While recovering from a war injury in his family’s castle, Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier and courtier, asked for something to read, preferably his favorite genre of courtly adventure. Instead, he was presented with a book of lives of the saints. At first he found the stories boring. But eventually he became engrossed, imagining a different kind of heroism in God’s service. “What if I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” he asked himself. It was the start of a journey that led him to found the Society of Jesus.
I did not know this story when I set out to write my book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, which was published 25 years ago this month. But I did know the powerful, contagious effect of moral witness. I knew that from my own life and from the example of my father Daniel Ellsberg, whose decision to risk prison for copying the top secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers was directly inspired by the example of young men willing to go to jail for refusing to cooperate with the draft. Such stories had a great impact on my decision to take a leave from college after my sophomore year and make my way to the Catholic Worker—wondering what it would be like to do what Dorothy Day and her companions did.
It was Day who enlarged my store of holy and heroic exemplars. From her recounting of the lives of St. Francis, St. Therese, St. Vincent de Paul, and others, I learned about men and women who had had asked themselves what it would be like to live like Jesus and his disciples. Responding to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors, they had charted new paths of discipleship that others might follow. Day had little interest in abstract theories and principles; what fascinated her was the way these ideals were lived out. And so she moved easily between the canon of official saints and the lives of many others—writers, peacemakers, defenders of the poor, and other radical dreamers. She was drawn to those who (to borrow a phrase that Pope Francis applied to Day herself) allow us to “see and interpret reality in a new way.”
In that spirit, as I wrote All Saints, I combined “official” saints with others drawn from a wider “cloud of witnesses”: Gandhi, Etty Hillesum, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. On the one hand, I wanted to take the official saints down from their pedestals, to show them as human beings whose distinctive holiness was expressed in the course of a life. But I also wanted to expand the understanding of holiness.
Curiously, over the past 25 years, my calendar has edged closer to the official list, as 43 of “my” saints have progressed along the path of canonization, ranging from Servants of God Helder Camara, Pedro Arrupe and Dorothy Day herself, to Saints John Henry Newman, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Hildegard of Bingen, John XXIII and Charles de Foucauld. But my deeper motivation for writing this book, and the daily reflections on “Blessed Among Us” I have written over the past 10 years for Liturgical’s Give Us This Day, has not simply been to honor or remember those who went before, but to plant seeds that might encourage new readers on their own path.
This summer, one of my reflections was about Mattie Stepanek, who died in 2004 at the age of 13 of a hereditary disease. In his short, grace-filled life, he became an ambassador for peace, publishing best-selling books of poetry, befriending Jimmie Carter (who gave the eulogy at his funeral), teaching religious education classes in his parish and touching countless people with his remarkable witness to the gift of life. I noted that a guild is currently promoting his cause for canonization.
Afterward I received a message from his mother, who recognized my name but couldn’t immediately place it. Going through a box of Mattie’s things, she suddenly remembered, and sent me a picture. It was a copy of All Saints, which she said Mattie kept checking out of the library every two weeks until he could afford to buy his own copy.
This was a new experience, but a confirmation of why I write these reflections: So that somewhere, somebody might read these stories and imagine a different way of living, and ask themselves, “What if I should live like Mattie Stepanek?”
Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book (with Sister Wendy Beckett) is Dearest Sister Wendy… A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.