Christian culture and the lives of the saints


Whereas the secular historian is in no way committed to the cultures of the past, the Catholic is bound to the past by his belief in the continuity of tradition, so that he sees all the successive ages of the Church and all the different forms of Christian culture as an organic part of one living whole in which he participates.

The Church exists in history, but at the same time it transcends history so that each of its temporal manifestations has a supertemporal value and significance.

Now this wholehearted acceptance of the religious achievement of the past finds its theological justification in the doctrine of the communion of Saints. The importance that is attached by Catholics to the Saints in liturgy has always been recognized as a distinctive feature of Catholicism. It means that in every age, in every century and in every generation there are individual men and women who have passed from the world of history to the world of faith and who still exert an influence on the lives of men today.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the saints in Catholic religion and culture. But since the cultus of the saints was discarded at the Reformation, it is one of the points in the Catholic tradition which non-Catholics find most difficult to understand, especially in its medieval form when the lives of the saints became a part of folk culture and were surrounded by a halo of popular legend. But for all that or even because of that, it was through the lives of the saints that the realities of the faith were brought home to the masses who knew little or nothing of theology. For, as I have written elsewhere, "The Saint was not just a good man who was dead. He was a living power who took an active interest and share in human affairs: the friend of the poor, the defender of the weak, a living and visible witness of the power of the world to come."

In the present age the mists of myth and legend have been dispelled by the labor of generations of scholars, especially the members of the Society of the Bollandists in Belgium, but the culture of the Saints remains as important in modern Catholicism as in that of the past. Indeed with the corning of scientific hagiology the Witness of the Saints has acquired a new significance. Through the authentic records of their lives we possess direct access to the religious experience of the past ages of the Church. That is to say, in addition to the lex credendi of theology and the lex oranidi of the liturgy, we possess a vast series of documents illustrating the ideals and practise of the Christian life in the successive ages of the Church's life.

There are few even among Catholics who realize the importance of the lives of the saints for the history of Western civilization. Nowhere else do we find such a rich tradition of authentic biographical material, which throws light on almost every aspect of life and thought over a period of nineteen hundred years. The lives of the saints have created the spiritual pattern of Christian culture through the centuries. They have been the archetypes of Christian experience through which successive generations have learnt the following of Christ according to the forms of their own age and culture. Often no doubt the historical character of such lives is obscured or destroyed by the credulity or devotion of the biographer. But even when this has gone so far as to transform the biography into a work of Christian mythology or romance, it may still possess historical value in a secondary sense as a reflection of the mind of the age in which it was written and an expression of its spiritual ideals. Here what the lives lose as history they may gain as literature, for this Christian mythology is the fountain head of European poetry and art. In any case the tradition of authentic historical biography co-exists with the wildest flights of hagiographical imagination.

In this immense storehouse of Christian biography of all kinds and periods, there is no lack of works of great literary and historic value which throw a light on the past not to be found elsewhere. Moreover some of them are surprisingly relevant to the problems of our own time. When we read the letters of St. Cyprian to his clergy working as convicts in the mines or his appeal on behalf of the Christian prisoners and deportees among the barbarians in North Africa, it is hard to realize that seventeen hundred years have passed.

But the documents for the study of Christian culture are not confined to the lives of the martyrs and canonized saints. They also include the biographies of other representative figures in the history of Christendom — kings, bishops, and men of letters — who have played a leading part in the life of their time. And they include missionary letters and narratives which shed light on the history of the expansion of Christianity both in Europe during the early Middle Ages and in Asia and the New World in recent centuries — such as the correspondence of St. Boniface and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Germany in the eighth century, the travels of the Franciscan friars to Central Asia and Mongolia in the thirteenth century, and the letters and relations of Jesuit missionaries in India and China and Canada in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Finally there are the more intimate autobiographical documents in which the saints record the inner history of their own lives. This is a class of material which the secular historian does not possess and which is of incomparable value for the light that it throws on the ultimate springs of Christian life and action. By these we can know the mind of the saints more intimately than that of perhaps any other class of historical character. Some of these saints, like St. Augustine, were the greatest minds of their age, others were unlearned and outwardly unimportant people, but all of them, great and small, were men and women of spiritual genius through whom we are brought into contact with the innermost secrets of the Christian life.

For the study of Christianity nothing can be more important than this tradition of nineteen hundred years and the inexhaustible wealth of this literature. Church history in the strict sense is too often an arid subject which concentrates its attention on dead theological controversies. It gives us the dry bones of Christian history but not the living flesh and blood. But the lives of the saints bring us into contact with the inner life of Catholicism so that we can see how in every age the Christian tradition has found expression in new creative personalities which are characteristic of time and place. This great mass of material has never been fully utilized by the historians. For example, Henri Bremond's literary history of religious sentiment in France in the seventeenth century has entirely transformed our knowledge of one of the most familiar periods of modern history by its use of these neglected sources.

In the past the lives and legends of the saints played a leading part in Christian teaching and education. They reached the common people not only through the liturgy and the preaching of the Church, but through oral tradition and poetry and art, so that every social relation and activity — every people and place and profession — had their patrons and representatives who were regarded as the leaders of the Christian people in the present no less than in the past.

No doubt the literature about the saints is extremely uneven in quality, both from the religious and the literary point of view. Since the lives of the saints were written for edification, they suffer more than any other type of literature from pious platitudes and clichés. Yet, on the other hand, some of them are masterpieces of psychological penetration, like the Confessions of St. Augustine and the Life of St. Teresa Avila. Indeed it may be said that it was the Saints who discovered autobiography and first put it on the literary map. Of course this hagiographic tradition is not peculiar to Catholicism; some of the Protestant Churches also followed it, especially, I think, the Quakers in the 17th century and the Wesleyans in the 18th. But none of them can compare with the Catholic tradition in volume and continuity — it is a great multitude of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues, with an unbroken succession from the apostolic age to the present day.

Nothing shows the catholicity of the Catholic Church better than the extraordinary range of human character and behavior on which the seal of her approval has been placed. It runs the whole gamut from the Christian statesman and warrior to the visionary and eccentric. If we formed any conception of Catholicism from the lives of the saints alone, we might easily suppose that it was a religion which gave free rein to all "the varieties of religious experience". But we must remember that the importance of the saints is not confined to their lives and legends. Even more important is the place they hold in the Catholic cultus. And here we find the subjectivity of experience is subordinated to the objectivity of the liturgical order. If we want to understand Catholicism as an ordered whole we cannot do better than to study the Catholic liturgy. For here we find all the different elements of Catholic faith and life brought together and harmonized in a great superpersonal work of faith and art — opus divinum as St. Benedict called it or part of it.

It is in this corporate liturgical action that the mind of the Church and also the nature of the Church is most fully and authentically revealed. It shows us more clearly than any theological treatise how the Church transcends history by recapitulating the whole drama of human redemption in a living contemporary mystery and also how she comprehends history by associating in this action the names and memorials of the thousand representative Christian men and women who have collaborated in this redemptive process in every age and country.

Thus the liturgy and the lives of the Saints are closely related to one another and both of them alike provide ways of access to the understanding of Catholicism. In the past the study of liturgiology had little place in Protestant religious studies. But from the time of the Oxford Movement there was a great awakening of interest in the Church of England and for a century or more it has been the field of study in which Anglican and Catholic scholars have collaborated most closely and most fruitfully. I do not know how far that has also been the case in the United States. But there has certainly been a striking revival of interest in the subject among American Catholics in recent years, and this interest is not confined to the Latin liturgy but also embraces the Eastern liturgies, the study of which has been so neglected in the past.

And this is not a matter of purely archaeological interest, since the representatives of these different rites exist in this country in considerable numbers. In the past most Protestants and even many Catholics were unaware of the coexistence of different rites within the Catholic Church, so that Catholicism was popularly regarded as inseparable from the Latin rite. But this new awareness of the existence of these different rites as part of the common Catholic tradition has a considerable value for the student who wishes to understand the ecumenical character of Catholicism.

Memorandum by Christopher Dawson, part of which was delivered as one section of a lecture at Harvard in the fall of 1958.

Christian culture is essentially a spiritual culture and it finds its supreme expression in the personalities of the saints, the men who followed the Christian way of life to its ultimate conclusion. The saints influenced culture not only because they were spiritual leaders, but because they were the mirrors of perfection and the ideals of Christian behavior toward which popular devotion aspired.

In the first age of the Church, the ideal of sanctity was above all that of the martyr, the man who bears witness with his blood to the Christian faith. The ideal and even the name go back to the very beginning of Christianity — to St. Stephen, to Antipas "my faithful witness who was slain among you" (Apocalypse II), and to St. John's reference to the three witnesses — the spirit, the water (of baptism) and the blood (of martyrdom) (I John v, 8); and throughout the age of persecution down to the fourth century the martyrs hold an increasingly important place in Christian ideology and cult. Some of the earliest authentic records, like the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne, the Acts of Perpetua and her companions and the Acts of St. Cyprian give us a more intimate knowledge of early Christian mentality than any other documents. They show us how the expectation of martyrdom was one of the permanent factors in Christian life and how the triumph of the martyrs was regarded as a visible proof of Christian truth and was shared by all the faithful as their common possession and their common glory.

Thus in early Christian culture the figure of the martyr took the place of that of the hero in pagan culture, and the lives and legends of the martyrs replaced the heroic myths and legends which were one of the most popular and persistent elements in the old culture.

from "Christian Culture in the Patristic Age" by Christopher Dawson, appearing in the 1954 Volume, No. 2. of Folia.



Dawson, Christopher. "Christian culture and the lives of the saints." part of a lecture delivered at Harvard University 1958.

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 1958 Julian Philip Scott

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