid. He is commemorated by the Church on July 21.

Unlike Saint Simeon Salus, the biography of Saint Simeon the Stylite wouldn’t work as a comedy. This Simeon also lived a penitential life as a monk—in fifth century Turkey—but the penances he imposed upon himself were not funny or easy. He chose increasingly difficult places in which to live: first a hut, then a cave, and then on top of a small pillar. He also prayed for hours in difficult postures. This would seem flamboyant, rather than simple, if it wasn’t for the fact that he did all this in the middle of nowhere, and we only know about his penances because of the crowds who came to see him and to listen to him speak about God. All these penances, after all, were performed as an atonement for his own sins and those of others. That is, Simeon detached himself not only from sin but even from ordinary pleasures so that he could live entirely for God. And, one hopes, the people who came to see him went home resolved to let go of their own attachments to sinful pleasures too. His feast day is July 27.

If someone made a children’s movie about the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (also commemorated on July 27), it would sound like this: seven Christian men were walled up inside a cave during the days of the Roman empire, to execute them for their faithfulness to Christ. Two hundred years later, the cave was accidentally discovered and reopened, and the seven men miraculously woke up, Rip van Winkle style, from their long sleep.

A more realistic movie about these saints would follow the older tradition—rather than the later legend just described—that the seven men were martyred around the year 250 because they refused to renounce Christ and were buried in a cave near the city of Ephesus (modern Turkey). When their tomb was rediscovered in the year 479, inscriptions on the cave explained that they were martyrs. It appears that the inscription in the cave referred to the seven men as “sleeping in the Lord”, a not uncommon New Testament expression (for example, see Acts 7:60, 1 Cor. 15:6, 1 Thes. 4:13, 2 Pet. 3:4) to describe Christians who have died peaceful deaths. This may have led to the fanciful legend about their two-hundred-year-long sleep.

But only a believer could make a film about the life of Saint Sharbel Makhlouf (1828-1898), who is remembered by the Church on July 24. He was devout from an early age; his favorite book when he was a young man was The Imitation of Christ. (It is a spiritual classic; look it up.) Sharbel lived as a monk and then as a hermit, with only the barest necessities. But his profound love for God somehow attracted people to him even in his solitary life. He was so deeply devoted to our Lord’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament that he spent hours preparing before he celebrated each Mass. When he prayed, people sometimes saw him levitating above the ground. He suffered from paralysis at the end of his life, but he accepted his painful condition with great peace. Death has not slowed him down either. Blood has been found to flow from his incorrupt body on multiple occasions, and he is greatly loved by the Lebanese people for the miraculous healings that have occurred through his intercession.

Ultimately, none of these holy men would care about being featured in a movie—unless that movie helped its audience learn how to seek humility, self-discipline, courage, and a love for prayer for the sake of the God who loves us so much.

July Saints for the Movies

John Salmon / Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Quidenham, Norfolk – Windows

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.

Celebrating Carmelite Saints in July

Discalced Carmelite Coat of Arms, see

Around the ninth century B.C., the great prophet Elijah challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to a spiritual duel on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings, ch. 18), a mountain range currently located in Israel. Inspired by Elijah’s faith centuries later, a group of Christian hermits settled on Mount Carmel. The exact date of this foundation is debated, but the hermits had become known as Carmelites when they moved to Europe in the twelfth century.

Following the example of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the Carmelites became a mendicant order around that time. Just as each religious order has its own unique charism—Franciscans for poverty, Dominicans for preaching—the Carmelites place a particular emphasis in their spiritual life on contemplation and on the Blessed Mother. Because of that devotion to the Mother of God, the Church offers us an optional memorial in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16. But that’s not the only reason to think of the Carmelite order during the month of July.

Blessed John Soreth (1405-1471, celebrated on July 25) was the prior general of the Carmelites when he expanded the order to include women as well as the laity; before that time, the Carmelite order only included men. Blessed John’s decision opened the door for women to seek holiness in the Carmelite way of life. For that, we should be very grateful since some of the greatest female saints in the history of the Church, specifically Saints Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, not to mention Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, lived quiet but very holy lives as Carmelite nuns.

Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were not Carmelites, but they deserve to be remembered with Carmelite saints all the same. This devout couple brought nine children into the world and raised each one to become a citizen of Heaven. They experienced every parent’s nightmare of having four of those children die even before reaching the age of five. Their faith was apparently only strengthened by such profound suffering, since four of their surviving children became Carmelite nuns, and the fifth became a Visitandine nun. Although it was their daughter, Saint Therese of Lisieux, who became a Doctor of the Church, her writings about her childhood show that the Carmelite spirit of joy, trust, and detachment from the world was first taught to her by her parents. This couple is commemorated on July 12.

Though Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942) is not a well-known Carmelite saint, he should be. Titus was a brilliant man who was not only a priest, but knew several languages and had a PhD in philosophy. He was known all over the world, even outside his native Netherlands, traveling to America and Canada on a speaking tour in 1935. During World War II, he spoke out publicly against the racist anti-Jewish laws of the Nazis, and he encouraged Catholic newspapers to refuse to print Nazi propaganda. Unsurprisingly, the Gestapo began following him and finally sent him to the Dachau concentration camp in April, 1942. The Nazis starved and overworked all their prisoners, including Titus. Despite the brutality of the camp, Titus prayed for the camp’s guards and encouraged others to do the same. When his health deteriorated, the Nazis decided to perform medical experiments on him; he was executed when he was so ill that he was no longer useful for such experiments. He is remembered as a martyr on the Church calendar on the date of his death: July 26.

As these Carmelite memorials pass us by during the month of July, there’s one aspect of spiritual life for which our Blessed Mother and these saints can be particularly helpful: deepening our prayer life.

All you Carmelite saints, show me how to pray.

July: Old Testament Saints

From British Museum / Public domain; see Wikimedia Commons.

Catholics who can remember attending Mass before the 1960s will remember feast days in honor of great figures from the Old Testament. Did those disappear along with Saint Christopher?

No, they did not. Although the Vatican II revision of the liturgical calendar may have changed the precedence and order of many commemorations of saints, the Church’s high regard for great Jewish leaders did not disappear. The simpler calendar that we are all now familiar with still includes holy Jewish men for us to remember, particularly in July.

For example, July 1 is the commemoration of first High Priest of God’s Chosen People, Aaron, Moses’ older brother. Although Aaron certainly hit a personal low when he helped the people create a golden calf to worship instead of God (Exo 32:21-24), nevertheless, he was the first High Priest. Other descriptions of Aaron in the book of Exodus are generally positive, though the poor man had the disadvantage of spending his life in the shadow of his gifted brother.

The Church recognizes the Prophet Elijah on July 20. How many people have had such profound trust in God that they were willing to ask Him for a public and miraculous event to disprove the existence of a pagan god? Yet that’s what Elijah did when he invited priests of Baal to a competition to prove to the Jewish audience that only God could miraculously light a fire in a water-soaked offering in broad daylight (1 Kings 18:20-40).

The Biblical book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of one of the greatest Jewish prophets. The Prophet Ezekiel’s words provide us with some of the most famous images in the Old Testament: a valley of dry bones that God brings back to life through Ezekiel’s words and a vision of angels that are like “wheels within wheels”. Artists have done their best to try to show such a thing, but no one knows what he saw or what he meant by that. Presumably, what Ezekiel saw is so inexplicable to the physical world that words literally fail us. He’s commemorated on July 23.

The book of Ezra teaches how that brave Jewish leader led a remnant of the Chosen People back to the land of Judah after the Babylonian exile. After the Jews had spent several decades as slaves and servants of the people who had conquered them, Ezra led his people back to freedom. As may be imagined, the returning Jews had forgotten how to practice their faith while living their entire lives among pagans. Ezra (celebrated on July 13) had the unenviable task of telling them to make painful changes to their lifestyles if they wanted to be faithful to God.

All four of these men are still honored by the Church in part because they were “types” of Christ. That is, although they were imperfect men, they had faith in the one true God, and through their faithfulness, other people were led to the true God. As Christians, we can also see how each of these men acted as signposts, pointing forward in time to God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. What these four men did imperfectly, for the people of their time, Jesus accomplished perfectly.

For example, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the role of High Priest, as both priest and victim, on the Cross (see John 19:24; the High Priest wore a garment without a seam). Jesus proved the impotence of false gods by defeating death itself by rising from the dead (1 Cor 15:55). No sooner had Jesus died on the Cross than “dry bones” in nearby graves came back to life (see Matt 27:52-53). Jesus’ entire Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-7:29) explains how to rise from a life of slavery to sin to the freedom of being children of God.

Like Saint Christopher, these men are still honored by the Church as holy men. May they help us grow in holiness today.