Imitating the Saints: From Don Quixote to the Whiskey Priest

Readers should need no introduction to The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. Infected with a madness focused on the bygone era of knight errantry, Don Quixote leaves home to enact a new golden age of chivalry. As Don Quixote says to his loyal squire: “Friend Sancho, I would have you know that I was born, by the will of heaven, in this iron age of ours, to revive in it an age of gold, or golden age as it is often called. I am the man for whom dangers, great exploits, valiant deeds are reserved” (1.20). Of course, this new knight errant succeeds only, for the most part, in making a fool of himself and unwittingly terrorizing innocent people across the countryside.

In some ways Don Quixote is a fit image for the struggle against the modern world. The old golden age of Catholic culture has passed away and new age of iron (or worse) has come in its place. To look back on the great deeds of our ancestors should inspire us to action, even if the odds seem hopeless. To most around us, such action would be as foolish as attacking windmills or flocks of sheep. Yet, the fight itself is noble enough to risk the shame and humiliation of defeat.

That said, Don Quixote can also reveal an Achilles heel in the modern Catholic revolutionary. Don Quixote became delusional from reading too many chivalric books; books meant to entertain the reader with unrealistic accounts of the valor of their heroes, more fantastical accounts than ones meant to edify and imitate. In response, his parish priest burnt his books in hopes of removing the source of his madness.

Looking back to the time of my own conversion, I recognize a similar influence in many works of hagiography. The lives of the saints can be presented in such an unbalanced way that one gets the idea that one day the Lord moved their hearts and the next they were turning the world upside down. This is not to deny the power of the Lord’s call in their lives, but what many narratives of the saints leave out is the process by which their weakness is overcome and transformed by grace. These accounts leave out the real humanity of the saints, including their flaws and shortcomings in the midst of their holiness. (Fr. Augustine Thompson’s Francis: A New Biography is a great counterpoint to this tendency.)

What kind of damage can this misunderstanding of saints wreak? For one, it can lead to a false assumption that one becomes holy overnight. I remember reading St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila as a teenager and in my immaturity seeking to place myself within their account of the heights of holiness. I have heard from many others who made the same mistake. Then when one encounters the continuation of sin, failure, and weakness, there is a tendency to become discouraged. “Well, I guess I’m not a saint after all; I will have to settle for less.”

Secondly, there can be a tendency to judge one’s relationship with God in light of action and accomplishment. The life of the saints can be misread in light of Quixote’s chivalric novels; the Saints being the champions of God who work wonder after wonder in fantastical fashion. This, by no means, is to deny the miracles of the saints, but rather to show that many accounts of the saints do not focus on their real greatness, found in the interior life. Youthful readers can get drawn into thinking that the life of a saint is one fantasy, more akin to King Arthur’s roundtable than the daily, hard routine of fidelity to God. (Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate is a helpful witness here.)

Power and Glory cov smallAnother work of fiction comes to mind as an antidote to Don Quixote. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory presents the ministry and death of the whiskey priest, who, despite his sins, is a much better model for the reality of one’s struggle toward saintliness. I said despite his sins, but it might be more accurate to say, because of his sins. The whiskey priest began his ministry in comfort, enjoying a life of ease and respect, in which being a priest came naturally and superficially. It is a fitting image of where most of us begin our journey, taking our faith for granted and falling into easy and comfortable routines.

Persecution then came to the province of Tabasco, Mexico (the setting of the novel), and the priest risks his life to continue his ministry. Though this sounds heroic, the whiskey priest admits that he stayed out of pride, relishing the fact that he would be the only priest to maintain the sacraments in the area. What he finds is that his heroism is too much for himself. His idealism crumbled in the realization that he was no saint. And yet, he persisted, continuing to serve in his own broken way. He remained a somewhat selfish, drunkard, but he also increased in his compassion and understanding for others and himself.

In the end, the whiskey priest gives up his newly found freedom and reenters the land of persecution in order to minister to a dying man. Though he knows that he will be captured, he is unwilling to shirk his most profound duty: to save souls. He did not live a life of heroic virtue, but he did continue his struggle to remain faithful in the midst of his brokenness. His acceptance of both his brokenness and that of others was an important step toward a last act of heroism in which he gave his life. His martyrdom of love revealed that fruit of the gradual process of purification which he received at the hands of his own endurance through his sins and weakness.

The whiskey priest’s own reflection the morning of his death provides the simple insight he gained:

He caught sight of his own shadow on the cell wall; it had a look of surprise and grotesque unimportance. What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless…. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage…. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint (Part 3, ch. 4).

Here we find the last thoughts of a broken priest, about to go off to martyrdom, unprepared, though keenly unaware of his own neediness before God. He is not the hero, leading to a triumph, but himself the object of God’s mercy.

Though by no means perfect, this pseudo-hagiography may serve as a better model for young idealists wanting to be saints. In our own “iron age,” as Don Quixote put it, we have to face up to the brokenness that we bring into the life of faith. This brokenness does not magically disappear. Rather, it is something that must be suffered and only gradually (usually at least) transformed. We also have to acknowledge the limits of our setting. Sweating it out, trampling through the swamps, suffering with malaria, like the whiskey priest, presents a fitting image for the adventure of a future saint within our culture. We will not be able to single handedly bring about a new golden age, but to labor and suffer in the midst of a lesser one.

In conclusion, we can see an unrealistic hagiography can place the center on one’s self: “Saint X changed the world and the Church and I want to do that too!” Holy zeal may be helpful in initial motivation, but it will need more depth to continue. There must be maturity and especially humility for the growth of saintliness. In that sense, maybe Don Quixote is not the worst of models: as the neophyte rushes off in pursuit of great deeds, he will experience the humiliation that attends such quixotic ventures! This humiliation may be the beginning of imitating the saints: moving from Don Quixote to the Whiskey Priest!

R. Jared Staudt


R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

  • Michael Lee

    Actually, I think our young people would do better to look to the Quixotes of our literary heritage. The author glosses over the great lessons taught in Quixote, and merely passes him off as a fool. The conversion of Aldonsa — brought about by unconditional, unmerited love; the unexplainable devotion of Sancho to Quixote — and his growing love for him; and the juxtaposing of Quixote’s “insanity” against the “sanity” of his family, friends, neighbors, and others.

    I truly believe that Staudt, in his zeal to point out the fallings and failings of real human beings on the path to sanctity — which is certainly real and worthy of note — has entirely missed the true message of Quixote. His failings, fallings, and flaws are not hidden in the novel — they are painfully and sometimes humorously present for all to see. The lesson is that he never let anyone else’s focus on his inadequacy (or on their’s) dissuade him from what he discerned as his divine calling. Quixote’s death scene brings this lesson into sharp focus.

    Quixote and the Whiskey Priest are not really so different — Quixote was simply more cognizant of his conversion — and less resistant to his call.

    Michael F. Lee

  • Jamie

    I have a nice little story about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a saints collection. My kids love it. In fact, I love it. But I also have Come Be My Light–a collection of her letters that reveal the darkness that she struggled with almost her entire religious life. There’s a place in the heart of a Christian for both, I think. And I disagree that the only good in hagiography is the humiliation that *may* set us straight–but it may lead to discouragement and despair, so it’s a dubious good. In the first place, the grand style story of Mother does not *lie* about her life. It simply glosses over her interior struggle. But it *does* foster love and admiration in the reader. That love is, I believe, not *dashed* by the truth, but enhanced! I think hagiography is dangerous when it comes to our founders–the truth about Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson is a little hard on the ears–but the truth about our saints is different. It isn’t the big “reveal”. Aha! They aren’t what I thought they were! Quite the contrary. They are *more* of what you thought they were.

  • The_Monk

    It does, indeed, seem the stories of the saints smooth over the jagged edges of the lives they lived. But I accept the romanticism as necessary even as I cast a jaundiced eye on the ‘warts and all’ storytelling our culture has taken to. Most of the books we are referencing were written in a time when life was a difficult, and often dreary, proposition and people wanted to escape – needed the escapism. We, who live lives of unimaginable ease and luxury in anachronistic juxtaposition to our fore-bearers, indeed, may have become jaded. We have a false memory of simpler times, equating simplicity with ease….

  • Fides

    You my friend have touched upon the very conversation that has to be had, on a regular basis, for each young person that we come into contact with as a parent, teacher or by example in our professional life. Fully realizing that many who need to revisit this perspective may be years past youth. This simple perspective needs to be ingrained.

    Well written sir! The errant knight would have been well served by a squire such as yourself. The the whiskey priest would comforted in his cell with the knowledge that he would go to God with a prayer and hope —faithful, a very good good way to arrive at your judgement. Understanding your point gives one the opportunity to be a Samaritan to those we come into contact with—

  • grzybowskib

    ‘I can’t be a saint,’ I said. ‘I can’t be a saint.’ And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach, the cowardice that says: I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin, but which means, by those words: I do not want to give up my sins and attachments.’ — Thomas Merton. Can I get an Amen for this dude? I know I am in the same boat as him a lot of the time.

    • BrunoB

      Man, that strikes a note here!
      I am deeply bothered by the fact that everyone should become a saint, because all I really wanted was to settle for way less. Christ is very demanding!

      But last Sunday’s gospel was really about this, right? Then we can fully understand why is it that he came not to bring peace, but the sword! Christian lfie is battle, daily battle! I pray, somewhat halfheartedly, for courage, but I confess that the grip of cowardice on me is strong, and barely pray for courage I do. Like St. Augustine when he asked for chastity.

      In this I am forced to recognize my weakness, and be humble, and keep praying even if half-heartedly because, mark this, weak and coward we all are, that is the thing we are the most, and one should not despair about this. Because weakness and cowardice may perhaps be sins, but not mortal sins. That is, they do not kill until we make way for despair. And that really kills.

      • grzybowskib

        Exactly! I’ve never read anything by Graham Greene before, but when I came across the line I posted above from Seven Storey Mountain (Thmas Merton’s autobiography), I thought to myself, “Holy cow, Batman! He’s talking to me from his grave!”

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  • James Stagg

    Perhaps romantic and hagiographic literature and film will be supplemented by true-to life stories, like “Of Gods and Men”. It would then be our duty, as faithful Catholic parents and teachers, to provide a balance of both to the young or new Catholic.

    Articles like this from today’s WSJ are active reminders for us to DISCUSS our Faith with our children and others, in the hope that they may be inspired by the trials, as well as the joys, of living an authentic, faith-filled, Catholic life in imitation of the canonized saints:

    Read about Hildegard of Bingen lately? She’s never been officially canonized, but has been appointed a Doctor of the Church. If you really want to understand the warts with the beauty, read about the trials of all four women Doctors of the Church. Strong believers! Inspirational!

  • David_Naas

    Yes, yes, we must be ‘realistic’. But we also must be ‘idealistic’.

    There is a contrast to Cervantes *Don Quxiote* and *Man of la Mancha*, which I have always appreciated. In the musical, all of the idealism is retained, and the pathos, and the absurdity of this crazy old coot, and in the story arc of Aldonza/Dulcenea, we are given a perfect example of how a flawed human being can positively influence others. (Aldonza the Whore becomes Dulcenea the Lady of Virtue, by responding to the unwavering idealization the Knight of the Woeful Countenance has of her.) Both Alfonso Quejada and the Whiskey Priest are a bit absurd, each in their own ways, but each gives a witness to truth.
    Maybe you have to be a bit dotty to think you can do that.
    (Now that my mind is on the subject, there seems to be a parallel between Don Quxiote and our good Pope Francis — they both have the quite absurd notion they can change the world.) 🙂
    For what it’s worth, the lines below sit above my desk, in a picture with Picasso’s drawing of Quxiote..

    Never Give Up; Never Surrender!

    To dream … the impossible dream …
    To fight … the unbeatable foe …
    To bear … with unbearable sorrow …
    To run … where the brave dare not go …
    To right … the unrightable wrong …
    To love … pure and chaste from afar …
    To try … when your arms are too weary …
    To reach … the unreachable star …
    This is my quest, to follow that star …
    No matter how hopeless, no matter how far…
    To fight for the right, without question or pause …
    To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause …
    And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
    That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm, when I’m laid to my rest …
    And the world will be better for this:
    That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
    Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
    To reach … the unreachable star …

    In my own life, I’m still failing, but still reaching anyway.

  • Tom Hanson

    I have often thought that a realization of the sinfulness of saints is a very useful thing on the journey. Augustine’s theft of fruit as a youngster may not seem like much of a sin, but part of being a saint is the realization of evil in its depth in the “not much” of day to day living. I do have a quibble here in the illustration used for the P and the G: Bantam Giants were usually giant because of shear bulk. Greene’s book is short on length, giant in quality and depth. He also wrote books he called entertainments. For those who love crime stories, you might start with his first big hit, Brighton Rock written if I recall correctly in the 1930’s. The very simple, non-violent concluding chapter still has the cruel power to shock and horrify anyone who has paid attention in the 21st century. The lost will never begin to understand why it should do that.

  • Jim

    The author of this article does not believe in miracles and allows his lack of virtue to get in the way of the operation of Grace.

    God does turn our lives upside down when we let Him.

    Long live the true and accurate depictions of saints lives. Long live the hagiographies. Down with the iconoclasts.