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Sunday 19 September 2010

Saints and Such

It bothers me a bit when institutions beatify or canonise someone because it often seems they strip that person of their true humanity, their true light, and use them for some political or religious end.

I spent my childhood among saints - studying, labelling, listing every one I could find, trying to learn everything about them, who was patron of this or that (ask me now and I can still tell you at once the patron saint of just about anything from cab drivers to charcoal burners or from heart conditions to haemorrhoids!!) - and attempted to imitate their impossible virtues, most of which involved a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Suffering, martyrdom and all kinds of self-abasement went with the territory of being a saint, unless you were one of the wacky Irish saints who sailed across oceans on cabbage leaves, or my 'patroness' the Roman martyr, Christina, who was noted above all for being unable to bear nasty smells to the extent that she rose out of the stink of her own coffin! Saints are such a strange lot! In the olden days, the wackier the better but since the Reformation, politics moved in and people were canonised or hailed as heroes by different denominations to suit the politics of the institution at the time. The idea is then that they are 'worthy of imitation'...and it all smacks of something unpleasant nowadays. How can anyone be 'worthy of imitation' if everyone is unique and beautifully brought into being by a beyond beautiful Divinity who has infinite variety? Imitation is folly and unworthy of anyone.

Karl of Austria is a man I hugely admire. I admire his humanity, his singular presence at the funeral of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand, and his offer to take care of Franz Ferdinand's children. I admire his devotion to his own children and his love of his wife; his opposition to the use of gas and the killing of civilians in WW1 and his attempts, as soon as he came to power, to broker peace. I fear that, as the Catholic Church has beatified and may soon canonise him, he will be transformed from a flesh and blood man into another plaster cast saint to suit political purposes.

The same is true of John Henry Newman, whose writings I first read when I was about 12 years old, and which moved me immensely. His understanding of Nature was beautiful (though typically Victorian verbose) and the final lines of 'Lead Kindly Light', regarding life beyond this earthly life, are so beautiful:

"The night is gone
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile."

I loved that man's sensibility but, while I understand it - he was a Victorian after all! - did not like his dogmatism. He wrote:

From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.

He seemed like a free spirit but one so bound up in the intellectualism of his age. I loved his Englishness and, as an English Catholic at that time, growing up in quite a world of Irish Catholicism, I loved the way he bridged that gap, but found his need to adhere to some 'system' so stifling. What was worse, and this I think is the major theme of the Victorian age, was the idea that somehow everything that is good and 'holy' involves suffering, was the idea of some kind of need for martyrdom. His conversion to Catholicism was painful because it cost him the respect of his peers and the love of at least one member of his family, but the idea that that makes him holy is abhorrent to me and dominates much of his writing.

Later in life, once he had regained acceptance by being made a Cardinal, he seems to have mellowed. He wrote:

Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not... We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.
And that, I think, is what is being done - that distorting of facts - when making someone into a saint. Newman, like dear Karl of Austria, is a man whom I admire and yet his humanity (including his love of his friend) is in danger of being distorted.


get facebook fans said...

it s all about the way u live your life to become a saint!

May said...

Yes, it is a pity when hagiography turns complex, full-blooded human beings into bloodless phantoms or puppets for political purposes. Still, I don't think this necessarily has to happen, and I would not reject the whole idea of devotion to saints for that reason.

A few months ago, for instance, I was reading a biography of Madame Elisabeth of France, sister of Louis XVI, by her (distant) relation, Princess Henriette of Belgium:

Henriette had a great devotion to Elisabeth and campaigned to have her beatified. Yet, in her book, she does a great job of making Elisabeth come alive, as a strong, well-rounded personality with joys and sorrows, lights and shadows, struggles and triumphs. By the end, I really agreed with Henriette that Elisabeth ought to be publicly honored by the Church for her heroic virtues- but that did not detract from her humanity at all, quite the opposite.

As for patron saints, I've always found the idea of saints "specializing" in certain areas of life rather comforting. I think of it this way: when you have friends, on earth, with interests/experience in certain areas, wouldn't you consult with them, if you had a related problem or question? I guess patron saints are the "heavenly" version of this...

Best wishes, as always.

Christina said...

Oh I absolutely agree with you, Matterhorn, that 'friends on the other side' are as real and helpful as physical friends (and more easily accessible at any time of day or night!). I just don't always like the supposed 'virtues' they were supposed to embody on earth, and do think they can be made into something they never were.
I am looking forward to reading your post as I know very little about Elizabeth of France.
Thank you for a lovely comment.