Biographies of saints that get it right: Part 1

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Sts. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa of Calcutta
St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Public domain, CNS photo

This is part one of a four-part series on biographies of saints that best portray their lives.

Writing about saints is a strangely perilous affair. It is much easier to get a saint wrong than to get a saint right. On the one side, there is the danger of reducing a saint to mere biography drained of theological and spiritual depth, while on the other there is the danger of undisciplined pious paraphrasing. But when the biography of a saint goes right, the personality and distinctive holiness of the saint is made vividly, refreshingly present in the minds and hearts of readers.

As the first installment in a series on such biographies, these two books present beloved saints with clarity, depth and spiritual richness: “A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe” by Patricia Treece and “Something Beautiful for God” by Malcolm Muggeridge.

St. Maximilian Kolbe

Patricia’s Treece’s comprehensive account of the sacrificial life and death of Maximilian Kolbe is shot through with rays of light that filled the “Saint of Auschwitz.” The many voices that Treece draws together sing of a man whose life took on a Eucharistic character to feed many.

Kolbe was in the prime of life when the atrocities of the Nazis reached their peak. As Treece writes: “Only the rarest heart could have found room for the Germans that year in Poland. But at least one heart did. In that mournful period, Maximilian Kolbe cheerfully carried out Christ’s command that his followers should love and do good to those who do them evil.” How was that rare heart shaped and softened? As one of his companions recalls: “Father Maximilian was a man of profound and constant prayer. It was his custom to spend much time on his knees.” As another associate remembers: “I was struck by how much he read the Scriptures. Any time I visited him I always saw the Bible open on his worktable.” And a third companion reports that “several times a day he visited Jesus in the tabernacle.” What Treece’s account shows over and over again is how Kolbe was formed into an instrument of joy through the regular and steady practice of prayer and devotion.

The joy of this saint was translated into a kind of care that others described as both fatherly and motherly. He was strong yet tender, confident yet compassionate, focused yet flexible. This character was forged through many long years of sacrifice, by entrusting himself daily to the intercession of the Blessed Mother and from adoring the Blessed Sacrament. What Kolbe became for those gathered around him is what Christ is for all: a means of salvation. He saved others from starvation, hardness of heart, unbearable loneliness and despair. He saved others from forgetting their own dignity and that of their neighbors. He saved others through the joy of Christ’s love poured into him.

Kolbe As Treece writes, “Convinced that all men are somehow mysteriously linked in God so that what one suffers can be offered for another’s benefit, Kolbe tried mystically through his sufferings offered wholeheartedly to God … to turn Auschwitz inmates from dogs into brothers.” The project of his life was to build a school for saints. When he was sent to Auschwitz, the setting changed, but his project did not.

And so when Treece recounts Kolbe’s last act — the offer of his life for that of another and his subsequent banishment into a starvation cell — everything Treece has provided beforehand gives one the sense that his martyrdom was the fitting and almost inevitable punctuation of his entire life. Or, as Treece herself so brilliantly puts it, “The starvation cell, far from defeating him, would become a tabernacle in this cruelest part of Auschwitz, as if — hidden in the heart of the humble Franciscan — God had snuck into hell.”

In that dark place, Kolbe led other condemned prisoners in prayers, in the Rosary and in hymns. All the others died before him, but when they died, Kolbe was still uplifting them in petitions to God. When Kolbe himself was still living after two weeks so that the SS injected him with carbolic acid to kill him, the German interpreter who recounted what he saw in those hidden starvation cells had this to say regarding Kolbe’s dead body: “Father Kolbe was sitting upright. … His body was not dirty like the others, but clean and bright. The head was tilted somewhat to one side. His eyes were open. Serene and pure, his face was radiant. Anybody would have noticed and thought this was some saint.”

If that interpreter made the condition of Kolbe’s death apparent to the world, then Treece’s gift is in making Kolbe’s years of ordinary, regular formation apparent, too. The man who died a martyr’s death in Auschwitz practiced the Catholic faith on a daily basis. His ultimate sacrifice was the fruit of years upon years of practice.

St. Teresa of Calcutta

You pick up the book “Something Beautiful for God” usually because it’s about Mother Teresa, but when you have put it down you are left with so much more. That “more” is what has been gathered up in the radiance of Teresa’s holiness, because discovering this one saint means rediscovering the world anew through her. In this short book, the tremendous power of a life lived for God shines with gentle, illuminating glory.

St. Teresa of Calcutta Malcolm Muggeridge was an unlikely candidate to be caught in Mother Teresa’s radiance. He was a big media personality — “a vendor of words,” as he described himself. His professional craft was to package and sell images of the world for entertainment and attention. He worked hard, but he also glided through life until Mother Teresa walked into his studio for a televised interview. He thought the interview went rather poorly; she was not a big media persona. But then the response to the interview overwhelmed his station, and Muggeridge was forced to take a second look at the diminutive woman who shared his set. He followed her to Calcutta, and his life was never the same.

Muggeridge is one of the backdrops on which the light of Mother Teresa shines. Even the most skeptical person will find in Muggeridge a reflection of him or herself. Muggeridge is critical of the Church; he is unsure about his ability to heed Mother Teresa’s example; and he remains caught up in his own thoughts and words. And yet, the persistent, undeniable force of Teresa’s consistency of life, her dedication to the Eucharist and to the poor, and her conviction that the world is God’s creation and each person is endowed with inviolable dignity continues to woo Muggeridge in a way that both delights and challenges him. The woman he presents in his pages is not the clichéd moral exemplars that she is sometimes reduced to, because, as Muggeridge writes, “I never met anyone less sentimental, less scatty, more down-to-earth.” Instead, Teresa is a total realist. To her, the love of Christ is reality, and that changes everything.

Malcolm Muggeridge
Malcolm Muggeridge considered himself a staunch atheist for most of his life. He had a bad reputation as a womanizer, and was known as an author and media personality in the 60s and 70s. However, that all changed when he met Mother Teresa and witnessed her ministry first-hand on the streets of Calcutta. This introduced Muggeridge to love, service and sacrifice, and he published his experience in “Something Beautiful for God” in 1971. After this time, Muggeridge considered himself Christain, but not Catholic. This all changed when he read the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae and began to dive into other great theological works from authors like St. Augustine. In 1982 at age 79, Muggeridge came into full communion with the Catholic Church with his wife. He died eight years later.

Muggeridge’s book is divided into four parts. The first part, “Something Beautiful for God,” focuses on Muggeridge’s encounters with Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. “Mother Teresa’s Way of Love” presents a collection of the saint’s quotes and reflections on topics like suffering, humility and Our Lady. “Mother Teresa Speaks” is a record of an interview Muggeridge conducted with Teresa. And the last part, “A Door of Utterance,” completes the first section and contains Muggeridge’s summative statements about the beauty of this unrepeatable person. What this skeptical would-be-Christian (who does eventually enter the Church) learns from the saint is that “tThe Christian story is simply an endless presentation of this process of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling gracefully and truthfully among us.” After everything else, the last thing this vendor of words can say about Teresa is that “in a dark time she is a burning and a shining light; in a godless time, the Word dwelling among us, full of grace and truth.”

While an uncomplicated read, this is also a spiritually challenging read in that, like Muggeridge, the reader consistently is faced with their own resilient longing for sanctity and their persistent hesitation to actually embrace the cost of holiness in their own life. The opportunities for an examination of conscience abound in Muggeridge’s pages. In sum, “Something Beautiful for God” is a surprising study in the attractiveness of holiness and the power of a saint to shine Christ’s light upon the world.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book on the theology of the Communion of Saints is “Work of Love” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book What Matters Most offers more on related topics. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at