I am delighted to introduce the Syndicate symposium for Rachel Smith’s Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies. This book represents a genuinely exciting contribution to historical theology and Christian spirituality, while also challenging many commonly held assumptions about theological methodology. As Smith states, “The primary assertion of this book is that Thomas of Cantimpré’s hagiographical writings are sophisticated theological and literary documents” (3). It is not difficult to imagine that a hagiography could qualify as a sophisticated literary document, but perhaps less clear, and more interesting, is the question of the theological status of the hagiography. Smith argues that hagiographies, as a mode of medieval theology, “both represent and seek to reproduce ways of life and modes of thought,” (4) and in many cases “are filled with debate and experimentation” (6). “Experimental” is the right word here, and it gets at much of what makes Smith’s thought so exciting: as a theological genre that implicates and transforms the reader through a relation to the sanctified person, the reading and “taking up” of hagiography is itself a sort of alchemy, an experimentation, a rearrangement of the order of things producing novel results.
I am equally delighted to think alongside our panel of respondents. Elizabeth Angowski opens by reflecting on her engagement with saints as a child in Catholic school. Rather than “embodying” the holy through dress-up and enactment, her class gave reports and presentations, standing at a distance from the lives of the saints. The excessive quality of the saints’ lives was largely lost on her and her classmates. Instead, the saints were presented as “a rather tame class of exceptionally well-behaved people.” Rather than taming the lives of the saints, Angowski argues, Smith thinks with them. The lives of the saints, engaged in this way, become a kind of scripture that implicates the reader and, perhaps, inspires them to grow in holiness. The process of the interpretation of the lives of the saints, on this account, involves not just the acquisition of factual knowledge, but also the very transformation of the reader.
Patricia Dailey poses the question of the “where” of excess. She suggests that excess is not simply a one-time event, concerning a single body or life, but rather consists of a temporal pattern of repetition. Excess “is constantly overflowing and should continue to overflow so that it may be transmitted and remarked.” How is such a temporal excess exhibited by the mystic versus the saint? Dailey turns to Hadewijch of Brabant to compare the saints to the mystics. Whereas Hadewijch never understands her identification with Christ as finished, Thomas seems to treat his subjects as “presencing” the divine. Dailey suggests, then, at least some distance between Thomas’s hagiographical project on the one hand and negative theology and mysticism on the other.
Tamsin Jones brings Smith’s work into conversation with contemporary French phenomenology and hermeneutics. First, Jones engages Jean-Luc Marion. Marion’s concepts of negative certainty and the saturated phenomena both elucidate the epistemological and affective function of the saint as “dissimilar similarity” in Thomas’s corpus (particularly with reference to Christina the Astonishing, an especially eerie saint). Richard Kearney’s work, too, proves useful for Jones. Kearney’s work on welcoming otherness provides an ethical frame for engaging excess and the feelings of horror and admiration that accompany it. Last, Jones discusses the role of trauma in Claude Romano’s phenomenology. In Excessive Saints, Smith, Jones argues, offers “an important corrective to contemporary phenomenology” insofar as she refuses a binary choice between unassimilable trauma and transformative event. Rather, Smith depicts an ongoing process of interpretation, deformation, and reformation.
Ailie Posillico considers Thomas as a pedagogical model. Thomas encourages his readers to “take up” his text “by paradoxically, and perhaps even seductively, foregrounding his own limits and imperfection.” Through appeals to ineffability or recourse to humility, Thomas “renders his subjects objects of wonder, people who cannot be contained.” Posillico asks whether Thomas’s rhetoric ought to be termed “seductive” insofar as it cultivates the desire of the reader. Pointing to his own flaws, Thomas is able to cultivate a relationship of trust with his readers. Thomas’s humility makes room for the reader to “take up” the subject matter and “live them beyond the limits” of the author.
Patricia Zimmerman highlights the challenges in interpreting the lives of the saints for modern readers and Thomas’s performative method. While the paranormal spectacle of the women he treats may have been of initial interest to Thomas (and, presumably, for us moderns), “what sustained him in encounter was most assuredly the scintillating possibility of reproducing their affective, bodily encounters with the divine into others’ lives.” Thomas seeks to reproduce encounters with the divine precisely through a performative reading and writing that implicates the reader, even the modern reader. Zimmerman writes, “Thomas’s texts, then, and Smith’s recreation of their most creative affects, become less a portal to a historically interesting past and more a vivid, living, affective performance on readers of any era.” Likewise, Smith’s work functions as an “invitation, performance, and itinerary all in one.”
There is no way I could do justice to Smith’s work or the panel’s responses here in this short introduction. Fortunately, though, it is only that—an introduction. I hope to have provided a point of orientation here, but the real thinking occurs in these symposium posts, responses, and in Smith’s Excessive Saints. Please enjoy!
From a Windowsill, Darkly
Excess: where do we locate it? In the indeterminacy of a monstrous body (79)? In a reader’s negotiating the exegesis and affective assumption—the taking up (142)—of a vita? In Thomas of Cantimpré’s tethering his narrative to the signs of divinity in a life, or in his divergence from inherited models of sanctity (69)? In the inseparability of form from content (6)? In a severed finger?
A finger in and of itself would not be excessive on its own; rather, you could say that it’s the way in which Lutgard’s particular finger (as res) signifies more than itself, a more that we cannot put our finger on, so to speak, that gives us the measure of an excess that will be repeated, duplicated, replicated (153), transmitted, translated (84), taken up (93), and reenacted throughout this book. Excess is so excessive it exceeds a one-time excess. It is constantly overflowing and should continue to overflow so that it may be transmitted and remarked. Excess, thus, is not only about a body or a life, it engages a temporal element and a form of obligation (or debt, like that of Hugliolino), that can and should be repeated and transmitted almost serially, in a singular fashion, by becoming a pattern, a book of lives, or even an affective turn in the reader (143). This excess is, in part, what Smith traces throughout her book. Excess is not entirely “contained” by the saint, as it exceeds the saint’s singularity: Excessive Saints, plural.
Excess goes beyond genre, beyond the vita. Smith traces excess through numerous registers of discourse, running through the registers of mysticism, apophatic theology, early Christian desert ascetics, notions of exemplarity, legal discourses on proof, scriptural exegesis, pastoral care, Cistercian ideas of literacy, Augustinian sign theory, hyperbolic unlikeness, narratives of conversion, thirteenth-century women’s spirituality of the Low Countries, the gendering of the body, and, of course, more. This said, the book ends on a surprisingly arresting note. Smith writes: “Like the history, which Augustine argues is authored by God and rendered linguistic in the scripture that reflects it, and like the Word made flesh, the saint’s body is a res with its own scripture—the vita” (204).
In this penultimate sentence, we are permitted to hear, almost like an echo, a formula that sets up the vita as scripture, by means of the copula of the saint’s body. “The saint’s body is a res,” Smith writes. Thomas’s writing thus is testimony and inventio—hence the book’s (unintended?) subtitle—as he discovers the signs of divinity in an embodied life. His inventio is both theologically inventive and affirming something that was always already there, divinity itself (if there is such a thing, as only Christ, according to Augustine, can be what he is), or at least divinity as it reflects itself by means of a res. Hagiography presents itself as a replication of divine writing or showing through the life and body of a saint. The vita stretches how scripture means what it means, it translates scriptural hermeneutics into the spatiotemporal dimension of a life. It attests to the muted idiom of the divine as it inscribes itself into (excessive) materiality. The what of divinity is the elusive direction Lutgard’s finger points to. The how is up to the idiomatic nature of a life, the patterning of a saint’s embodied way. As a hagiographer, Thomas is interested in the writing of a life—not in the sense of biography, but in the name of another, that is, the expropriation of a life in the saint’s name and its reappropriation into the name of God. Multiple names are interwoven through various material vessels, but the materiality of the body in this instance, in the hagiography itself, is subsumed to its being-as-sign.
It is at this point, this juncture between the body-as-sign and the body as indexical (almost redundant) materiality, that I want to stop and reflect. Smith’s title performs a similar conjoining in a flickering absent/present colon (:) that disappears on the cover of the book and reappears inside, as the legal title. On the one hand, excessive saints; on the other, Thomas’s hagiographies. What joins them? The mystery of a doubled punctus is at work—one related to the stylus and the other to the saint’s body (“punctuating the scene of conversation,” 128)—each anchored in their respective temporalities. If the saint’s body is a sign, it is also more than that. As a copula, a transitive verb that conjoins subject and complement, the saint’s body, is, as I first noted in relation to Lutgard’s finger, both a material element and more. As Smith notes, this excess represents both an economy of energy and a potential threat: “At the same time [Thomas] . . . must foreground the power of her wondrousness and novelty, for this strangeness energizes and justifies his text even as it threatens it” (114). The saint’s body is its materiality and an excess that inhabits it and the text—at the same time. It is this doubleness, this indexical referent and a doubled excess that is not reducible to its signifying function, that I’d like to focus on here, in relation to bodies and texts I know a bit better, those of the mystics.
The questions I have in mind appear rather basic. I hope to understand how Smith’s study of hagiography marks, or remarks some fundamental differences from mysticism of the same period in the Southern Low Countries, whose excesses I am more familiar with, and whose topoi reappear here in strikingly parallel fashion (the embodiments of inner/outer persons, the vita apostolica the language of fruition and ecstasy, spiritual transformation, affective literacy, Bernard’s experiential understanding, Christic identification, Cistercian and Augustinian influences, clothing oneself in Jesus, the Song of Songs, Origen, the interrelation between language, textuality and embodiment, etc.). I wonder: How does the saint’s body differ from the mystic’s body? What kinds of operations are at work in remarking the saintly corpus? When does the saint’s body become saintly, that is, what temporal elements are implicit here?
Although the language of Thomas’s vitae might perform a negative theology (chapter 6) in relation to the saint’s body, ultimately, this body, while textual, is also material: the body is perched, on a threshold, like the finger on the windowsill (128), in the time and space of the “now” while it is also an index to what lies outside the frame, as its unusual referent. Unlike the mystical body, which, I have argued elsewhere, is suspended in the transformative temporality of promise, the saint’s body must coalesce with its indexical property, providing material “proof” of sanctity and standing in as divine intercessor. Although, as Smith underscores throughout her book, the vita is a means for illustrating theological and spiritual doctrine, for showing how to read properly, the saint is, as she notes, always aligned with divinity in the odd and wondrous time of the now.
By contrast, Hadewijch, the thirteenth-century beguine mystic of Brabant (not the Abbess of Aywières referenced in this book) never knows her identification with Christ is accomplished, unless it be sensed in the time of the vision as a momentary unio. Union, if there is any, is fleeting and, at least for Hadewijch, articulated conditionally (“it was to me as if we were one without difference” [wi een waren sonder differentie], Vision 7). Identification is enacted as a merging in a time that is not lived, but envisioned. Certainty aligns with an inner truth and spiritual understanding, but for Hadewijch, when she embraces her humanity in life, she is deprived of the certainty of identification with God, thus she is left “wandering in the desert.” Her identification is with Job, the psalms, unaccomplished desire, and the tortured uncertainty of absence. But this is not the case for the saint—or, at least, not as the hagiographer sees it. His task is to use that proverbial finger to point to the here and now and to join what is otherwise a syncopation of temporalities and desires with a narrative thread. There is something about this anchoring at work within the vita, in the hagiographical project, that is at odds with an oblique angle of mysticism. One could differentiate it hastily as a difference between identification with the Old vs. New Testament (47), or the difference between the stress on a regio dissimilitudinis or language’s hyperbolic unlikeness, but that would be insufficient.
A different economy of excess is at work in Thomas’s text, an economy which is both a rhetorical strategy and theology, as well as an underlying presumption (or assumption?) of materiality and temporal presencing. This is also at work within Smith’s analyses, becoming yet another mirror in the infinite regress of refractions. Throughout Smith’s book, a constant indeterminate futurity is echoed in the language of “becoming”:
“[Christina’s] imitation of Christ is miraculous . . . becoming a sin offering for others” (80).
“Lutgard’s body becomes text, recapitulating the Song” (153).
“The visionary ‘becomes a vision’ for the hagiographer” (159).
Hagiographical signs . . . may become in addition to their evidentiary capacity, sacramental. Hagiographical signs become sacrament, Thomas suggests, when read in the particular ways that are prescribed by those same hagiographies, making the saint palpably present in the soul and body of the reader; reading may thus become a form of communion (200, all emphases mine).
We are constantly at the edge of being here, poised on a windowsill of temporal possibility, waiting for illumination, that “reflected light” to be “again refracted in the text” (203). In some ways, the parallels with mysticism thus become even more present in the possibilities they offer for the reader who incorporates that sacramental potential. All hinges on the reader’s effective belief. On the other hand, we have entered into a different strategy of presence that accentuates the remarking of a mark already given—a “represencing” (201). I am not so sure how this weighs in relation to the mysticism of the beguines, but it would seem a ways off, not as close as Thomas, or Smith, might place it, since the gap between presence and absence is greater than a difference one could point to. Likewise for the work of negative theology, which, for me, is filiated to the work of negation and not as much to the performative represencing Smith suggests. Although Smith might want to place Thomas’s hagiography in a continuity with mysticism (given her framing of de Certeau), I’d suggest that while mysticism and Thomas’s hagiography are certainly in dialogue in Brabant in the thirteenth century in terms of spiritual techniques and theological currents, her framing suggests a closeness in spirit which, upon inspection is at least a letter, or a finger, apart. What are the politics of this closeness and this distance? What other work, at the surface of the text, might Thomas’s hagiographies and the making of sainthood perform? Might his theologically oriented work, which Smith argues for so well, likewise be a means of marking a difference in beguine spirituality, for example, by means of a Dominican? Whose imaginative theology is this, exactly? Might we be hearing, in these vitae, a repurposed theology and a dislocated, represenced voice?
Phenomenology of the Monstrous
A Response to Excessive Saints
Rachel Smith’s Excessive Saints broadens our understanding of what counts for theological discourse in the medieval period. She argues that medieval theology is not confined to Scholasticism, but includes monastic, mystical, pastoral, imaginative, and vernacular modes of theological thinking. Specifically, she argues that the hagiographical corpus of Thomas of Cantimpré should not be read merely as devotional literature—at best, a second-order theology put into practice. Rather Thomas is a medieval theologian who develops an original theological semiotics through the lives of particular embodied holy women, enabling his readers to “think [theologically] with images” rather than simply through recourse to abstract concepts and propositional syllogisms. In making this argument, Smith locates herself within a recent corrective within medieval studies aiming to “complicate what we mean when we use the word theology in terms of its methods, aims, addresses, and content.”1 Working historically to place Thomas’s hagiographies within their specific contexts, Smith demonstrates the way in which the “narrative of the holy person’s life becomes, in these works, a site of theological invention and unraveling” (6); that is to say, Smith identifies Thomas’s hagiographies within a tradition of apophatic theology.
Apart from its lucid and eloquent prose, one of the most evident strengths of Smith’s work is her attunement to a subtle literary reading of Thomas. As a result, she is acutely perceptive about, and persuasive of, the way in which the form of Thomas’s hagiographies is as important as their content. In this way, she is able to show how these lives of holy women do not simply proclaim a specific theological content, but entail a reading which is itself performative of their content. The texts themselves perform the excess to which they point and participate in: “In order to show a wonder that exceeds the intellect, the text both recapitulates and deforms hagiographical conventions, reinscribing them by means of an aesthetic of excess” (49). For instance, Smith details the ways in which, in his depiction of Christina the Astonishing, Thomas clearly cites and transgresses, at the same time, the common tropes of female sanctity—the virgin martyr, the desert mother, and the mulieres sanctae—in order, thus, to draw attention to Christina’s exceptionality and inimitability, her excessiveness (69).
I am not, myself, a scholar of medieval Christianity and so I will not attempt to engage her historical research. Instead, what I aim to do here is read Smith’s argument forward to indicate places where her analysis and argument have significant resonances with contemporary French phenomenology and hermeneutics. Coming from the world of continental philosophy of religion to read Smith’s historical analysis, it is clear that certain premodern literary genres often better capture what much late twentieth-century continental philosophy has been chasing: rather than conceptualizing a philosophy of excess, Thomas’s hagiographical writing performs it, enabling the reader to participate in a movement of simultaneous revelation and concealment in such a way that confronts the limits of cognition and instigates the de-formation of the reading subject.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Smith’s treatment of Thomas’s Life of Christina the Astonishing. As Smith notes: “Christina’s is a monstrous body, inspiring both wonder and horror, assent to and flight from her as a demonic figure. Her excessive body becomes a mode of negative theology insofar as the saint who unites with Christ becomes monstrous and thus inimitable, her sanctity pointing to the divine life as that which cannot be captured within a system of signs” (201). For the remainder of this review, I will explore aspects of what it means to think of this “monstrous” quality of Christina: first, what it means to show the excessive as a particular aim of phenomenology; second, the ambiguous connection between the divine and the demonic as modes of excess which are, at times, indistinguishable, and which require a specific hermeneutic of reception; and finally, in particular, how Christina and her vita can themselves be received as a traumatic event which marks the limits of cognition and destabilizes the self, while demanding a response of its readers. In so doing, I will connect Smith’s argument (briefly) to concepts found in the works of Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, and Claude Romano.
I begin with a phenomenological analysis of Christina’s life and specifically its “monstrosity.” Smith elucidates the way in which Thomas employs Pseudo-Dionysius’s concept of “dissimilar similarities” in order to conjure a vision, or appearance, of the excessive which, simultaneously, critically identifies the limits of rationality and cognition. Such a phenomenon transgresses the standard form of intelligibility in order to show, rather than prove, itself. Smith writes, “as a signifier, the monstrous (in the sense of monstrare as opposed to repraesantare) ‘shows forth’ transcendence, its distortions pointing to a plenitude of meaning that cannot be captured by the mimetic representation of the natural (or divine) world” (51). This description of how the monstrous functions perfectly captures the thrust of “new phenomenology” (or phenomenology after the theological turn) which, in its critique of positivism and representational theories of knowledge, forswears the evidence of objects and objectivity in favor of the appearance of phenomena on their own terms. As Jean-Luc Marion has repeatedly claimed, phenomenology is a philosophical method in favor of a “showing” of given phenomena that is not constrained by any horizon of subjective intentionality. This implies “letting appearances appear in such a way that they accomplish their own apparition, so as to be received exactly as they give themselves.”2 Only through a reduction to the phenomenon as it gives itself, or appears, can one return to “the things themselves” rather than simply our concepts of them. However, letting go of the requirement that one is able to conceptually capture a phenomenon entails the possibility of having to treat excessive phenomena. Christina, as an inimitable or singular event—unforeseeable, unbearable, and unrepeatable—is a wonderful example of what Marion calls a “saturated phenomenon” (see Being Given, 159–73).
Smith talks about Thomas’s hagiographical theology as having both a didactic and an affective function (57). Likewise in phenomenology, excessive phenomena function first negatively to teach the subject of the insufficiency of traditional theories of knowledge and then work affectively to trouble the calm assurance and naïve confidence of the knowing subject.
Excessive phenomena, which appear purely on their own terms without regard for the subject to whom they appear, have the impact not merely of disregarding the subject, but of radically destabilizing the one to whom they appear. The receiving subject is not merely bracketed (no longer in the center of the production of knowledge), but knocked aside and only passively constituted in response to the excessive phenomena. To receive such a phenomenon, as the reader of Christina’s vita, is to be de-formed and re-formed anew only through response.
The two primary functions of thinking of Christina as a “dissimilar similarity” are epistemological and affective. First, negatively, Smith observes that the “contemplation of a dissimilar image delivers the intellect up to an experience of its failure” (69)—that is, to the limits of its finite cognition. This is precisely the same thing that Marion is speaking of in his work on “negative certainties” where he describes excessive phenomena of which one can only be negatively certain—phenomena such as the self or the divine—which persist as an unanswerable question rather than a conscribable object. Ultimately, for Marion, to be an object is to be an entity which is determined not by and from itself, but by and from the mind that knows it: “The object, by its definition, conforms to our power to know it . . . [and thus] designates that which, of the thing, is left as the prey of the I think.”3 Certainty requires a weak phenomenality which results in the inherent impoverishment of objective knowledge. Objects are not only limited by their reliance upon my own intentional construction—“all oriented toward myself as the center of a surrounding world” (116)—they are also foreseeable, producible, reproducible, utilized and commodified, as well as, of course, disposable (157). It is for this reason that Marion will argue the human being must resist definition or objectification, remaining instead the indefinable and thus unknowable (37). And yet we can still attain knowledge (une science) which is certain, if not objective: “Through negative certainty that either the thing itself, or our finite condition, renders the experience impossible and the answer unknowable” (5).
If Marion’s phenomenology puts forth the concept of an excessive (or saturated) phenomenon that shows itself starting from itself, then it is Richard Kearney who best thinks through the ethics involved in interpreting such a phenomenon. Kearney insists that we cannot escape the moment of choice to welcome in, or shut out, the stranger who appears at our door of consciousness. However, nor can we be certain of the identity of the excessive other who appears: stranger, god, or monster.4 As Smith observes, Christina remains an unclear or ambiguous signifier, inspiring both horror and admiration, through her performance of “such incredible feats of bodily mortification that, in her imitation of Christ, she becomes indistinguishable from a demoniac to those around her” (18). Just as Thomas portrays Christina’s monstrosity through the inherent ambiguity of how to understand her—whether to receive her as demonic or divine—in similar fashion, Richard Kearney has attempted to think through the ambiguous process of welcoming the excessive or the other.
The impact of this is a destabilization of the self and a decentering of the subject from the act of understanding and knowledge: As Kearney writes, monsters “signal borderline experiences of uncontainable excess, reminding the ego that it is never wholly sovereign. . . . Each monster narrative recalls that the self is never secure in itself” (Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 3). This is a result of the “deep fracture within the human psyche” (Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 4) whereby we project onto “others” both our fears and our desires—we flee in horror from such excessive bodies, but we also admire and seek to imitate them. This gets at some of the obscurity of Christina who is both a mirror of the sinful community and a performance of the divine salvation as well.
Smith’s analysis of Thomas’s narration of Christina’s vita captures the two-sided impact of excessive phenomena. What Smith calls the deformation of the intellect occurs when the monstrous reveals its transcendence specifically by concealing its similarity in the natural world, “thwarting the mind’s ordering and anagogical capacities” (70). However, this apophasis of the intellect leads, secondly, to an apophasis—or de-formation—of the subject, “an undoing and refiguration of the viewer as he or she is re-placed within a landscape that is newly recognized as a regio dissmilitudinis” (70).
Furthermore, taking this one step further, Smith describes the crisis of interpretation brought upon by an encounter with Christina’s vita as an intentional strategy which Thomas employs in order to make its reading performative of a destabilization of the reader. As such, the vita—not simply Christina’s life but also its textual narration—functions like a trauma. As Smith writes: “By mixing the fantastical and the mundane, citing and subverting hagiographical conventions, the vita elicits and refuses readers’ attempts to interpret it.” As a result the text arouses within its readers, just like the contemporary spectators of Christina’s life, a “wondrous horror” (50).
Claude Romano’s discussion of subjectivity in response to an event and trauma is instructive here. In similar fashion to Marion, the larger aim of Romano’s project of “evential hermeneutics” is to describe the phenomenality of the event without turning it into an object—i.e., something whose meaning is not static or determined by the subject. An event does not arise out of, or depend on, a self, but is, nonetheless, addressed to one. Romano defines the event as a phenomenon which comes from elsewhere but addresses me; it necessarily surprises me, and yet demands my response. My response determines my possibilities and transforms the shape of my own adventure as well as my own self. Romano’s term for the human being is the advenant, defining the human as “less a ‘subject’ in the classical sense than diverse modes of subjectivization through which ‘I’ can come about [advenir], responding to what happens to him starting from the kernels of meaning that are for him events.”5 This quality of being “capable of events”—that is, the ability to be the “one to whom” events happen—is precisely what constitutes us as human, according to Romano.
At the same time, however, trauma occupies a central role in Romano’s phenomenology; it is the limit case of the “event” because it is that which disables my response, refuses integration, and hence interpretive meaning. We cannot appropriate the trauma into experience as a “source of self-transformation,” as we can with a nontraumatic event: “Traumatism is an event that we cannot make our own. Though we are utterly exposed to it, this is as a subject incapable of facing it, subjected to the excess of what has struck us all the more painfully since it happens to us from outside, takes us by surprise, avoids any grasp, and outwits any protection” (Romano, Event and World, 109).
The question to answer, I suppose, is whether, as an apophatic saint, Christina is best thought of as an event or as a traumatism? Upon my reading, in a refusal of such an exclusive alternative, Smith offers an important corrective to contemporary phenomenology on this point: “Christina’s monstrosity evades ultimate signification, its otherness causing a crisis of response and multiple interpretations that may frame Christina’s strangeness but never exhaust it” (82). Responding to such an excessive saint requires a dynamic of ongoing interpretation through which the spectators and the readers of the vita are de- and re-formed. This process has no necessary telos; Christina’s meaning remains ambiguous, but also, potentially, salvific.
Rachel J. D. Smith, Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpre’s Mystical Hagiographies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020). Subsequent citations made parenthetically within the text.↩
Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 7.↩
Jean-Luc Marion, Negative Certainties, trans. by Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 24.↩
See Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (New York: Routledge, 2002) and Anatheism: Returning to God after God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).↩
Claude Romano, Event and World, trans. by Shane Mackinlay (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), xii.↩
Doubting Thomas and Putting One’s Finger in the Wounds of the Text
In Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies, Rachel Smith brings to life the lesser-known but equally as educated “other” Thomas (other, of course, only to Thomas Aquinas, Cantimpré’s peer at the Dominican stadium generale in Cologne). Showcasing Thomas of Cantimpré (ca. 1200–1270), the medieval Dominican friar, traveling preacher and collector of both the holy and the possessed, Smith brings attention to Thomas’s shifting authoritative roles. Reading Thomas’s existent hagiographical writing, in addition to his Bonum universal de apibus (The common good as taught by bees), Smith invites us into Thomas’s discourses of love and desire, trust and doubt, all while setting these against the historical backdrop of medieval Western Europe upon which his theology depends.1
Rather than treat Thomas’s wonderous if not fantastical stories of saints “creeping into fiery ovens” and “scourging themselves with yew branches and thorns” as they reflect popular medieval tropes of Thomas’s time, or as stories that transcend history through some kind of alternative Christian reality, Smith treats Thomas’s writing as a labor of devotion, hagiographical and theological in scope, which produces new knowledge.2 Engaging Thomas’s hagiographies as “sophisticated theological and literary documents” (3) and considering how they “edify and offer figures for emulation,” Smith allows Thomas to emerge as a teacher engaged in a practice of theological exploration (6). Reading Thomas alongside Smith, I am less able to dismiss him as a medieval clerical connoisseur of saints who fetishizes bodies for the ways they perform the weird and wonderful. Instead, Thomas comes into view in all of his complexity as a teacher, one who is engaged in his own project of “invention and unraveling” (6).
In what follows I welcome a conversation that considers Thomas as a pedagogical model; as a writer who cultivates desire in his readers, or students, to “take up” (suscipiant) his text (93). In light of Smith’s reading, I am interested in how Thomas encourages readers to “take up” his text by paradoxically, and perhaps even seductively, foregrounding his own limits and imperfection. Thinking of Thomas’s text as a classroom and Thomas as its teacher—a thought experiment that Smith does not explicitly suggest—the question I want to venture is this: What would it look like to “take up” Thomas as an exemplary pedagogue today?
Humility Cultivating Desire
Smith makes clear that a cultivation of his readers’ desire to critically engage with his text is imperative for Thomas. Locating desire as crucial to Thomas’s pedagogy by highlighting the relevance of Augustine’s De doctrina christinia, Smith resituates desire which has been for centuries obfuscated as a “vice” within Christian discourse and highlights it as something generative, a virtue that incites readers to engage (107–19). Specifically, in her chapters “A Question of Proof” and “The Uses of Astonishment,” she highlights desire’s importance in Thomas’s telling of Lutgard of Aywieres’s Life. Paradoxically, according to Smith, the way that Thomas cultivates a desire for readers to critically engage with his text’s argument and thus “take up” his project is through an admittance of his own imperfect rhetorical skill. As Smith shows, Thomas draws attention to the messiness of his prose, begging his readers to “patiently bear with” what he has “put down in less rhetorically pleasing or discerning style” in the prologue to Lutgard’s Life.3 Elsewhere in his text on Lutgard, Thomas seeks to “maintain and extend desire” by thematizing his own narrative failure (174). A teacher who preserves lacunae in his text, Thomas goes so far as to explain that in a conversation with Lutgard he is “so astonished by the subtlety of her words” that he is unable to repeat the teachings she had previously said to him.4
Both through his use of the ineffability topos (I cannot put into words what I saw) as well as through his use of the humility topos (my words are obscure) Thomas renders his subjects objects of wonder, people who cannot be contained. By calling attention to the wonders he either cannot name, or tries but fails to render, Thomas elicits a desire in his readers to wrestle with his text; to weigh its legitimacy and use reason to come to believe in the wonders to which Thomas alludes but cannot name (178). If desire is key for Thomas’s theological project, and his humiliation as a narrator is the thing upon which finding belief in his text depends, can and should we call his rhetorical cultivation of readers’ desire “seductive”?
Imperfection and Seduction
Smith suggests that Thomas’s cultivation of desire is “seductive” in her book’s final line. Yet, she does so with parenthetical hedging:
As the biblical text ventures signs of the infinite and therefore impossible translatability of sacred res into signa . . . .so does the vita of the saint venture signs of the saint’s body, her always imperfectly (if seductively) rendered res. (204, italics mine)
I am interested in the syntax of this sentence, and what it reflects of the way we think of imperfection, mastery, pathos as it relates to learning, and pedagogy today. Why is “seductively” bracketed here? What kind of effect does its bracketing have on the always imperfectly rendered res? More broadly, what is happening in contemporary discussions of Christian history that suggest “seductiveness” is best bracketed? Is there something about the “seductively” rendered saint’s body as cultivated by Thomas that demands bracketing? Or can, and if so how can we relocate the language of “seduction” in much the same way Smith squarely locates the language of “desire” as central to Thomas’s narrative frame?
Seduction, a word coterminous with siren calls and women luring men away from the garden of Eden with forbidden fruit, like the word “desire,” is understood as anathema to prayer and learning. It is a word that has been willfully overlooked or obfuscated by the majority of interpreters of the Western Christian (which is often the topology for the “secular”) canon. Thus, terming Thomas’s pedagogy seductive pays tribute to Thomas’s pedagogy as it is akin to the siren or Eve, characters who are always out of place, alluring but also undermining, generating what queer theorists William Haver and Deborah Britzman refer to as “inconsolable uncertainty.”5 Thomas is consistently out of place in his text. His theological project depends upon his own foregrounded self-displacement. Terming Thomas “seductive” makes more visible the ways he rhetorically works to condition his readers’ doubt and thus desire to fill in with belief where his words fail.
Failure and Queer Pedagogy
A term like “seductive” enables a consideration of Thomas’s teaching as it admits that attraction is cultivated through the admittance of not-knowing. As philosopher and queer theorist John Paul Ricco writes in The Logic of Lure (2002), “Queer pedagogy is an educational instance that does not simply concern itself with the rescue of subjugated identities and histories, but more radically, precipitates a thought that thinks the impossibility of its thinking, or speaking, or writing.”6 Thomas, who is the master of the text that relinquishes, if only rhetorically, his mastery status does not merely “rescue” the subjugated identities of women (and one man, the Abbot John), but forefronts his imperfection of thinking or writing them.
Establishing Thomas as pedagogically exemplary for the ways he seeks to enkindle a desire for his text by displacing himself from inside of it, we realize that the point of Thomas’s pedagogy is to make way for uncertainty; an uncertainty of both his own and of his community.7 With my understanding of Thomas as exemplary pedagogue, albeit an understanding construed out of more than my fair share of misreadings of Smith’s book, a new kind of teacher comes into view, one who is willing to admit that he feels he is not enough, and in so doing reworks the metric system against which we measure “not-enough” into a possibility of mutual reader-writer trust. Importantly, Thomas’s project of building trust between himself and his readers is not one that comes from “flawless sameness” between reader’s and author’s beliefs, but one forged out of debate, of self-unraveling, of an admittance of the author’s lack.8.
Reading Smith reading Thomas, the project of teaching which is too often occupied with maintenance of control veiled in language of missionizing pedagogy which favors “the heart,” turns to one which centers the professor’s responsibility to make room for her students to take up the subject at hand. In light of Smith’s reading of Thomas, the way that a teacher cultivates this room depends upon a tradition of inviting her colleagues, her friends, and her students over and over again to challenge her, to debate her, to “take up” her projects and live them differently and as their own.
Kresser, Katie. “An Aesthetic of Lack, or Notes on Camp.” Image 107 (2020): 96–117.
Ricco, John Paul. The Logic of Lure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Interlude, Pedagogic.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 27–35. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.
Smith, Rachel J. D. Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.
Thomas of Cantimpré. The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières. Edited by Barbara Newman. Translated by Margot H. King and Barbara Newman. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008.
Rachel J. D. Smith, Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 3.↩
Thomas of Cantimpré, “The Life of Christina the Astonishing,” and “The Life of Margaret of Ypres,” in The Collected Saint’s Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, ed. Barbara Newman, trans. Margot H. King and Barbara Newman, 133 and 166, respectively.↩
Cantimpré, “The Life of Lutgard of Aywières,” in The Collected Saints’ Lives, 212.↩
For Smith on reason and belief, see p. 93.↩
William Haver, “Queer Research; or, How to Practice Invention to the Brink of Intelligibility,” in The Eight Technologies of Otherness, ed. Sue Golding (New York: Routledge, 1997), 227–92. Deborah P. Britzman, Lost Subjects, Contested Objects: Towards a Psychoanalytic Inquiry of Learning (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), as cited by John Paul Ricco, The Logic of Lure (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002), 131.↩
Ricco, Logic of Lure, 132.↩
This language of displacement is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s, who in her interlude to Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity writes, “Finding myself as teacher, as exemplar, as persuader, as reader to be less and less at the center of my own classroom, I was also finding that the voice of a certain abyssal displacement . . . could provide effects that might sometimes wrench the boundaries of discourse around in productive if not always obvious ways,” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 34; Ricco, Logic of Lure, 131.↩
Subversive Reading and Writing as Generative in Thomas of Cantimpré's Mystical Accounts
In prose as rhetorically flexible and cunning as her subject, Rachel Smith invites us into the rich world of one of the medieval period’s cleverest yet minimally studied hagiographers. For those who advocate writing to learn, creative methods of mining spiritual depths, and deconstructing all attempts to engage linguistically with the Divine, as well as the humans beloved and visited by that Divine, and the scribes who account for their relations, Smith’s own sophisticated rhetorical method will bring to life Word incarnate as word in a way Thomas of Cantimpré would surely admire. This monograph aspires to expand what we today mean by theology so that it can meet capacious medieval understandings of the discipline. Smith shows good humor with analysis such as “the combative techniques of dialectic and disputation, cannot be caricatured as the sport of bloodless syllogists” (15), new vocabulary such as Christina Mirabilis as “abject alien” (68) or “represencing” (201), and descriptors that unpack her method cunningly. Text and subject mutually create when of Thomas she says, “The vita constructs him” (83). She initiates us into analysis of performing gendered sanctity in the Middle Ages. But she also invites deep contemplative work on what we in the (post)modern ages retroject onto medieval sources and how we might thereby perform our own sanctities. In very good company of scholars, the notes invoke a community of interpretation which can contemplate a construction of holiness not always acknowledged in historical Christianity. Her contemporary scholarly interlocutors are many, and she so skillfully engages them so that roaming through the side conversations in the notes one emerges from the choir of interpretive gymnastics with a new agility and fresh readings. They can help us see the past and our present in inspired ways, perhaps even astonishing ways. Her book is thus invitation, performance, and itinerary all in one.
To modern interpreters, hagiography can read as its own marvelous suprarational mode of capturing elements of Divine excess or can be unnuanced formulaic irrational blocks rotely employed. What we presume we will find there often dictates precisely how we will read. Her magic here is in part Smith’s method itself. In order to understand what Thomas claims, we must understand how he declares. In the life of one of his subjects, Christina, we see him deform hagiographical conventions even as he employs them to draw a direct correlation between her body and the unnameable and at times paranormal experience of God. Smith heightens our experience of these not very delicate rhetorical moves. Perhaps like Eckhart’s birth of the Word in the soul, Thomas’s text “quickens in its readers” (50) a new life. An astonishing life. The divine embodied and performed in Christiana must engage inherited models of writing women’s mysticism, but in an “extended apophasis” (70) it relies on audience horror to engage precisely where body, text, and ultimate converge. Audience matters, as Smith shows in another of Thomas’s subjects, Lutgard (99). Only by knowing well and then provoking conventions can Thomas lead into new modes of exploring in his Life of Lutgard. Mary’s body as virginal becomes an example of how Jewish women, as opposed to portraits of literal intractable Jewish men, can offer a model of conversion and the limitations of the material in broadcasting a call to porosity and affectivity (184). Here too Thomas will differ from his predecessors and contemporaries as he broadcasts new theological access in his high medieval context. We often consider such creative genre subventions a modern invention, or at the least a modern meta-formal way to forefront the constructed nature of reality against the extreme positivism of premodern truth claims. Yet modernity’s fiction authors would beg for such performative skill as Thomas’s to awaken new modes of knowing and experiencing. His point is to “explicitly theorize the act of reading a wondrous saint’s Life” with faith as an interpretive mode similar in function to lectio divina or other scriptural engagements (125). Proof becomes here a method, not a pronounced judgment (126). When the clerical imagination emerges as a type of free radical, absorbing elements of its environment but also consuming and producing new practices, we have theology in a different genus brought to us by what Thomas presents as a new spiritual species, the horrible, miraculous, astonishing holy women. Imminent creation has begun anew.
Alongside Thomas’s medieval readers, then, moderns strain to believe. What ought we to take as truth in these accounts? Here Smith reveals that the truth, the creedal point, the place for our longing and quest for knowledge is not in the particular bodily part or precise verbal formulation, but in the interaction itself between text and audience (reader or listener). If one only looks to the enumerated truth claims in these Lives one misses the entire purpose of Thomas’s creations. Skepticism is not just for moderns, after all (103). That space between our skepticism and the unprecedented experiences documented here, along with the audience’s exclamations of “unbelievable,” are precisely the point. Thomas will draw on the typical authorizing tropes of his Dominican credentials (105), but Smith asks us to recognize that he presents his authority not only as an office. His insights, he suggests, come from a contagious “most burning love” (106). Affect may well be doctrine. As audience we become co-producer of texts (120), a notion she draws across centuries of intellectuals from the theorist Barthes to the practitioner Thomas. In anxiety about verification, Thomas will offer his method, his mode, of engaging the story as the solution (125). Presumably what drew Thomas to such women might have been the paranormal extremism, but what sustained him in encounter was most assuredly the scintillating possibility of reproducing their affective, bodily encounters with the divine into others’ lives. Are we meant to imitate? In body? In will? In memory? Thomas appears to offer us the means.
To know the experience of these mystics through Thomas’s introductions is to take up Augustine’s notion of how we know. To submerge oneself in the text becomes a way to submerge oneself in its content (107). Signs of wonder are particular scattered processes of knowing directly attributable to the divine will. That is, technically, a sign is not “res” but “signum” (see 109ff.). Post-fall humans need to be persuaded (115) by that which used to come irresistibly. How can we be persuaded? Thomas, like Augustine, assures by love itself. We have to read in love (118). Here Thomas offers love not as a saccharine emotive concept, but love as a mode of divine communication. Thomas applies an Augustinian method of reading and knowing entangled in relational love to his reading of not only Scripture but hagiographical lives. He writes them in similar signs because the Divine has written onto and through the bodies he encounters in just such a way. The “how” imitates the “what.”
In the end, can we in our era reading at such a remove overcome difference of historical period, genre convention, generalized misogyny, and perhaps even simple disgust to find a method for approaching Thomas’s texts? Yes, Smith assures. This is worthwhile. There is a timelessness to Thomas’s method that demands of us an active notion of engagement with text. His seemingly inordinate desire for Lutgard’s whole hand and the negotiated acquiescence to her finger only (121) shows us historical exchanges and authorizing moves and gets us to ask which is the truest, most accessible relic, his text or her hand? Is one secondary, or do they produce the same effect? Can our way of reading, coached as it is by Thomas, itself be our relic (125)? Whether we can discover in Thomas’s accounts actual men and women, Jews and Christians, hangs over the project as a whole. These subjects may be solely Thomas’s creations or may be actual people we can see behind the veil of such genre conventions. That Thomas presumes to present and know them differently from how many of his contemporaries knew and promoted them does tell us something if not everything. But Smith hints, and I deliciously hope, that in Thomas we find that “the excess of the miraculous cannot be domesticated” (107).
Thomas emerges here as unique among his contemporaries. Even as he preserves typical hagiographical impulses to find external signs of internal presences, to seek increasingly literal readings of holiness on the bodies of his subjects, to transmit the anxiety and appropriation of the era’s anti-Jewishness through his naturalized bee exempla, and as he joins fellow Dominicans in a bold preaching program to provide care of souls in an environment of increasingly literal manifestations of imitation of Christ, even as he reproduces all of these, he nonetheless also subverts or inverts these moves. In each chapter, examples of Thomas’s own uniqueness serve as their own exempla. He sees the vulnerability of theological strategies which augment the senses with reliance on faith (198). He somehow seizes on the very challenge such proof-texting and proof-bodying demand in order to draw his audience into “readerly practices” in generative practices that make sense of saintly examples of “double exposure” and of “refractions” (203). These techniques build for Smith an “ecstasy of failure” and a sacramental move on Thomas’s part. All of these studies and their careful attention to the ways a saint’s body is the “res” and Thomas’s vita its Scripture are persuasive. They cohere to ask us, the modern reader, to enter into the categories and modes of Thomas’s writing in the inventive spirit with which he composed them. What I’m left to wonder, after such an astonishingly creative hermeneutic, is why? What is it that marked Thomas to perform and write such difference? While he knowingly played with assumptions of gendered passivity of women, or the rhythmic practice of apophasis to mimic the ultimate unknowability of divine nature, or replicated the male desire through writing women’s Lives to participate in their own gendered fantasies of ultimate mystical union, he distinguishes himself from others. The whole project gives us multiple illustrations, masterfully, artfully examined. Smith also shows Thomas as he plays the exception to today’s mysticism scholarship on how women’s mystical lives mean. He pushes our own assumptions just as he did his original audience’s. Why? How? Utterly convincing evidence here is written to his delightful strategies in plot, oscillating distance and proximity to the divine, liminal sensory spaces of women’s marked bodies, undermining of certainties so flatly offered in other accounts. What accounts for this testimony? Is it Thomas’s own experience of encountering the divine presence in the women themselves to account for this? How do we account for his insistent pushing on the boundaries of convention in ways that reinforce his own theological program? Thomas’s texts, then, and Smith’s recreation of their most creative affects, become less a portal to a historically interesting past and more a vivid, living, affective performance on readers of any era. Trying on their ingenious techniques and enduring impact may well live up to Thomas’s most fundamental objective: to provoke in readers a new way of knowing that expands wonder about the divine in a universe infinitely more powerful and interactive than readily imaginable from limited human capacities. That is, Thomas’s texts may activate in readers transformative mystical theology itself.
The Scriptural Life
Recently, on a whim, I visited one of the social media pages maintained by the Catholic grammar school I attended throughout the ’90s. Much of what dominated the official feed was unsurprising. Flyer after flyer advertised the school itself, pictures displayed candid moments at field days and charity events, welcome statements announced newly hired faculty, and, since the turmoil of COVID began, video recordings offered congregants access to weekly mass. Lulled by the pattern of these posts—ad, photo, ad, church—I scrolled on distractedly before landing on something unexpected: a series of photographs in which children were dressed as saints and arranged in tableaus that, in their solemnity alone, would no doubt impress Fra Angelico.1 Curious about whether or not this was a one-time event or a regular occurrence, I found my answer under a picture of first-graders singing a song accompanied by hand gestures. There, a parent commented on how nice it was that the experience of physically representing a saint bookended their child’s education. “How wonderful that we got to see the eighth graders exit as Saints as well,” they exclaimed. “It seems like just yesterday our eighth graders were the little Saints.”
With that, I wondered whether I had once (or twice) played the role of a particular saint for a day, too. Unable to recall, I texted my closest childhood friend to see if she had any memories of hot-gluing cross appliqués on felt miters or going to A. C. Moore to pick up artificial roses for flower crowns. “No,” she responded definitively. “I remember reports but no dress up.” Right, I thought. Reports and presentations. I know I spent long afternoons flipping through Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes so I could write and speak about saints often. But, as it turns out, I hadn’t embodied any of them. That said, at any point, for any reason, my classmates and I would have been thrilled to be out of uniform, so, I’m sure we would have embraced this tradition without a second thought. And after all, it may be better not to think too hard about how, exactly, certain figures lived and died in Christ’s name. If one were to dwell on any given martyr’s biographical details, for example, the adorable could quickly turn macabre, and one might begin to question whether there ought to be tiny Felicities, Agathas, Joans, Andrews, or Sebastians in the mix.
All this to say that one might spend a Catholic girlhood steeped in the culture of saints and yet come to know little of saintly ardor or excess. Although we did learn that many individuals were tortured and killed for their unwavering devotion to Christ, the realities leading up to and attendant things like martyrdom, asceticism, and renunciation were never fully communicated to us. (Although even if they had been—though really, how could they have been?—it seems unlikely that their gravity would have been sufficiently understood.) Broadly speaking, then, the saints of my childhood emerged, on the whole, a rather tame class of exceptionally well-behaved people. Moreover, a certain uniformity accompanied their domestication. Each individual member of the communio sanctorum in heaven—whatever specific virtues they might exemplify, whatever special extremes of piety they might have reached, whatever their signature miracle—was haloed by a general air of goodness such that any name preceded by “Saint” could be evoked to get us to whisper to one another less during assembly or to be kinder to one another on the playground.
Perhaps Gregory of Tours (ca. 538–594), who believed that all saints’ Lives should be best thought of as one Life expressive of the power of Christ (203), would be pleased to hear as much. For my part, I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking that even in spite of all the reports—and now, all the pageantry—that the saints were, in their homogeneity, more or less lost on us. Or should I say lost to us? Either way, to me, the saints always felt flattened out and far away. Reports added some dimension, even a modicum of life, but I’m not sure they did much to make the saints feel less remote. Maybe being encouraged to dress like them twice in the span of eight years came about as a way to bring the sanctified both back to life and closer to home.
Today, as a student of Buddhist life writing, I recognize this problem of saintly distance as a perennial and pervasive one. What to do, where to turn, in the wake of a paragon’s physical absence is a question that has preoccupied Buddhists the world over for millennia, and one answer has been to represent enlightened beings via textualizations of their words and deeds. Wherever they appear, we know that saints’ Lives serve as a salve for, if not a solution to, absence. We also know that many Lives aspire to presence not only by memorializing individuals but also by revitalizing them—by bringing them into the present in ways more dialogic than absolute—such that readerly and saintly lives might begin to inter-animate one another. To adapt William of Saint-Thierry (d. 1148) out of context, one could say that Lives offer a reality by virtue of a relation (138). Ideally, whether they underscore imitability or inimitability, similarity or difference, Lives seek to bridge the (spatial, temporal, ontological) gulfs between the devout and would-be devout, namely those who, to borrow Augustine’s terms, would desire to live in accord with what they already take to be true.
On this problem of distance and the promises of reading, I have been turning to Rachel J. D. Smith for fresh insights, across subfields, again and again. In fact, in preparation for this response, I read Excessive Saints for a third time, a number that I think is hardly excessive in and of itself given the complexities of Smith’s sources and the subtleties in her writing. Initially, I approached Smith’s work out of a sense that our interests might overlap more than one might expect. For all their important differences, the materials we engage share several family resemblances. We both study the Lives of (mostly) female spiritual adepts written by male authors for medieval-era audiences. And although the southern Low Countries and southeastern Tibet might seem both geographically and doctrinally a world apart, our sources likewise share deep-seated investments in revealing how biographical representation bears, ultimately, on salvation.
Reading Excessive Saints, then, it was easy for me to imagine Thomas of Cantimpré (ca. 1200–1272) in conversation with someone like Drimé Kunga (b. 1347), the author of the earliest life story of Yeshé Tsogyal (8th c.), a figure hailed as the “Mother of Tibet” or Tibet’s “matron saint.” As I see Drimé Kunga and several of his rough contemporaries contributing to discourses about what it means to read rightly, effectively in order to be “saved” in the grand, samsaric scheme of things, Thomas emerges a kindred spirit. Although his concerns about how readers should understand or assimilate that which troubles the bounds of ordinary human reason are, overall, more pronounced, medieval Tibetan hagiographers would nevertheless recognize in Thomas a comparable drive to see persons—in all their exemplary, sometimes contradictory or confounding glory—serve as first principles. As both parties offer up vitae as means for transformation, we see how situating oneself vis-à-vis another, perfect other is neither incidental nor merely supplementary to an ideal reader’s goals. Instead, it is the very name of the soteriological game.
What I recognized in Excessive Saints straightaway was not only an instance of cutting-edge hagiology, but also the kind of comprehensive analysis I had been aiming for in my own work. Smith’s study is historiographical, rhetorical, and, most importantly, critical yet thoroughly committed to understanding what it means to theologize in the hagiographical mode on the terms set forth by Thomas and his texts. There is much talk in religious studies these days about toppling the reign of suspicious hermeneutics—about repairing our readings, acknowledging the pull of our attachments, upholding the integrity of History 2s beside History 1s—but walking the walk is a different, often difficult story. Smith is at the vanguard of this movement, and I know that anyone interested in undertaking nuanced textual analyses that think with their objects of study rather than largely around or against them will also find in Excessive Saints the scholarly equivalent of example, fellowship, and aid.2
When I returned to Excessive Saints for a second time, it was in light of a specific set of questions I had been exploring through a subset of my sources, namely Tibetan Buddhist Lives categorized as terma, or “treasure texts.” These Lives, like all treasure texts, are supposed to have been concealed in the past by enlightened beings who anticipated the need to preserve Buddhist teachings for a future, degenerate time when authentic Dharma would be at a premium. Whatever their form or content, treasure texts are often referred to in secondary scholarship as “scriptures,” and, in general, this designation proves apt enough. As written works held to be divinely authored or inspired, treasures can be called scriptures in the generic sense. But, I wondered, what about the phenomenological sense? If one wanted to keep referring to rediscovered Lives as scriptures, what, if anything, might make them scriptural apart from their provenance? What roles did they aspire to play in the realm of human activity and experience?3 And how, in turn, might the text-reader relationships that rediscovered Lives work to create nuance broader, cross-cultural understandings of scripture?
Eventually, notwithstanding the many caveats one could offer about the indeterminacy and context-dependency of “Life” and “scripture” as categories of analysis, what I really found myself asking was: Can a Life be a scripture? If so, how, for whom, and to what ends?
Reading Smith on how Thomas recontextualizes the hermeneutic Augustine proposes in De doctrina christiana was, for me, nothing short of revelatory in this regard. So far, Thomas is the only medieval author I’ve encountered who explores this question outright and argues that yes, a saint’s Life can be approached as a scripture—not just because of what it is but for what it aims to do. (This strikes me as a radical, perhaps even unique, claim to make for vitae explicitly, although I am by no means widely read in Christian theology.) Generally speaking, if one heeds rediscovered Lives on their terms, I would argue that much like Thomas’s vitae, they advocate a protracted semiology, one that demands the engagement of the “whole person” (95). Since the larger phenomenon of treasure discovery proposes that people need each one of Treasure’s texts to help them navigate their time of moral and civil degeneracy, the ideal reader (or auditor) of a rediscovered Life is, first and foremost, someone who ought to adopt a position of both intellectual and affective vulnerability to the text. With that, they must engage in an ongoing process of interpretation, the primary goal of which, as I see it, is to be “drawn into an intimate relationship with the saintly exemplar” (98). Buddhist exemplars’ words and deeds might exceed reason and expectation as they point to truths that are, if not always ineffable, still difficult to actualize in mundane experience. But at the most basic level, taking up a rediscovered Life would seem to be about taking on a connection to another. Whether or not one is inclined, from the outset, to believe what they read is not the prevailing concern. More fundamentally, one must acknowledge the necessity of the text, whatever its folia have to say.
This is, of course, not to suggest that the Augustinian interpretive framework Thomas proposes maps neatly onto rediscovered Lives. Nevertheless, if their “writerly” nature proves to be a large part of what makes Thomas’s vitae worthy of scriptural status (120), then rediscovered Lives could certainly be deemed scriptural, too. Where Treasure theory emphasizes the ability of its texts to right the sinking ship of Dharma, but it doesn’t always specify how they will do so or in what regards, it seems that the ideal reader of a rediscovered Life would do well to read—and reread—toward personal revelation. Once the necessity of the text is accepted, the interpretive process can proceed in a repeated fashion. We can imagine a reader saying to herself, “I need this text and the paragon it represents. Now, let me find out how.” If, at first, the reader doesn’t hear herself addressed, but she still maintains that the text is somehow vital to her ability to flourish amid a precarious age, we can further imagine her feeling moved to read it again, and again, and again—not only until its relevance emerges, but also until it is integrated into one’s thinking and being.
Ultimately, what I see emerging from this process is not just a double exposure wherein a Life’s protagonist is, at once, themselves and an instance of enlightenment, but a triple one in the form of saint, archetype, and reader. To put this another way, insofar as a Life aspires to be the key to interpreting a reader’s life—and perhaps especially where saintly signs are irreducible—the reader’s dimensions must emerge along with the saint’s. In this, it may be that Lives are further scriptural where it would be difficult to know who one would be without them.
In an arresting passage along these lines, Smith writes:
There are a number of points I could highlight here by way of conclusion, but it is the importance of textual representation that stood out to me most during my latest reading of Excessive Saints. It strikes me, now, that for all our efforts to bring the saints into our midst as kids, we weren’t reading Lives as Thomas would recognize them. Put simply, we didn’t read the saints; we read about them. My guess is that children attending my grammar school today are likewise not quite clothed in the bodies of texts (96), even if they are otherwise elegantly attired. Of course, in time and where there is “the will and wit to learn” (107), transformative reading experiences may be on their horizons. But even if the little saints don’t become devout readers, even if, say, they become critical (though, one hopes, not critique-y) ones, I look forward to Smith, via Thomas, one day revealing to them how writing and reading can foster intimacies that other modes of representation and reception cannot.
Probably by Fra Angelico, “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs,” NG663.3, National Gallery, London, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/fra-angelico-the-forerunners-of-christ-with-saints-and-martyrs.↩
On example, fellowship, and aid in the saintly sense, see John Stratton Hawley, “Saints and Virtues,” introduction to Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley, Comparative Studies in Religion and Society (Berkley: University of California Press, 1987), 2:xi–xxiv.↩
On scripture as, by definition, “a human activity,” see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What Is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).↩
4.13.22 | Rachel J. Smith
Response to Elizabeth Angowski
Elizabeth Angowski opens her essay in this forum with an account of modern Catholic pedagogies of sanctity. In her own experience of being schooled in the Lives of the saints, the saints were, she writes, largely “lost to us,” remaining points of data about which one learns and gives reports, but which one does not embody or inhabit. The saints remained, in a word, distant. Such distance arises for various reasons. One that Angowski outlines is the reduction of the diversity, the sheer unruliness of sanctity, to a single vision, a single way of being in the world which could be seen as a particular brand of niceness. We might say, narratively, there is a reduction of the complexities of a saint’s life story to a single moral. How such niceness or moralism coheres with those difficult things attendant upon Christian holiness—“martyrdom, asceticism, renunciation”—is not clear. This question of how to bridge the distance of the living and the dead, the fallen and the perfected (in Christian terms) is a live one for both her Catholic childhood and her work in Tibetan Buddhist hagiography.
Thomas of Cantimpré was a figure of interest to me in part because, despite his bona fides as a Dominican representative of ecclesiastical normalization after Lateran IV in which the church sought through various means to create a coherent, unified social body of “Christendom,” he attempted to portray saintly figures in their diversity of forms of life and holiness, including the ways in which the saint is not always reducible to the moral or ethical in any easy way. Being holy, it seems for Thomas, is not always about being good in any self-evident sense; sanctity often troubles precisely what the social order holds to be normative.
Thomas is aware that both saintly diversity and the horror and bewilderment that sanctity sometimes inspires can make it difficult to believe in the figures he holds up as exemplary. What is so striking about Thomas is how, despite his commitment to the political program of Lateran IV, he doesn’t domesticate the strangeness of his figures. Rather, his pedagogy—for good and for ill—attempts to work with saintly wildness, to harness it, yet, but also to risk being undone by it. Paradoxically, then, the risking of narrative and figural intelligibility by showing the alterity of the saint to the social order, to the reader’s sense of what constitutes the holy life—is a key component of Thomas’s rhetorical strategy for drawing the saints close, for making it possible for readers to engage with the Life of the saint in the dynamic relationship that is, for him, the “taking up” and “putting on” of the saint not as changeable clothes but a transforming participation.
As Angowski articulates beautifully, we have here a notion of a Life as an attempt to make present the dead beloved “through ways more dialogic than absolute,” as made alive through processes of reading and writing and being read, “such that readerly and saintly lives might begin to inter-animate one another.” In other words, “insofar as a Life aspires to be the key to interpreting a reader’s life . . . the reader’s dimensions must emerge along with the saint’s. In this, it may be that Lives are further scriptural where it would be difficult to know who one would be without them.” She asks, following this model of textuality, what it might mean for a life to be a scripture, phenomenologically speaking, and more specifically, whether there might be cross-cultural applications. Is there a way that Thomas, a thirteenth-century medieval theologian, might speak with and to other climes?
What I want to highlight here is how Angowski connects Thomas’s vitae with Tibetan Buddhist “treasure texts” (terma), those narratives of holy lives buried in the ground by enlightened beings to be held in reserve until a time when the Dharma they safeguarded would be needed. These are not texts universally disseminated for use in any life situation. They are like the fire extinguisher on the wall behind the words, “In case of fire, break glass.” They are made for the time of fire. What is most important for readers to acknowledge in their engagement with a treasure text is not that they believe what they read is true; “more fundamentally, one must acknowledge the necessity of the text, whatever its folia have to say.” The necessity of these texts is urgent and this urgency demands “intellectual and affective vulnerability” to them and it is from this stance of submission to the particularly urgent authority of these works that the ongoing process of interpretation issues. The reader, it seems, particularly if she comes from an age in which Dharma has been profoundly obscured, might not “hear herself addressed” by the text but trusts that the text will eventually speak to her and move with her through her life as long as she engages in an interpretive process. In the same way, Thomas asks his reader to trust that a saint is filled with divine and not a demonic spirit, that the things that he claims happened “really” happened. Readers wade into obscurity, which is another way of saying they are made vulnerable to the text not knowing precisely what dwells in the waters into which they walk.
The ambiguity of such vulnerable intimacy with the saints and the rhetorical strategies for facilitating it—an ambiguity well represented by the polarity of Angowski’s post-Vatican II saintly education and Thomas’s Lateran IV pedagogy—came home to me more deeply around the time the book was coming out. I visited a friend’s church. For the “children’s story,” the priest came down among the congregation to speak more intimately with those in attendance. It was St. Barbara’s feast day and we were treated to a vivid, improvised description of the virgin martyr’s refusal to renounce her devotion to Christianity and her resulting torture and death at the hands of her father. No detail of her pain and suffering was too gruesome. I remember clapping my hands over my six-year-old daughter’s ears and looking meaningfully at the priest.
My refusal of the saint through the refusal of the story and its telling in that context—for those ears—threw into relief for me the potential difficulties of negotiating the presence and absence of the saint. Angowski’s childhood education in sanctity was one in which saintly particularity was dressed up in numbing niceness. The lives of the saints receded into lessons that absorbed their strangeness and often their violence. Such absorption recapitulated the original problem of “the paragon’s physical absence” and resulted in the children learning about these reduced figures rather than relating to or inhabiting them. The narratives lacked the vibrancy required to bring saintly figures to life. In the church, I experienced a different kind of reduction. Here, in some ways, was a problem of saintly nearness, of narrative invasion by a tale too vivid, too mortal, too close. For Angowski, the reduction of sanctity—a reduction that led to saintly absence—ultimately inspired her curiosity, leading her to look for ways the saints might become living presences. My instinctive response that morning to the salacious reduction of St. Barbara’s life—a reduction that at the same time rendered her too present—was to shut out the story and to introduce my daughter—who heard it all through my hands—to an alternative corpus of Greek Lives, including stories of the unviolated body of Artemis, ready to defend herself with bow and arrow.