Lives of the Saints

No Other Life

by Brian Moore
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 223 pp., $21.00

The lives of the saints make fascinating reading. Saint Patrick, a slave on a lonely Irish mountainside, escaped from his bondage only to find himself overwhelmed by a sacred destiny that was as confining as any serfdom. Converting the people of the island where he had tended sheep, he gave his life to their spiritual well-being, made the locally ubiquitous shamrock the emblem of the Trinity, and rid the land of snakes.

Saint Ursula, child of tenth-century royalty in England, spurned the advances of a pagan king, wishing to remain a virgin, unwed and holy. Granted a generous period of grace, she took to the open sea with ten ladies-in-waiting who in turn were accompanied by a multitude of female servants and companions. For three years they sailed the seas in eleven vessels, until winds blew them up the Rhine to Cologne and on to Basel, where they disembarked, immediately making for Rome to pray at the tombs of the apostles. On the way back, unwilling to deny their Christian faith to godless captors, they were massacred.

Saint Joan left the plough to lead the armies of France. Scavenging dogs turned away from the corpse of Saint Bibiana, fearful of its sanctity. The Blessed Lucy endured a loss of blood through her stigmata every Wednesday and Friday for three years. The twin saints, Cosmas and Damian—moneyless doctors who took no fees for their services—defied death by water, fire, and crucifixion before they were beheaded.

So at least, in all these cases, it is said. There may be some other reason for the absence of snakes in Ireland, and for the fact that shamrock grows wild there while withering on the neighboring island. The voices that told Joan of Arc to save France may have been no more than the voices that today communicate with young schizophrenics. The martyrdom of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins is treated with reserve in the Roman liturgy. The dogs, when they nosed out poor Saint Bibiana, may have already scavenged their fill that day. Stigmata are not uncommon, nor is the defiance of death.

Yet these saints are venerated. They are real because people have made them so, their long vanished feature alive in the imaginations they nourish, their strength the faith of the faithful, the marvels of their lives an inspiration. And somewhere in the entanglements of exaggeration and myth there is a whispering insistence that human goodness is what matters most of all: however faint, it’s a sound to honor with the benefit of the doubt.

Such goodness, though, is notoriously tricky territory for the fiction writer; trickier still to keep disbelief at bay when saintliness is possibly involved and the miraculous has a part to play. Yet novelists have to take chances and Brian Moore has always prospered by doing so. With the truth as its target, the obsession of the story-teller has repeatedly led him to difficult terrain: hot spots attract him. In his last novel …

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