The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World
By Dawn Marie Beutner.
Ignatius Press, 2023.
Paperback, 316 pages, $19.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Griffin.

Saints change the world because their own lives have become an offering to God. Their self-offering made their impact on the world abundant. They show us how to be truly alive and how to live from the power of the truth. 

In The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ Into a Fallen World, Dawn Marie Beutner showcases the overwhelming abundance and power of God’s holy ones. Beutner’s work dives into the well-known saints but also spends time on the lives of saints who are not household names. 

Simply skimming through the Table of Contents provides a better understanding of the richness and variety of backgrounds that make up the saints of the Catholic Church. From martyrs to theologians, from popes to mothers, there is no walk of life that has not been blessed with a saint. In this way The Leaven of the Saints provides a fresh look into what made these men and women different and offers a blueprint for how we are called to live today. 

In describing the power of the martyrs, Beutner reveals the key ingredient that makes saints: following Jesus Christ’s every word and imitating his life. In this way, saints reveal to us that Christ is still alive and that he works in us when we give him access to our entire being. 

“Some Christians throughout the millennia have demonstrated that they are more alive than the rest of us…the saints show us how to live our lives in readiness to meet Christ.” This is a major thesis of this work, and it speaks to the core of each one of us: we all wish we were more alive. We know that life is worth living yet we enjoy some days more than others. We might have a robust prayer life and study the tenets of our faith. We might even already be great witnesses to others in our lives about what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

However, when other people look at us, do they think to themselves: that person is more alive than we are? Is there a vigor for life that is infused into the soil of our soul? The saints were leaven for the world and for the Church because Christ was the soil of their souls. This made them different in the sense that they knew what life was really about. 

Whether we are speaking about the early martyrs who gave their lives for the faith, the Church Fathers who helped give shape to Christian dogmas, the trailblazers of religious orders or the sacred spouses from down the ages, they all had one thing in common: they lived life to the full. To do this, they each had to heavily rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them and empower them. 

This was especially important for the early Church Fathers and other Doctors of the Church because it was their unification with God’s Spirit that allowed them to decipher what was true from what was false. It enabled them to be firm in their defense of the faith against heresies that stressed certain truths at the expense of others. Living from the seat of God’s Spirit also allowed popes to make decisions that would impact world history and Church history with the trust that it was God moving within them. 

Leaven of the Saints also does a superb job illustrating the fact that saints were not mythical creatures completely unlike you and me. They led extremely normal and ordinary lives. Many of them had early lives that were filled with difficulties or sinful actions. Once they met Christ their lives were changed. They then decided to offer their God-given talents to the complete service of the Church and the Gospel.

For many saints this meant that they completely left their homes or former ways of life in order to live radically for the Lord. For others this meant that they would spend countless hours in prayer or study; through these activities they encountered Christ and were then able to share that encounter with others. All of the saints were marked with a certain sense of extremism when it came to their discipleship. 

They were not weird nor were they bigots. They simply fell in love with Jesus Christ and they were compelled to give their entire lives over to him. Their witness stretches over Beutner’s three-hundred-page work. Many chapters end with simple yet detailed charts that outline the lives of saints and their significance. This is a helpful guide to the thematic chapters and it allows the reader to jump even further into the lives of the saints that we all strive to be like.

The balance between living an ordinary life and living a radical life for God is revealed throughout the plethora of personalities. Parish priests, deacons, bishops, and founders of religious orders all seemed to find a similar secret that led to profound holiness. They decided to live each moment for God and dedicate their lives to Him. Wherever they found themselves, it became an opportunity to live for the Lord and others. 

In this way, the leaven is also a medicine. Beutner notes that the Doctors of the Church were incredible minds that laid down their intellects for the service of Christ. However, they were doctors for more than the fact that they were as smart as PhD candidates. They were doctors because the truth, beauty, and goodness they explained was a healing remedy for those that experienced it. The leaven they uncovered served as medicine for the masses. 

Bread rises when leaven is mixed into it. So, too, the Church will come alive again when we become committed to being radical in the ordinary things: prayer, devotion, sacrifice, charity, and the study of the truth. If we desire to honor the vast number of saints that have served as leaven for the history of the Church, we can begin to become medicine for our culture by serving Christ above everything else. Then our world, like unleavened bread, will rise because of the leaven of the saints. 

Thomas Griffin teaches in the Religion Department at a Catholic high school and lives on Long Island with his wife and son. He has a master’s degree in theology and is currently a masters candidate in philosophy.

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