One of my favourite modern films is “Stigmata”. In it, a Catholic priest and debunker of miracles for the Holy See (Gabriel Byrne) stumbles across the case of an American hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) who appears to be exhibiting the signs of Stigmata despite living an unashamedly dissolute party-animal life and being a complete non-believer. What most appeals to me is the unusual ending that seems to suggest that Arquette is so changed by her experience that she becomes, or will become, a modern saint. I like the thought that this still happens, though in fact I now realise of course that it must (if it does). The Vatican declares sainthood exclusively to those whose lives are several safe centuries in the past, but these were all once ‘modern’ people whose contribution to their society was so significant that the beatification process often begins within the living memory of the person – John Henry Newman who was beatified and put on the sainthood track during the last papal visit to the UK is a good example, having lived, written and argued his case as an Anglo-Catholic convert right up to the threshold of the twentieth century.
In their time most have been dead white men and women but just this week saw the appointment of the first Native American saint, Lily of the Mohawks. Reading about her background as a Christian convert living in the colonial war-zone between both tribes and nation-states of mid-seventeenth century North America, Kateri Tekakwitha felt called to out Jesus the Jesuits, performing acts of ritual chastisement and physical challenge that would have been recognisable to both the missionaries of her new faith and the male warriors of her old one. I hadn’t realised until this week that there is a thriving Native American catholic community about half a million strong that has persisted, even though these days many in the tribes are choosing to reclaim their traditional pagan practices and simply write off Christianity as a tool of white colonisation.
Sainthood, it turns out, is simply the determination of the Holy See that a person has entered heaven. Like the hairdresser Frankie in Stigmata this is often is based on the Augustinian model of Sainthood – an abrupt achievement of perfection in Christian practice after an unrepentant and roistering past with the suggestion being that it is this spiritual perfection that ‘powers’ the required miracles. But with saintly hem muddied by the memory of their necessarily human past, it is easy and perhaps more comfortable for wider society to write these remarkable individuals off as either hypocrites or delusionals. Cardinal Newman, as many will cheerfully point out, lived with another man in a close emotional relationship for most of his adult life that saw them buried together. Is the saint gay? I wouldn’t like to say, and it doesn’t strike me as particularly important (though a Catholic theologian would likely disagree). My personal approach to faith is more of the “it’s not just the destination, it’s the journey” school which is why the issue of Christ’s divinity doesn’t tax me particularly as a Quaker. The idea that the possibly illegitimate son of a carpenter’s wife came with a message that would change the temporal world is at least as impressive to me as the idea that God himself popped by to perform a cameo. Even more so in some ways.
But with SL’s recent post on the almost permanent archive that the internet is becoming, what effect will this have on future attribution of Sainthood? What’s the religious implication of the Onion joke that every 2040 US Presidential candidate is already unelectable due to Facebook? My previous career in publishing meant I was a very early adopter of the internet and enjoyed the chance to match wits and argue politics with people who were nothing like me back in the pre-social media days when a quarter to a third of the content was estimated to “fall off” the world wide web every twelve months. Back then opinions were argued fast and died young, but as I’ve been horrified to realise having read SL’s recent piece, a good chunk of it is still there.
My digital life in review: well my politics haven’t changed hugely though the arguments have probably matured as I have, so there’s no embarrassing Damascean re-writing to observe. I’ve always tried to express my honest opinion so I’ve tended to argue politely even if my views have altered slightly (that’s what a decade tends to do) and have never advocated violence or engaged in trolling, which I’d describe as the deliberate attempt to cause distress by posting deliberately offensive comments. Unfortunately I’m almost certain that the law of averages means I’ve put my foot in it right up to the neck on more than one occasion through sheer obliviousness, but happily I can only recall three online instances of which I am actively ashamed (and which still trouble my conscience enough that I can place the forums and occasions precisely even years later).
1. I lied once to make an argument sound stronger.
2. I lost my temper and flamed someone in sectarian terms.
3. I spoke ill of the dead.
Yes, my mitigation at the time would be have been on the basis of “truth” – if I didn’t believe these things I wouldn’t have said them – but there’s a time and a place, I do know better, and occasionally even truth might be best served alongside a nice steaming cup of STFU. Context provides another mitigation – it sounds horrific to admit blankly to a stranger that you’ve called someone a Feinian F*cktard but it becomes a bit more understandable if you can explain that a) it was just after the IRA tried to blow up my Granny in Manchester and b) I lost my temper (see [a] ). Doesn’t make it okay, but at least clarifies that you’re not some habitually racist troll just begging for an outing. Unfortunately time now shears our comments of their context so unless it is someone who knows you well enough to be familiar with your actual opinions or is willing to ask you to your face what they are (and believe your answers), then you just look and feel like a total turd.
One of the fairest criticisms of Christianity is that it has historically argued for the perfectibility of human beings, unlike many of the ancient paganisms which tended to play along with the observable behaviours that already existed socially. Humanity may well be the antithesis of Perfection and Christianity utterly wrong in this case, but I’m not sure that means we can’t benefit as individuals or as a society from the continuing attempts to improve ourselves.
Maybe it’s just as well to remember that Sainthood is a state that gets imposed on individuals from the outside – only the delusional have ever claimed it for themselves.