12 of the Wildest Saints' Lives That One Definitely Wouldn't Expect
12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect

Tim Flight - April 26, 2018

As the phenomenon of social media ably demonstrates, there is nothing quite so interesting to people as the lives of other people. Instagram, Facebook, et al even make it possible for us to check what our favorite people are doing at any time of the day. Sometimes they are interesting because of their great beauty, otherwise because of eccentricities or, more cynically, because they are peculiarly stupid or socially unacceptable. Interest in other people also characterizes the literary tastes of the twenty-first century: the size of (auto)biographical sections in today’s bookshops shows just how deep our obsession with others is.

Long before we had social media, the interest in the lives of others was sated by the lives of the saints. Known as hagiography, this ancient genre of literature provides great detail on the miracles and personal lives of the most venerated people in the Catholic Church. Whilst social media allows celebrities to make or break a consumer product, these saints are still believed to decide the immortal fate of Catholic souls. But not all saints conform to the stereotype of a quiet, pious individual: in this list, you will find adulterers, prostitutes, demon-fighters, warriors… and a Satanist.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
The Conversion of St Augustine, Bennozzo Gozzoli, Italy, 1464-65. Wikimedia Commons

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine (354-430) was born in the Roman province of Numidia, now Algeria, to a Christian mother, Monica, and pagan father, Patricius. He was brought up a Christian after his father converted on his death bed, but was never baptized. As an upper-class Roman citizen, Augustine received a fine education and was well-read in the Classics. At the age of 17, he went to Carthage to study rhetoric and went on to found a school of rhetoric at Rome itself, before moving to Milan. At this time, Augustine was a Manichean pagan, having renounced the faith of his beloved mother.

The young Augustine loved to party. Whilst a pagan, he led a sinful life of sex, wine, and feasting: indeed, he later wrote what is often seen as the first-ever autobiography, simply titled Confessions, essentially a public apology to God. Soon after reaching Carthage, Augustine began an affair with a local woman that lasted for over fifteen years and produced a bastard son, Adeodatus. His friends were fairly typical young men, who boasted of their sexual prowess and promiscuity: ‘I took pleasure, not only in the pleasure of the deed, but in the praise’, he admitted (Confessions, Book III.3).

Manicheanism itself did not set Augustine on his course of sin, though he later blamed his transgressions on the absence of Christianity in his life. Despite denying the omnipotence of God, Manicheanism was not radically different in essence from Christianity: life was a struggle between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. Augustine was simply behaving as many young people do, enjoying himself in the pleasures of the flesh rather than committing himself to study and purity. Nevertheless, his reflections on his misspent youth inform Christian teaching on man’s inherent sin and gluttony to this day.

Eventually, Augustine tired of Manichean theology and was converted to Christianity through a mixture of his mother’s influence, conversation with St Ambrose of Milan, and a mystical vision. Augustine turned his great mind to Christian thought and canonical texts, and was instrumental in the incorporation of Neoplatonism into Christian theology. He became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and wrote over 100 religious texts. Augustine died of illness during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals, a tribe who went on to sack Rome in 455. His writings continue to influence not only Christian thought but western philosophy in general.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Christina the Astonishing, from a Prayer Card of 1892, France or Belgium. Wikimedia Commons

Christina the Astonishing

Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224) was born in Brustem in the Flemish region of Belgium. She was born to peasant parents who raised her as a committed Christian before dying when Christina was 15. Thenceforth, Christina was cared for by her two older sisters, and had to go to work as a shepherdess (poverty and pastoral work are often a good start for a saint). Little is known of her life until she was stricken with a seizure (possibly epilepsy, a misunderstood condition in the middle ages) at the age of 21 so severe that she was believed to be dead.

During her funeral service in a church at nearby Sint-Triuden, Christina suddenly levitated from her coffin to the church rafters, later proclaiming that she could not stand the stench of sin from the congregation. Ordered down by the priest officiating the burial mass, she explained that she had seen heaven, hell, and purgatory, and had been given the choice of performing penance for the souls stuck in purgatory on earth or staying in heaven. She opted for the latter, renounced all luxuries, and spent the rest of her long life engaged in a range of strange and painful activities.

Christina never got over her aversion to the smell of sin. She would climb to great heights to pray, such as up a tree where she would balance on the tiniest branches with birds, or on top of tall buildings. She was also fond of fire: often she would jump in flames or climb into ovens, and though she screamed in agony would emerge entirely unscathed. Medieval doctrine held that part of purgatory was full of fire, and so her actions on earth were thought to reduce the burning of sinners in the next life, theologically similar to Christ’s Crucifixion.

Christina would race madly through the streets, leading some to believe her possessed by demons. One man once caught her, breaking her leg in the process, and tied her to a pillar while he sought help. Christina miraculously escaped, surviving for several days on her own virginal breast milk, of course up a tree. She was also reported to throw herself under the wheels of water mills, emerging from the water unscathed. Living as a mendicant, Christina lived in rags and survived only on what she could beg from townsfolk. She retired to a convent in her old age.

Her life was recorded eight years after her death by the eminent churchman and writer Thomas of Cantimpré, which gave the story credence. Christina seems to have divided opinion in her life: some found her erratic behavior and self-mortification utterly terrifying, leading to her being incarcerated twice, whilst others believed her story about helping the miserable souls in purgatory. From a modern perspective, it is hard not to suspect that Christina was suffering from mental illness, but one thing that is truly miraculous is her survival to the age of 74 despite her lifestyle when life expectancy was only 43.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Simeon the Stylite, illustration to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s St Simeon Stylites, W.E.F. Britten, England, 1901. Wikimedia Commons

Simeon the Stylite

Hailing from what is now Turkey, Simeon the Stylite (c. 390-459) was a low-born shepherd like Christina the Astonishing. After reading the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) at the age of 13, Simeon developed a great zeal for Christianity and entered a monastery aged 16. Simeon’s dedication to God and bodily mortification, however, did not sit well with his fellow monastic oblates, who thought it a demonstrative extravagance, which meant he was unsuitable for life as part of a community. Thus he was sent away and, like John the Baptist and Jesus Christ before him, Simeon went to the desert.

Simeon first chose to live in a hut for 18 months. He neither ate nor drank through the whole of Lent (40 days at the time), and emerged to great fanfare from people who had learned of his intention and deemed it a miracle. Finding life in the hut too easy, Simeon next sought a cave, measuring only 20 yards in diameter, high up in Sheik Barakat Mountain. However, his fame had spread after the Lenten fast, and he was soon disturbed by hordes of people asking for a blessing or curse, and so he had to move again.

Simeon had his Eureka moment when he found a pillar amongst the ruins in modern-day Taladah, Syria. To stop people interrupting his private prayer and solitude, Simeon determined to live high off the ground on a platform on which no one else could possibly fit. Initially, nine feet off the ground, Simeon received the blessing of monastic Elders and was able to relocate several times to even higher pillars, the last of which was 60 feet off the ground. Finally, Simeon had his solitude, and having no shelter from the elements he had found the most extreme conditions possible.

Simeon lived up to various pillars for 37 years, usually standing upright in prayer. His fame was such, ironically, that images of him were reproduced across the Christian world, and many came to seek advice. He would address onlookers on occasion and even wrote a few surviving letters to Church Councils. He would not, however, leave his pillar, even when he became gravely ill and three bishops ordered him down. Recovering on this occasion, he finally died mid-prayer of old age. The Church of Saint Simeon Stylites was founded on the site of the pillar shortly after his death.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
The Torment of St Anthony by Michelangelo, Italy, 1487-88. Wikimedia Commons

Anthony the Great

Anthony (251-356) was born to wealthy Christian parents in Heracleopolis Magna, Egypt. His parents died when he was about 18, leaving the young man enviably wealthy, albeit with an unmarried sister to look after. Six months after inheriting, Anthony was at mass when he heard a sermon based on Matthew 19:21 (‘if you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven’). Immediately, he gave away everything he owned to the poor, paying for his sister to be brought up in a convent.

Like the later Simeon the Stylite, Anthony made straight for the desert, imitating the lifestyle of local hermits he visited (at this time, there were no monasteries – they were derived from the tradition of the Desert Fathers such as Anthony). Having educated himself in asceticism, Anthony retired to his own dwelling, where he lived a life of prayer, fasting, and incredible self-discipline. In the words of his biographer, Athanasius, however, ‘the devil, who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth’ (Life of Anthony, 5), and thus began Anthony’s demonic warfare.

Satan at first only tried to remind Anthony of what he had forsaken, but failed. Anthony’s second home, this time amongst the catacombs, was soon filled with the forms of ‘lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves’ (Ibid., 9) sent by the devil, which made his bodily pains seem all the worse. Next, the demons subjected the hermit to physical assaults, but still he would not renounce his lifestyle. Even when the devil arranged for all the hyenas in the desert to surround Anthony’s dwelling and bay, he merely continued to pray. Finally, Satan gave up.

Modern historians have attributed Anthony’s visions of demons to his meager diet: ‘his food was bread and salt, his drink, water only’, relates Athanasius (Ibid., 7). Starving oneself in this way can lead to hallucinations, as can the ergot poisoning brought on by rotten grain in bread. The ergot fungus contains one of the ingredients of LSD, and produces truly harrowing visual phenomena (the Salem Witch Trials have even been blamed on ergot poisoning). The traditional spiritual interpretation is that the demons represent the temptations to sin (from the devil, of course) aroused by extreme hunger, thirst and solitude.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Miniature depicting Mary of Egypt meeting Zosimus, fifteenth century, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Mary of Egypt

Sometime around the year 421, Zosimas of Palestine was spending his customary 40 Days in the wilderness at Lent, in commemoration of Christ doing the same and being tempted by the devil. He had been hoping to encounter some desert hermit or other on his travels, but had had no success by the 20th day in the wilderness, as he raised his head to heaven at 6 pm to sing his devotions, as usual. Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of a strange figure and, fearing it was the devil himself, made the sign of the cross, and gave pursuit.

‘It was naked, the skin dark as if burned up by the heat of the sun; the hair on its head was white as a fleece, and not long, falling just below its neck’, relates our source, Sophronius. This was Mary of Egypt. Once caught, she proceeded to relate her life story to Zosimas. She ran away from home aged 12, and became a prostitute at Alexandria. ‘It was not for the sake of gain… often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money… I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth’.

Mary lived this way for 17 years, making money by begging and spinning flax. ‘Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life’, she confessed. One day, she saw a group of pilgrims planning to make their way to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross. Seeing a potential (non-paying) customer base, Mary paid her fare for the journey through sexual favors. However, when she tried to enter the church to see the ceremony, an invisible force prevented her egress. Mary then realized that she was deemed unworthy of the spectacle, and she fell down weeping.

Catching sight of an icon of the Virgin Mary, the prostitute made a vow: ‘be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication’. Finding that she could at last enter the church, albeit with difficulty, she prayed at the foot of the Cross, washed herself in the Jordan, and left for the desert. She spent the next 47 years running away from anyone she encountered and battling the demons of temptation. Zosimas returned to see her a year later only to find her dead, her body perfectly preserved.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, France, c.1460 -1470. British Library

Margaret of Antioch

The story of Margaret of Antioch (3rd century AD) is so fanciful that it was declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius al long ago as 494. This did not prevent her popularity, however, especially amongst Crusading knights. According to her life, as told in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (c.1260), Margaret was born to Theodosius, a pagan priest of Antioch, and was instantly sent to be brought up by a nurse. She converted to Christianity and was baptized in secret, thenceforth living in great fear of her father. When he found out, Theodosius banished her from her home.

Like so many other saints, Margaret became a poor shepherdess. Aged 15, she was spotted tending her sheep by the lascivious provost Olybrius, who intended to marry her as a concubine and thus commanded his servants to bring her to him. When he found out she was a Christian, Olybrius demanded that she convert to paganism or suffer torture. Margaret refused, replying: ‘thou shameless hound and insatiable lion, thou hast power over my flesh, but Christ reserveth my soul’. The provost, who did not wish to see her tortured after all, ordered her to be imprisoned instead.

Whilst in prison, the devil appeared to Margaret in many forms. She was swallowed whole by a great dragon in her cell, but caused it to burst asunder by making the sign of the cross. The devil then appeared as a man to tempt her to convert and save her life, but was again vanquished by the pugnacious Margaret: ‘she caught him by the head and threw him to the ground, and set her right foot on his neck saying: “Lie still, thou fiend, under the feet of a woman.”‘ The earth swallowed the devil back to hell.

The next day, Margaret was again ordered to convert. When she refused, she was thrown into a furnace and branded with hot irons, then dunked in a huge vat of water. ‘Suddenly the earth trembled, and the air was hideous, and the blessed virgin without any hurt issued out of the water… a dove descended from heaven, and set a golden crown on her head’. Olybrius demanded her beheading, but Margaret petitioned the executioner to allow her to pray. The prayer was audibly answered before she died; martyrdom won Margaret a place in heaven, and the Christian faith many converts.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Oswald of Northumbria, fifteenth-century stained glass at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Wikimedia Commons

Oswald of Northumbria

Oswald (604-642) was a great king of Northumbria, a historical kingdom in the north of England before the country was unified under Athelstan. His father, Æthelfrith, was also king of Northumbria, and a great warrior who died in battle with King Raedwald of East Anglia (possibly the king buried at Sutton Hoo) around 616. Upon Æthelfrith’s death, Oswald’s uncle Edwin took the crown, and the young man went to live in Dál Riata, a kingdom on the west coast of Scotland converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries. Whilst there, Oswald converted to Christianity, having been raised a pagan.

Edwin died at the Battle of Hatfield in 633, and the following year Oswald’s brother, King Eanfrith, was also killed. Both were dispatched by King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynned, who was in alliance with the pagan King Penda of Mercia. Cadwallon ruled Northumbria for a year, ‘not like a victorious king, but like a rapacious and bloody tyrant’ according to the Venerable Bede (Ecclesiastical History, Book III Chapter 1). Things were not looking good for the newly-crowned King Oswald. Against the great Welsh king, he had only a small army, but valiantly rode into battle.

Oswald, however, had a trick up his sleeve. Just before the battle commenced, Oswald ‘erected the sign of the holy cross, and on his knees prayed to God that he would assist his worshipers in their great distress… raising his voice, he cried to his army, “let us all kneel, and jointly beseech the true and living God Almighty, in His mercy, to defend us from the haughty and fierce enemy”‘ (Ecclesiastical History, Book III Chapter 2). Cadwallon’s massive army, ‘which he boasted nothing could withstand’ (Ecclesiastical History, Book III Chapter 1), was utterly decimated.

Upon taking back Northumbria, Oswald commanded that all of his subjects convert to Christianity, making this battle a key event in the history of Christianity in England. The story, however, is strategically similar to the story of Emperor Constantine (272-337). According to Eusebius, one of Bede’s inspirations as a historian, Constantine was traveling to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) when he saw a cross of light above the sun with the inscription in hoc signo vinces (‘through this sign, you shall conquer’). Having won the battle, Constantine set about converting the Roman Empire to Christianity.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
The Ecstasy of St Teresa, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rome, 1647-52. Wikimedia Commons

Teresa of Ávila

Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582) is another saint whose life began in great wealth. Her maternal grandfather was a convert from Judaism (a marrano) who had been condemned by the Inquisition for allegedly returning to his original ways, but her parents were wealthy Spanish gentlefolk (having purchased their titles, Don and Doña, to match their fiscal worth). Teresa’s early life was remarkable only for its piety: like her parents, she was a committed Catholic, and read widely in the lives of the saints and devotional works that her wealthy father owned with her brother, Rodrigo.

Sometime around the age of 7, however, Teresa and Rodrigo displayed troubling fanaticism. Inspired by tales of Christian martyrs, the children set off to seek their own martyrdom in Morocco, but were fortunately intercepted by their uncle on the outskirts of town. Teresa’s religious zeal continued to wax as Rodrigo’s waned, but her tastes changed radically when she reached puberty. In secret, she read tales of dashing knights and courtly love, and when her mother died she began to look up to a vain cousin, who encouraged her interest in perfume, fashion, and courtiers.

An illness and her father’s ire provoked a return to Teresa’s pious ways, and she decided to take orders as a Carmelite nun. As a young woman, Teresa continued to suffer from ill health, but at the same time, she began to experience mystical visions. The visions only intensified as she subjected herself to more self-castigation for her sins and offered herself more fully to God. The visions formed part of her influential literary output, and she went on to reform the Carmelite Order of both nuns and friars, despite opposition from the Order itself and the Inquisition.

Teresa’s account of one of the visions, in which Christ appeared to her as a young man, bears lengthy quotation:

‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point, there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails… the pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’ (The Autobiography, Book XXIX, Part 17)

The account is shamelessly erotic: moaning, the mention of the phallic spear entering her body, the young man responsible, thrusting, and the mixture of pain and pleasure suggesting virginal intercourse. In Bernini’s beautiful sculpture, reproduced above, the pseudo-sexual ecstasy of Teresa’s vision is perfectly captured. One suspects that the sexual awakening she had as a teenager, curtailed before it could fully blossom into the usual form, found expression in her religious fanaticism. Teresa is not the only female saint whose devotion has taken this unusual form: Margery Kempe, for example, in the fourteenth century described a mystical marriage to Christ.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Statue of St Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland, 2006. Wikimedia Commons

Patrick

Patrick (c.390-461), patron saint of Ireland, is chiefly remembered today as an excuse to get wrecked on March 17th. He was born in Roman Britain, probably somewhere in Cumbria; his grandfather was a Christian priest, and his father a deacon. According to his Confession, Patrick was not a devout Christian despite his upbringing, and at the age of 16, he was captured as a slave with thousands of others by Irish pirates. With the benefit of hindsight, Patrick said that ‘we deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments’ (Confession, 1).

Like many other embryonic saints, Patrick worked as a shepherd, and passed the time in prayer, having realized immediately his sin in ignoring God. Receiving a prophetic dream one night in which he was told that he would soon return to his homeland, Patrick escaped after six years’ enslavement, and returned via a port 200 miles away from his flock after many misadventures in a strange, still-unidentified land. After taking orders, studying in continental Europe though his written Latin remained notoriously rusty, Patrick returned to pagan Ireland as bishop after another vision which implored him to convert the Irish.

This was no easy task. As a foreigner, Patrick had an uncertain legal status in Ireland, and was at the mercy of the fierce warrior kings whose faith he effectively insulted in trying to convert them. He was imprisoned several times, and threatened with execution. Patrick also refused gifts from the pagan kings – both an insult and an action running contrary to the diplomatic system at the time – and was forced into contests with druids, according to Columbanus in the 7th century. Though historians doubt that Patrick converted Ireland single-handed, it is indisputable that he made a hugely significant contribution.

Also doubtful are the folkloric accounts of his miraculous deeds. Famously, Patrick is credited with ridding Ireland of snakes (a manifestation of the devil, remember). However, there is no evidence in the fossil record for snakes in post-glacial Ireland, and the story likely echoes Moses and Aaron’s staffs turning into snakes (Exodus 7:8-17). Likewise, the story of Patrick using a shamrock to explain the Trinity is first mentioned as late as 1726. In all saints’ lives, the important thing is not what the saint factually did or did not do, but what they were believed to have done.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
The Martyrdom of Becket, from Alan of Tewkesbury, Collectio epistolarum sancti Thome Cantuariensis, England, 1170 . British Library

Thomas à Becket

Thomas à Becket (1119-1170) was the most popular saint in England for centuries after his death, and the subject of numerous biographies from across Europe. Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales are traveling to his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, a wonderfully profitable venture for his former establishment. Unusually for hagiography, the martyrdom of Becket transcends devotional literature and is one of the most famous incidents in English history. Becket was an influential figure at the court of Henry II as well as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his rocky friendship with the aforesaid king makes the story eternally fascinating.

Becket was born to wealthy Norman parents in Cheapside, London, and educated at Merton Priory and Paris. His father was a wealthy and well-connected merchant turned property owner who had served as sheriff of London for a time. As a youth, Becket was more inclined to hunting and hawking than spiritual matters, according to Edward Grim, an eyewitness to the martyrdom. After his return from Paris, Becket was forced to earn a living as his father’s fortunes changed, and he ended up as a clerk to Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, successfully carrying out tasks at the Vatican.

His success as a clerk led to Theobald recommending Becket to Henry II. Henry and Becket hit it off straight away; the Plantagenet king was a vigorous young man built like a wrestler, whose fondness for hunting matched Becket’s, and he made the latter his chancellor. Becket loved the lavish lifestyle of Henry’s court, and contemporaries said that ‘they had but one heart and one mind’. The pair shared a penchant for feasting, wine, and boyish humor. When Theobald died, Henry took the unprecedented step of naming Becket as the new Archbishop, much to the fury of the Church.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was supposed to be a monk; Becket’s appointment thus seemed a shrewd political move to wrestle power from the church. However, Becket surprisingly adopted an austere lifestyle, and a series of conflicts erupted between the king and Archbishop, with Beckett resigning as chancellor and trying to expand archbishopric powers. Becket was eventually forced into exile in 1164-170. Upon returning, he again angered Henry, who was heard to utter ‘what miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric’.

On December 29th 1170, four knights who took Henry’s overheard words as a royal order confronted Becket and ordered him to answer for his actions in Winchester. Becket refused, fled to the cathedral and whilst standing in prayer, was scalped by the first blow of the sword, then finally hacked to death as he lay on the floor, still praying, his blood and brains splattered across the cathedral. Christendom was shocked, and the devastated Henry fasted for three days and performed unprecedented public penance for the deed in 1174 by walking barefoot through Canterbury to the shrine of his former friend.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Pelagia in harlot-form, fifteenth century, Paris. Sarah Emily Bond

Pelagia the Harlot

Pelagia the Harlot’s (4th century) early life is best summarized by the contemporary Vitae Patrum (Book 1, 22):

‘The foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones… as they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes… with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head’.

Pelagia, then known professionally as Margaret, was a mixture of actress and prostitute (the former was a slang term for the latter until Victorian times), and a vain and worldly woman. Her appearance on a donkey is a sinful parody of Christ, and her attire deliberately evokes the apocalyptic Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17 & 18). Like Mary of Egypt, however, Pelagia reformed, taking instruction from Bishop Nonnus and showing her contrition by declaring ‘I, my lord, am an ocean of sins and a sink of iniquity’. She was baptized in her original name, Pelagia, by Nonnus himself.

Truly repenting of her former career, Pelagia immediately sold all of her fine garments and jewels, ‘the rewards that Satan has given’, giving the proceeds to the poor, and battled the devil’s temptation as she lay contrite in her uncomfortable cell. She traveled from Antioch to the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, disguised as a monk and adopting the masculine form of her name, Pelagius. She lived as a recluse in drag for four years, successfully passing as a man before dying one night and shocking those who knew her when it was discovered that Pelagius was, in fact, Pelagia.

12 of the Wildest Saints’ Lives That One Definitely Wouldn’t Expect
Bartolo Longo meets an adoring crowd, Italy, early twentieth century. St Ignatius Mobile

Bartolo Longo

Bartolo Longo (1841-1926) is the youngest figure on this list, and has by far the most paradoxically-sinful background. He was born to wealthy and devoutly Catholic parents in Latiano, Apulia, and went to study law at the University of Naples in 1861, despite his stepfather wanting him to become a teacher. At this time, the Catholic Church in the country was at a low ebb, and after the Unification of Italy was identified Garibaldi as an enemy of nationalism. Caught up in nationalistic fervor, Longo grew weary of his parents’ faith and made friends with a group of Satanists.

Italian children grow up with tales of El Barto‘s debauched university days. He participated in séances (an act especially censured by the Catholic Church), fortune-telling, and the orgies for which Satanism is famed. Longo spoke publicly against the Catholic Church, ridiculing its rites and history and attending public demonstrations against Rome. Incredibly, as well as recruiting new members for the Satanic Cult he was a member of, Longo was an ordained Satanic Priest. He later claimed that during his ordination, in which he promised his soul to the devil, a demon shook the walls and foundations of the building.

His actions came at a great price, however. He was tormented by visible demons, afflicted with paranoia and extreme depression, and finally suffered a mental breakdown. Encouraged by his distraught parents, Longo made a full confession and went to live with Franciscan friars for two years. He then had another vision, this time of the Virgin Mary, and became a Third Order Dominican. This allowed him to marry a wealthy widow, Countess Mariana di Fusco, with whom he remained celibate and undertook charity work until his death. He was beatified in 1980 and is expected to be canonized soon.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Augustine. Confessions, trans. by R.S. Pine-Coffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969

Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints. London: Studio Editions, 1990.

Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Newman, Barbara, and Margot H. King, ed. and trans. Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008.

Robertson, James Craigie, ed. Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (Canonized by Pope Alexander III, A.D. 1173). 7 vols. London: Longman, 1875-1885.

Thomas Becket. Who was Thomas Becket and why did he clash with the king?. BBC Bitesize.

Sophronius. The Life of Mary of Egypt, trans by Nomikos Vapori.

Stagnaro, Angelo. “The Satanist on the Path to Sainthood,” The Catholic Herald, July 13, 2011.

Teresa of Avila. The life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, trans. by J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1988.

Vitae Patrum, trans. by Benedict Baker.

de Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend, trans. by William Caxton. London: Dent, 1993.

White, Carolinne, trans. Early Christian Lives. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

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