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Saints and Scroungers

By DeusExMacintosh

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.

Lily of the MohawksIn 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.

14 Comments

  1. Posted October 24, 2012 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    I remember reading a while ago about a movement to Canonise Chesterton, that sturdy convert from (I assume) an Anglican family, who liked food and beating around with socialists like Shaw. It was on the basis, I assume, of his writings…. though it is true that those writings do reveal him to be a very appealing character, in some respects at least.

    And weren’t Augustine and Aquinas canonised largely on the basis of their intellectual work – ie, their writing? (Especially noteworthy in the case of Augustine, who confessed to a number of sins in print).

    In conclusion, maybe someone could make their case for sainthood quite clear through blog posts, or twitter, or whatever. (Even so, though Christ may have been born in a manger and come from a working class family and all that, I doubt he would have favoured twitter as a medium for expression…)

    Fascinating post, btw, I might have a comment more on the matter shortly…

  2. John Turner
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I find this discussion strange. Six or so million years ago the now Homo evolutionary line separated from the line which is now represented by modern apes. At least 100,000 years ago modern sapiens beings were in existence yet we are hung-up on some human who may have existed 2000 years ago. Nothing in writing is attributable to that possible person.
    All attributes of human nature evolved due to selection processes over that six million years from the potential of the common line before then.
    We live on the residue of a supernova explosion orbiting a 4.5 billion year old sun in a universe 13.7 billion year old universe.
    I would be interested to hear where any god exists other than in the brain of the believer.

  3. Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Well-put.
    ‘flame’ is not heard so much these days when so many remarks are full of epithet, even here Outside The Sheep-pen.

  4. Posted October 24, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Well, Christ was one in a class of several influential teachers who had their lessons recorded after by students. Others in this class include Socrates and Confucius… (I’m not sure whether the Buddha/Siddartha Gautama fits this category as well?) C S Lewis had an interesting (if characteristically eccentric) insight related to this:

    If anything whatever is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospels they have met a personality. There are characters whom we know to be historical but of whom we do not feel that we have any personal knowledge – knowledge by acquaintance; such are Alexander, Attila, or William of Orange. There are others who make no claim to historical reality but whom, none the less, we know as we know real people: Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Mr. Pickwick. But there are only three characters who, claiming the first sort of reality, also actually have the second. And surely everyone knows who they are: Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, and Boswell’s Johnson. Our acquaintance with them shows itself in a dozen ways. When we look into the apocryphal gospels, we find ourselves constantly saying of this or that logion, ‘No. It’s a fine saying, but not his. That wasn’t how he talked’ – just as we do with all pseudo-Johnsoniana. We are not in the least perturbed by the contrasts within each character: the union in Socrates of silly and scabrous titters about Greek pederasty with the highest mystical fervor and the homeliest good sense; in Johnson, of profound gravity and melancholy with that love of fun and nonsense which Boswell never understood though Fanny Burney did; in Jesus of peasant shrewdness, intolerable severity, and irresistible tenderness.

    It seems odd that these central civilisational figures – Socrates, Christ, Confucius – would have preferred a medium that was apparently so transient. And same with other cases cited above, such as Johnson – did he really fling his aphorisms away knowing that Boswell would collect them up and publish them after his death? I think not. Though maybe that just testifies to a quality of their characters that drew others to them – a self-assurance and ease, a kind of humility?

  5. Posted October 24, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    There are others like that, Tim: Cicero, Woolf, anyone who left a decent epistolary record, really – Trollope or Wordsworth or even Kafka, too (‘burn what I wrote!’). Chesterton can be very funny, but he is terribly limited in his perceptions.

    I afraid I have the right-leaning but non-believing lawyer’s perception of religious leaders: Buddha the deadbeat dad, Jesus the rioter and assaulter of those engaging in capitalist acts among consenting adults, and Muhammad the paedophile. Obviously the last is the worst of them, but I think we are in serious trouble if we adopt lifestyle and moral advice from any of them.

    If you’re going to copy anyone, Rabbi Hillel is the one to go for – everything we know about the guy is decent. However, if you want to join the Jewish club, first you have to apply to join, and you may get bounced at the door…

  6. Posted October 24, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Interested in your thoughts there SL… I thought about the Chesterton canonisation on the train this morning. The organisation of the Catholic church may rate his theology highly; I’m not sure. The few examples of Chestertonian theology I’ve read are unconvincing and lacking.

    Is funniness alone enough for canonisation? Maybe it is, as it represents in a very small way the perfection of a certain aspect of the human character.

    It seems to me that the most convincing and loveable part of Chesterton’s literary persona is his persistent romantic view of life. He sees the beauty and holiness in the simplest things, and presents them in a melodramatic way that makes you laugh – but also moves you to sympathy:

    “Our philanthropists
    are eager to establish public baths everywhere. Rain surely is a public
    bath; it might almost be called mixed bathing. The appearance of persons
    coming fresh from this great natural lustration is not perhaps polished or
    dignified; but for the matter of that, few people are dignified when
    coming out of a bath. But the scheme of rain in itself is one of an
    enormous purification. It realises the dream of some insane hygienist: it
    scrubs the sky. Its giant brooms and mops seem to reach the starry
    rafters and Starless corners of the cosmos; it is a cosmic spring cleaning.”

    And so on.

  7. kvd
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I think we are in serious trouble if we adopt lifestyle and moral advice from any of them. – for this opinion to be given weight must one ascertain that the pronouncer has herself lead a blameless, pure life ;)

    So, where does one go in search of answers, if so inclined? If Samuel Johnson was a wife-beating drunken sot I would still appreciate his thoughts (on other issues).

  8. Posted October 24, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Does anyone suggest that Samuel Johnson is a moral model, to be emulated in most or every respect?

    The problem with religious leaders of the type mentioned is that they are held up as worthy of emulation, which leads to things as varied in their nastiness as prohibitions on lending at interest and an age of consent set at 9 for girls across much of the Islamic world.

    The Buddhists do have the wit to avoid this for the most part, but that may be to do with the Buddhist koan that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him (it doesn’t mean quite what it seems, but is a strong prophylactic against emulation, at least within the Zen/Ch’an tradition).

  9. kvd
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Never mind the above gentle dig. When I read about this newest saint a few days ago the thing I found disturbing was the self harm she engaged in. That’s a part of some religions I have never thought worthy of praise, or proof of ‘goodness’.

  10. Posted October 24, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    David Foster Wallace said somewhere that the writers he most admired possessed a quality or strength of character that he feared he didn’t possess. St Paul was one of these writers – I can’t remember the other example he gave (Shakespeare maybe)?

    I’ve been turning that idea over since: that the character of the person writing, or telling the story, or poem, or arguing, or whatever, is of crucial importance to the quality of the literature. And not just insofar as that character displays itself in the literature itself, as a speaker or character or caricature or whatever.

    It seems to me that claim could very well be true, but I’m still not quite sure how. It seems contrary to a received idea – that an author can be an absolute moral reprobate and still write beautifully. There’s plenty of examples for that.

    But it seems to me that, aside from all the characters and voices and arguments and dramas that you will find in, say, Shakespeare’s plays – there is a certain quality and tone to the writing that only a certain personality, living at the time of Queen Elizabeth could produce.

    One case that comes to my mind is Henry Fielding and Tom Jones: I love that book and have come to love the author, just a little bit, through reading it and various other writings by Fielding. I’d feel a bit let down if I was told about a horrible sin he’d committed.

    A better case is probably that of Charles Dickens, because now, knowing about his infidelity and cruelty to his wife it is strange coming back to his books and re-encountering the literary Dickens. But he has given us some of the best, and most beautiful, narratives about people coming to maturity, and facing their past sins – A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations…

    But why should we not judge writers by their characters as well? At least since Shakespeare’s time, writers know very well that they are public figures and that people will have this in mind when they see/hear/or read their works.
    /going off on a tangent….

  11. kvd
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    But why should we not judge writers by their characters as well?

    Might be off specific topic Tim, but it is an interesting question. I think my answer would be “by all means, if that adds to, or assists with your own appreciation of the works”. But it doesn’t mine. I think it comes back to your appreciation of some sort of basic ‘truth’ and whether that ‘truth’ is tainted in some way by the life of the ‘speaker’. It seems, above, that this is so – but I really don’t agree.

    This is not a new thought – even Monty Python made fun of it with their “Philosophers’ Song”. Nor is it linked specifically with religion. The fact that S. Warne was (remains?) the original twit doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a superb spin bowler in my eyes. (How’s that for a tangent!)

    Anyway, I’m still trying to work out how my “I would still appreciate his thoughts (on other issues)” provoked “Does anyone suggest that Samuel Johnson is a moral model, to be emulated in most or every respect?” – so what would I know?

  12. Posted October 24, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I suppose if you want exemplary moral guidance from famous people in history, who have written “inspirational” (if not strictly “religious”) books, you could do worse the Marcus Aurelius (or, as SL mentions, Cicero, perhaps Confucius) – able to work in the real world (rather than withdraw for purity) and still live by a fairly solid code.

    But … on modern saints … the gap in the market is not for modern saints, but patron saints of new necessary things – the patron saint you ask for help with dodgy mobile internet connections, for remembering passwords, for dealing with offshored helpdesks, for dealing with the ratsnest of cables at the back of the TV/DVD/Stereo… or for reading manuals written in Chinglish.

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