Descent to Ascent: Jessica Hooten Wilson on Saints, Martyrs, Icons, and Heroes
“I’m a Protestant who loves saints,” says Jessica Hooten Wilson. Why do we read and write saints’ lives? Hagiography is a long-practiced depiction of the holy and often wacky stories of saints and the wondrous elements of their lives as dedicated to God. Jessica Hooten Wilson identifies one of Flannery O’Connor’s primary goals in her unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage? as attempting to write a saint’s life. And really, from one angle, a great deal of texts are trying to do this. In attempting to articulate the narrative of a saint’s life, we are exercising a spiritual imagination for the sake of understanding the fullest expression of Christ in merely human life.
What follows the suggestion of the descent and ascent of saintly lives is a rich conversation about martyrdom, iconography, what it means to understand a great or holy text, as well as an appreciation for the aesthetic side of spirituality.
- 1:15—”I’m a Protestant who loves saints.” David Lyle Jeffrey’s phrase “inextricably middled.” How God can create a saint’s life in your own life.
- 2:49—Saint Theresa of the Little Way—”Our lives don’t have to make headlines to be saints lives.”
- 3:50—What to do with the “white-washed” saints stories; “The reason you read the saint story is not because that person was holier than thou, but because God was holy in that person. That’s where the beauty of the saint’s life comes from.”
- 4:33—Augustine’s Confessions, Lady Continence, St. Monica
- 5:15—The three great works that everyone should read: Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
- 6:25—O’Connor’s use of the Descent-to-Ascent Model of saints lives
- 7:13—Wilson defends O’Connor from the idea that O’Connor is too horrific. “Everyone has hold of the wrong horror.” / Reference to “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)
- 8:53—Icons, Art, and Martyrdom; Caravaggio’s “Salome Holding the Head of John the Baptist”; Marco d’Agrate, Milan Duomo, “St. Bartholomew Flayed”; Nikola Sarić, “21 Libyan Martyrs Icon”
- 9:36—21 Lybian Martyrs (February 12, 2015); Matthew Ayariga: “My God is their God.”
- 12:30—The moral and religious uses of art, icons, stories, books, and sacred texts.
- 13:50—”It reads us rather than us consume it. … It puts us in a different position in which we can be transformed. We can be read. We can be submissive. We can let go. We can be emptied of self before it, rather than trying to consume or get from it, something.”
- 14:55—Flannery: “We make the wrongful assumption that anyone who can read a telephone book can read a short story.”
- 15:15—How to read art, literature, and scripture: submissive, selfless, and no presuppositions.
- 16:30—Reference to A Wrinkle in Time: “You must attempt to understand in a flash.”
- 18:00—The humility required to stand under a text in order to understand it.
- 18:27—Flannery O’Connor on self-knowledge: “…self‑knowledge, for O’Connor, is acknowledging what one lacks. It’s measuring one’s self against the truth, not measuring the truth against one’s self.”
- 19:50—Self-knowledge: “Self‑knowledge cannot begin by a self-examination of self. It just sounds tautological, even when you try to explain it.
Instead, you need the perspective of another. Preferably, a transcendent divine perspective to be an honest true perspective. Therefore, you’d be measuring yourself against the truth. You’d be seeing yourself truly as you are. I think there’s a reason that Augustine cannot write an autobiography without having a conversion to Christianity.”
- 21:41—Really dumb dad-joke about mimes and St. Augustine’s “take up and read” passage.
- 22:20—End Interview, Credits
Evan Rosa: The Table Audio is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust.
Hello friends, here’s a little bonus tape from my Season 2 interview with Jessica Hooten Wilson—this segment didn’t make that interview on Flannery O’Connor and Suffering, but it was so good, we saved it for a little bonus episode love. If you missed that interview from October 2018, I highly recommend it, but this piece stands alone.
Here, I ask Jessica about her love for the saints and the concept of writing and reading saints lives as a moral and spiritual and aesthetic task. That leads to a conversation about martyrdom, art, and the reverence due to great books and sacred texts. Hope you enjoy!
Evan: I want to hone in on saints and the concept of…
Jessica Hooten Wilson: I love the saints. [laughs]
Evan: I know you do. That’s why I want to hone in. There’s something about hagiography, and the writing of a life, and the exemplarity of the saints, so let’s dig in with O’Connor, without her, whatever. Jessica Wilson on saints.
Jessica: Sure. I’m a protestant who loves saints.
Jessica: It’s an interesting place to be, and I was drawn there probably first by biographies and also by a great protestant scholar, David Lyle Jeffrey. He writes that we are “inextricably middle” in our own life.
Evan: I love that.
Jessica: It’s a fantastic idea, a way of seeing your own life in which you do not know your future and you can only know your present in hindsight in some ways, [laughs] that you don’t have the insight to understand who you are all the time. I love that.
The saint stories or the lives of people who should be sainted or that we should acknowledge as exemplary, that reading their whole story from beginning to end you see how all the pieces fit together. You can see how their life was designed and authored, not only by them but by God.
Then, acknowledging that your own story is being written gives you a certain level of freedom in which to participate in what God is doing in the world that He may create a saint story out of your life.
I love those kinds of stories. I think the other thing about saint stories as opposed to, maybe, bestselling biographies would be that saints are uplifted for the virtues that they expressed in their lives and not necessarily for the heroic deeds they did.
You have someone like Saint Therese of the Little Way. Here’s a young girl who suffers and dies in a convent. There is nothing that’s going to make headlines with her life. Yet, her everyday small acts of mercy and grace are uplifted as a way that we can follow and that we can live out in our own lives. Our lives don’t have to make headlines to be saint’s lives.
Evan: Well, thank God.
Jessica: Yes. Right.
Evan: That’s a narrative approach to the self. It’s to place story and narrative as a kind of…It’s to give in an effectiveness for understanding ourselves and working our way into a particular form and shape of life. What do you say to those folks that say, “Oh, those saint’s lives are all just whitewashed?”
Jessica: [laughs] I think Dorothy Day says this, too, that she cannot stand the whitewashed saint stories. It’s the stories of those who send and allowed God to be the hero in their story. Those are the stories that I appreciate reading. The ones in which the characters fall, as we all fall, but then they acknowledge the power of grace to move through them.
You can see the human weakness, but you can see the extraordinary grace of God. The reason you read the saint story is not because that person was holier than thou, but because God was holy in that person. That’s where the beauty of the saint’s life comes from.
Evan: I taught a portion of Confessions today.
Evan: I just think that’s Augustine…
Evan: His willingness to explain that through Lady Continence in Book VIII, I’ve always loved that. It’s a deep reliance on his embeddedness in a Christian community, his reliance on his mother, and his brutal honesty [laughs] about his own failings.
Jessica: I was telling a group of students at Pepperdine on Tuesday that the three great works that everyone should read would be Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s, Divine Comedy, and Dostoyevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov.
What those three have in common is looking at the life of someone who begins as a pilgrim in life who thinks they know everything that they need to know and ends up falling and descending first. Then, by the power of God, they are lifted up.
You look at Augustine being this great rhetorician, making a career for himself in Milan, the center of the Roman Empire. Then recognizing with great humility the sins that are keeping him from a better life. It’s the necessity of that descent before he can be ascended up to the Bishop of Rome.
Dante going into inferno before he can climb purgatory to paradise. Alyosha having to witness the death of his elder, and fall on his face, and go through the sins of eating sausage and drinking champagne, but then he’s uplifted by this vision of Christ in the Cana of Galilee story.
Just that move, that descent to ascent move, O’Connor models it in every single one of her stories. This move of the life of a person who’s going to find God has to fall, has to descend before that person can be lifted up.
Evan: This comes back to O’Connor a little bit and it addresses that objection. All the focus on the descent.
Jessica: Yes. [laughs]
Evan: All the focus on the darkness.
Evan: Then you save this poor grandma only at the end. She had no time to enjoy it. What I think it does, it just removes all delusion or all possibility of wanting this for the wrong reason.
Jessica: I think what people are forgetting and the reason that O’Connor said, “Everyone always has hold of the wrong horror,” they’re forgetting the reader in that story.
Yes, the grandmother, only at the very end, acknowledges, “Why you’re one of my own children? I’m a sinner just like you. I’ve produced you. I’m complicit in your sin and your guilt because of the way I lived my life.” Then reaches out in neighborly love and gets shot, but guess what? We don’t get shot.
We got to have a gun held to our head, empathetically in that story, vicariously in that story and we got to question whether we really believe that Jesus rose from the dead. If we do really believe it, then we move forward from that story and we go on to live a life of ascent and grace. The grandmother is not real, so yes, she dies.
Evan: Just a reminder.
Jessica: It’s so phenomenal that we get to read her story and that we don’t have to have the gun to our head. We get to experience it and then we get to live differently. The transformation redeems the story if we live out differently after we read it.
Evan: Yeah. Big if.
Evan: What it does is it ‑‑ in a rich, really genuinely good way ‑‑ iconizes the grandmother in this case. Makes her the icon that you can identify with. Perhaps there’s grace moving through that in some way, depending on [laughs] what kind of metaphysics of grace you have.
Evan: Icons—here we spend a little time thinking about Christian art and iconography—which has depicted the radical faith of martyrs for a long time. Maybe this is obvious, but the image of the martyr as a sign of faith is simply the presentation of a form of sainthood—people so committed to the way of Jesus that they would die for it, after the same pattern as their master, Jesus. The art and iconography around martyred Christians is often macabre and dark—take Caravaggio’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist or the statue of a Flayed St. Bartholomew by Marco d’Agrate at the Milan Cathedral.
Well, the same applies for modern martyrs. On February 12, 2015, the Islamic State released a report on their kidnapping and subsequent martyrdom of 21 Libyan construction workers. The news went internationally viral that same week, with the most poignant and dramatic element being that only 20 were Coptic Christians. The 21st, Matthew Ayariga from Ghana, was the only black subsaharan African, and, by reports, was not a Christian… when he was kidnapped. It was only when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Christ that Matthew is reported to have said, “Their God is my God. … I am a Christian and I am like them.”
Shortly after the news, these 21 martyrs were recognized as saints by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and not long after that, a sacred artist named Nikola Sarić painted a striking icon of these events. And you can check the show notes and website page for this episode to see these images I’ve been referencing… All the martyrs depicted seem to bear striking facial resemblance to Christ, and all are looking at him, except one, who’s gaze pierces the viewer.
What follows here is a discussion of that particular icon, as well as the literary iconography (if you will) the writing and reading of saints lives and the spiritually formative capacity there.
Evan: It reminds me of our conversation yesterday. To be given the chance to observe that Libyan martyrs icon, which is all 21, but the 21st, down at the bottom, is not yet beheaded and is staring straight at you. I feel like it’s giving the same kind of opportunity, the same kind of moment of grace.
There’s this question in the looking of the icon directly into the viewer or the reader to now say, “OK, what then? How will you live?”
Jessica: The assessment of the living icon, Ralph Wood, does a phenomenal job with…He’s the one that taught me through that icon about the power of the icon to contextualize stories here and now within the grace of God and trying to see our place in it, our participation in it. How the icon can then look at us and demand something of us or invite us to a greater participation. This is all Ralph.
Evan: Where I was going was just, and I don’t know if this is Ralph or not, but these different artistic media, and what it does is it speaks to the usefulness. We’re used to enjoying art. We’re used to enjoying lit. We enjoy watching TV and that’s all about entertainment.
Then we can enact this Augustinian distinction of use versus enjoyment and we should be thinking about the uses ‑‑ the religious, and political, and social uses ‑‑ of art. I think this is just one of those cases. I wonder if you’d speak to what you take to be some of the uses of O’Connor. What do you think of when posed that question?
Jessica: I think Flannery O’Connor is a more devotional writer. I think you’ve used language along those lines that O’Connor maybe fun and funny in different ways, but most people do not go to O’Connor to be entertained. They go because she reminds them of a reality that they need the reminder.
In the same way that people turn to icons instead of art, or instead of pictures in some instance, because it gives you access to the world that is beyond your own vision, I think Flannery O’Connor’s work acts iconically in our lives that way, that it reads us rather than us consume it.
It puts us in a different position in which we can be transformed. We can be read. We can be submissive. We can let go. We can be emptied of self before it, rather than trying to consume or get from it, something.
Evan: I love this idea about being read by scripture, or being read by the liturgy, or, in this case, read by O’Connor that there’s some kind of standard that the reading brings to us. This is the sense in which there are ways of reading and that there are modes of reading. You were discussing this with a group of students recently.
Jessica: [laughs] Uh‑huh.
Evan: What were some of those key points that you think are the tips for readers?
Jessica: Sure. If I can quote Flannery, she says in one of her speeches that, “We make the wrongful assumption that anyone who can read a telephone book can read a short story.”
Jessica: It’s not true. I think it’s a good reminder that we too often think that the task of reading is a literal progression from left to right of swallowing syllables and words. That’s not what’s happening, especially when you read a work of art, or when you read fiction, or even when you read the Bible. I am a proponent of reading art the way that you read scripture.
Considering the ways that the early church fathers, when they were trying to understand how to read scripture, they gave us this great plan for reading art and reading literature. They talk first about the heart of the person who approaches the text. That heart needs to be submissive, and selfless, and attend to the text with no presuppositions.
C.S. Lewis says something along this lines in the “Experiment in Criticism” in which she put on the knight armor and tried to understand from within the perspective of the story itself and try to take on that world view before you go to the next syllable, which would be then to question and converse with the text and so forth.
It’s about the perspective of the person actually engaging the art on its level and the heart of the person attending to the work that way.
Evan: I’m sorry, but I’ve got Wrinkle in Time on my mind.
Evan: This is exactly Mrs. Who’s gift to Meg, which is, “You must not hear these words word by word. You must attempt to understand it in a flash.”
Jessica: Oh, yes.
Evan: Then she goes on to read, “It’s not the powerful.” It’s first Corinthians. “It’s not the powerful, it’s the weak of the world. God has chosen the foolish things to shame the wise.” It’s all about upside down like this. I’ve got L’Engle on the brain.
Jessica: [laughs] One of the big points I make when I try to teach students how to read ‑‑ and I usually give them a visual ‑‑ I stand up in front of the classroom, I grab one of their textbooks. I hover over it. Usually, when we read a text, we try to pull. I just show them what it would look like to pull out of this text whatever it is I want.
“But, aren’t we going to reach true understanding?” and then I hold the book above my head. If we stand under the text and we allow it to read us, there’s a place of humility that I’m beneath it. There’s a reminder that I am listening to it, and attending to it, and allowing it to teach me and read me. I think we need that reminder as readers rather than as consumers of the literature.
Evan: You talk about the humility that’s required to stand under and to allow a text to read one’s self, it’s to approach that piece and it’s to approach that author with the kind of openness, and open‑mindedness, and a kind of vulnerability.
Perhaps, I wonder, is this the same thing that’s going on when…I know that you say that, for O’Connor, humility is the first step towards self‑knowledge.
Jessica: Yes, because self‑knowledge, for O’Connor, is acknowledging what one lacks. It’s measuring one’s self against the truth, not measuring the truth against one’s self. She says that directly. She also says it’s not on our national conscience to have humility, and I think that’s true.
Humility is not a prized virtue among people. You should have pride. Pride would be the exalted virtue of self‑pride, self‑esteem. Whereas, O’Connor’s flipping that. Again, turning things upside down to say that we start recognizing that our eyes are not the way to understand and see the whole world. That if we only try to see the world through our eyes, we will be limited in our vision.
We will be biased towards most of the things that we encounter. Instead, we acknowledge C.S. Lewis who said, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” “I see you with a myriad eyes, yet it is still I who see,” the necessity of having all of those eyes on which to view the world.
Evan: Which speaks to the social nature here of arriving at self‑knowledge, even. It’s to be seen by others as opposed to just looking into a mirror.
Jessica: Right. If we try to see ourselves by only looking into a mirror, we are seeing, with limited vision and biased vision, our own reflection. Therefore, we’re only going to see there what we want to see there. Self‑knowledge cannot begin by a self‑examination of self. It just sounds tautological, even when you try to explain it.
Instead, you need the perspective of another. Preferably, a transcendent divine perspective to be an honest true perspective. Therefore, you’d be measuring yourself against the truth. You’d be seeing yourself truly as you are. I think there’s a reason that Augustine cannot write an autobiography without having a conversion [laughs] to Christianity.
Evan: You’re right.
Jessica: I think he can’t see himself truly in order, then, to tell his story truthfully.
Evan: It’s interesting also that he can’t even perform it methodologically or stylistically without being in conversation with God.
Jessica: And taking up and reading.
Evan: There you go. Take up and read.
Jessica: The start of Augustine’s conversion is to take up and read a book. It’s an invitation of those who, before him, took up and read books, Pontentianos took up the life of Saint Anthony.
Evan: That’s right.
Jessica: Saint Anthony heard the gospels read to him and then followed them. There’s this act of reading which engenders a second vision and allows one to see themselves as part of a larger story and then to imitate those stories that you’ve read and become more saintly, more Godly.
Evan: Even the very text that he takes up and read is mimesis. It’s ‑‑ put on Christ.
Jessica: Yes, exactly. The instructions to empty yourself of yourself and, instead, imitate the one in whose image you were made is the gospel.
Evan: I pretend to be a mime when I teach that passage, and I find myself trapped in a glass box.
Jessica: [laughs] That’s awesome, but it is. It’s mimesis.
Evan: Students don’t laugh. They don’t. They normally don’t laugh. They just think I’m strange.
Jessica: [laughs] That’s funny.
Evan: And I am strange. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoyed this little extended conversation with Jessica Hooten Wilson. Season 3 of The Table Audio is on it’s way, and it’s sure to be good. Thanks for listening. Peace.
The Table Audio is hosted and produced by me, Evan Rosa, and is a resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation. Theme music is by The Brilliance. This episode was edited and mixed by me; and a special thanks to Jessica Hooten Wilson for her time and wisdom. Here’s an an idea: Subscribe to The Table Audio on your favorite podcast app, and leave us a rating and review. If you want to go beyond, you could start telling your dearest friends and family too. That’d be really nice actually. If you Twitter, you can follow me @EvanSubRosa and you can follow the Center for Christian Thought @BiolaCCT or visit our website, cct.biola.edu