When I was in first grade, I was given a copy of a children’s book. I can’t remember who gave it to me, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t look through it too closely before purchasing. It was entitled Picture Book of Saints, written by Reverend Lawrence G. Lovasik, and it was pretty much what it sounded like: a book of miniature biographies of various Catholic saints whom we might model our own lives after, with color illustrations depicting them at their most saintly.
The saints, Rev. Lovasik informs us in his introduction, “are your brothers and sisters in heaven. They want to help you get to heaven. Try to be like the saints in doing all you can to know, love, and serve God as they did, and in this way save your soul.” This sounded like a good idea to me, an observant little Catholic. And it might have been harmless or even helpful if it hadn’t been attached to this particular source material. But the reason I remember Lovasik’s advice lo these many years later is because of what followed: a cavalcade of horror stories that freaked me out way more than any scary movie ever could.
I took Lovasik’s exhortation seriously, studied his examples closely, and learned a lot from them. And while there is no one identifiable source for all of my many psychological hangups, if I had to rank things I took in as a child in order of how much they messed up my little brain, Picture Book of Saints would probably be at the top of the list. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the first saint I tried to be like. I was young and female, so clearly the youngest female saint would be an appropriate role model, right?
Agnes was only twelve years old when she was led to the altar of the pagan goddess Minerva in Rome to offer incense to her. But she raised her hands to Jesus Christ and made the Sign of the Cross.
And, guys, she was so pretty! And principled! Like Katniss Everdeen, but with Jesus as her Peeta. Surely, everything would work out well if I behaved like Agnes.
The soldiers bound her hands and feet. Her young hands were so thin that the chains slipped from her wrists. When the judge saw that she was not afraid of pain, he had her clothes stripped off, and she had to stand in the street before a pagan crowd.
Oh. Oh my. You would expect the story to make at least a couple of stops before it landed on sexual abuse, but never mind. I was sure it would steer away from further horrors going forward, because Lord knows a reverend would not want to give his young readers any trauma-related complexes. Anyway, back to Agnes’s heroism in the face of leering men.
While the crowd turned away from her, a young man dared to look at her with sinful thoughts. A flash of lightning struck him blind. Agnes was offered the hand of a young man in marriage, but she answered, “Christ is my spouse. He chose me first and His I will be.”
OK, the idea of a 12-year-old being engaged to anyone, even Jesus, is disturbing. As is the fact this entire holy story has revolved around the nudity and bondage of a child. But Agnes has her principles, and now that she’s stood up for them, I’m sure we’ll learn a valuable lesson about standing by your beliefs and how everything will turn out all right in the end.
After having prayed, [Agnes] bowed her neck to the sword. At one stroke, her head was cut off, and the angels took her soul to heaven.
And this is a person whose (short) life we’re supposed to imitate?
If the book contained just one disturbing story, it would be only wildly inappropriate, but probably not the Worst Thing Ever. But, no, as you flip through this book you find that any saint who is portrayed as young, female, and pretty has a very specific life story. Pagans want to marry them, they refuse, and so they are tortured and murdered.
The beginning of Saint Barbara: “Barbara was brought up a heathen. She was a very beautiful young woman, and many princes came to ask for her hand in marriage.” The end of Saint Barbara: “Her father came for her and took her to a mountain, where he himself beheaded her while she was praying to God to have mercy on his soul.” The beginning of Saint Lucy: “At an early age Lucy offered herself to God. The rich young man who wanted to marry her was so angry at her refusal that he accused her of being a Christian.” The end of Saint Lucy: “The governor ordered a fire to be built around her, but Lucy was not harmed. At last, a sword was buried in her heart.” The beginning of Saint Cecilia: “Cecilia was a member of a noble family of Rome and a follower of Christ. Her parents forced her to marry a nobleman named Valerian.” The end of Saint Cecilia, notable for the sheer levels of torture porn inflicted on a wee, impressionable audience: “The judge condemned her to be smothered by steam. But God protected Cecilia. Then the judge ordered a soldier to kill her with a sword. He struck her three times, but did not cut off her head. She fell down, wounded, and for three days she remained alive.” (At this point, if God was at all invested in protecting Cecilia, you’d think he’d have the decency to speed up the whole bleeding-to-death-from-gaping-neck-wounds thing.) And then there’s Saint Dymphna, notable for refusing to marry her own dad. (He was a pagan. I’m assuming this wasn’t the only factor in her decision.) Did this put her father in a beheading mood? You bet. Better question: are there any other moods in these stories?
The problem with this book isn’t just that it is violent and sexual, although that is cause for alarm given its intended age group. The problem is that these stories praised women for being meek and mild and virtuous, and doing nothing to save their own lives in the face of persecution. They taught me something very specific about female heroism, which is that a good woman, a woman who stands by her beliefs, is a woman in pain. The best thing for a woman to be is a victim, for that is true virtue.
I don’t have a problem with vulnerability. I don’t have a problem with talking about suffering. Abuse, illness, grief, oppression, breakdowns, breakups, and just plain bad days—all of these exist in the world, and it’s only by admitting our pain that we can begin to deal with it. But there’s a difference between accepting vulnerability and pain, and fetishizing them.
The fact is, it’s not the Catholic Church that we should blame for all these stories of beautiful female victimhood. Our culture has always loved female victims. We go to museums to look at paintings of the fragile Ophelia, drowning herself in a wreath of flowers because no one loves her, rather than writing a couple of mean lute ballads about her ex. (“Yea verily, I thought that we were forever ever ever / Then you wore all black, and were a real jackass / We shalt not get back together.”) We swap Sylvia Plath quotes and poems on Tumblr, sometimes ignoring that Plath’s “madness” was not chic feminist alienation or a case of the bummers, but a serious and disabling illness. We idolize and memorialize fragile, doomed sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe or Edie Sedgwick. We love Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic and bright blue, tortured and murdered just as surely as good St. Dymphna.
It’s natural to seek voices for our pain, and images to match. But pain isn’t a condition to which you should aspire. Pain isn’t glamorous, or deep, or special, or interesting. Pain is usually a sign that something is wrong, and if it’s fixable, you need to fix it. And any book that tells you otherwise is suspect. Such stories of female martyrs lead us astray—they’re a sly and sneaky way to prevent women from ever really standing up for themselves. Agnes, Dymphna, Barbara, Cecilia: they’re all defiant and principled. But to be defiant and principled, in this book, is to let people treat you terribly, and do nothing to stop it. Here suffering is something God actively wants for us; it’s only by submitting virtuously and constantly to it that we can prove we’re truly good. Too good for this world, in fact, which means we must self-destruct.
Of course, these are old stories, and they come from a time when women didn’t have a lot of options. But we had more in 1962, when Father Lawrence published his own interpretations. We had more in the ’90s, when this book was apparently still considered an appropriate gift to give a small child. And we have a lot more now, when I still see Picture Book of Saints on people’s bookshelves. Maybe it’s time to tell little girls different kinds of stories. ♦