Throughout Christianity’s two-thousand-year history, believers have written spiritual biographies – usually of real saints who actually lived and died. These spiritual stories were especially important if the saint whose life was depicted had been a person of great prominence, someone whose piety was marvelous and obvious to behold, or whose conversion from evil to the true faith was especially dramatic. The purpose of these spiritual biographies was generally for the enlightenment of the soul. Since that time biographies have changed, concentrating more on the infamous rich than on those holy ones who are poor in spirit.
Books about holy people are tricky things. For those subjects who lived a quiet life of apparent normalcy, writers first have to define a certain kind of saintliness and then prove how their subjects fit into this holy pattern. All this is done so that the reader and would-be-saint will see herself in the life of the book’s main character. A good spiritual biography, then, should shed light on some perennial human truth about spiritual struggles and encourage its reader to spiritual greatness. There is also the obligatory fawning and praise that a writer of these biographies must indulge in – especially if the writer was acquainted with the saint. In addition to the praises, a few digressions have to be made because the occasional Biblical story parallel and a few apt sermonizing need to be brought to the reader’s spiritual attention. In short, these spiritual biographies were the psychological histories or their time, but they had a particular pattern which a modern reader must understand if she must enjoy the ride.
Wangerin's Saint Julian follows the pattern of ancient spiritual biographies well, perhaps a bit too well for the modern reader. At birth, young Julian was marked as a saint when he saved his mother as she gave birth to him. The obligatory saintly birth is, of course, part of the pattern. Despite Julian’s congenital saintly behavior and all external appearances of holiness – repeating the miserere along with the priest when still a child– he did not understand the internal challenges of spirituality, the nature of sin or the need for mercy. Spiritual realities would begin to dawn on him later as Julian’s spiritual and genetic inheritances struggle against each other. This, too, is part of the pattern which declares that humans look at appearances but God looks at the heart. Julian may be externally holy and praised by all, but his heart must meet itself and be converted and made straight. Depending on whether one is a modern reader or an ancient student of spirituality, we know that evolutionary instinct, or the carnal inheritance or humanity, or generational sins or a combination of the above, will work against all external shows of holiness. Julian’s journey toward a true realization of his spiritual state begins on the day of his knighting when he encounters the prerequisite supernatural – a curse (or prophecy?) spoken by a stag he has wounded.
Wangerin has written a fictionalized spiritual memoir in a setting that he has brought to life with admirable talent and skill. But I fear...perhaps with too much talent and skill. This fictionalized memoir is so like the old medieval spiritual Lives of the Saints books that it contains both their greatness and their flaws. Its leisurely wordiness, for instance, would be highly appreciated by those who read spiritual memoirs or who read medieval histories. This is a book about a descent, a holy descent. It is about holiness. In our current world of envy, most modern biographies are about a less-than-holy ascent to power. Those who prefer the less moral, less spiritual more action-packed modern trash-and-flash page turners will not appreciate this book. But this review highly recommends it.