Sainthood emerges when you can listen to someone’s tale of woe and not respond with a description of your own. ~ Andrew V. Mason
1. A person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth.
2. An extremely virtuous person.
I’ve often thought of applying for sainthood, but I can’t seem to find the front of the line where, naturally, I believe I deserve to be. I’ve tried looking it up in the Yellow Pages, but have had no luck in finding out where one goes to apply. Even Google seems unable, anywhere in its seemingly infinite search engines, to discover the answer to this pressing question.
Most people who know me know I have an answer for almost everything – whether requested or not. It may not be the correct answer, but I can usually come up with something that sounds at least vaguely plausible. Knowledge is important, don’t you think? Consequently, I feel duty-bound to have a ready answer for pretty much anything you throw at me. I don’t think I’m alone in sharing with others all the knowledge I’m able to make up at a moment’s notice. In that way, I suppose, I’m much like a politician.
Sainthood, in particular when I was drinking, seemed an entirely achievable goal. Achievable not because I was actually saintly (I was/am not), but because I had an inflated sense of myself and my view of morality. As heard around AA, I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. Wait, make that a really big inferiority complex. I hate doing anything half-baked. Seems I need to be either the best at something or the worse. Staying in the middle seems to me, well, middling. I’ve often said I went through much of my life as a pessimistic optimist, then found out I’m bipolar. For my past, that may, in part, explain my extreme views, and misunderstanding, of morality – all the way from the very bottom to the very top.
In our society, morality appears to have become a word that merely describes one’s sex life — a narrow view I was taught, then used to blur the lines of what was good and what was not good. In fact, morality means so much more. What I mean when I talk about morality these days is defined in terms of how a person treats others – how willing one is to think less often of themselves and more of others. Much of the time, I’m afraid, I still score at the low end of this scale.
By reducing and, I believe, trivializing the meaning of the word “morality” to that only of who should (and should not) be doing what with whom behind closed doors leaves us with a distorted idea of right and wrong. The result is, well, what we now have too much of in this country. Is morality really about lining up on two opposing sides, daring each other to cross the lines that have been drawn in the sand, assuming he who shouts the loudest is surely right? Or, perhaps, is morality about taking care of the least among us? Is morality really about an “I’ve got mine, get your own, but be sure you’re doing what I tell you is ‘moral’ while doing it, and, by the way, shut up about your supposed rights” attitude? Or, is morality about understanding that we are, each of us, a moment away from being one of those on the street we consider bums? But for the grace of God . . .
But we were talking about saints. Paul, in Corinthians 6:1, says, “When one of you has a complaint against another, does he dare to take the matter before those who are unrighteous and not before the saints?” A saint, in this context, was merely a member of a caring community of Christians. Gee, that’s a little ego-deflating, isn’t it? Nothing there about being individually virtuous, nothing about public veneration, no adulation, not even a parade. Bummer.
In the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, page 60, it states: “We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” Progress. Wow, what a concept! But, wouldn’t perfection be a better goal?
Perfection is a trap, not the way to sainthood. That includes human as well as spiritual perfection. Perfection is defined as “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.” See? Even the “as free as possible” part of the definition is part of the trap. It leaves us in a state of never being good enough. It leaves us unwilling – and finally, I believe, unable – to strive for the best we can be on any particular day. Why bother being the best you can be when your personal best will never be enough? It’s all a matter of degree, really. Much like my need to be the best at or the worst at any given task, this type of striving produces nothing of particular value to anyone, only more stress. People who push themselves to do increasingly better in business, for example, may climb the ladder of “success,” but at what cost?
When drinking, I excused myself by saying, “I’m only hurting myself.” My actions, however, did not occur in a vacuum. It was an unbelievably selfish thing to say, though I refused to see that. By the same token, the perfectionist in business and elsewhere leaves a trail of missed personal interactions in his wake and can still never even be proud of himself. How could he? There’s always something more, something better, he should be doing. It’s a little like our present-day concept of teamwork. Teamwork ends up meaning doing whatever you have to do to stay ahead of everyone else on your “team” — all the while telling your teammates and yourself you’re doing it all for the team. It means, paradoxically, that you are on your own – alone in your pursuit of success.
Interestingly, those we’ve come to consider as saints were not team players — at least not in the classic meaning of the word. Very often, they stood out because they were not doing things the standard way. They swam against the stream of conventional wisdom. In contrast to today’s “team player,” however, many of these people strove for the betterment of their fellows, often at great personal expense.
Our ideas about sainthood come from religion. Early Christianity, for instance, quickly turned from the idea of the saint as a member of a loving community to one of a martyr for the faith. It was probably natural to speak of martyrs (from the Greek meaning “witness”) in a positive way in order to put the best possible spin on a frightening, deadly persecution of their numbers.
If you’ve read Eusebius’ History of the Church (and which of us hasn’t?), you’ll find page after page of lists of “martyrs of the church,” those who were crucified, fed to the lions, stoned to death, and quartered, for example, for their beliefs in a risen Christ. In fact, it became, at least in Eusebius’ eyes, the most honorable of ways to die. Myself, I find it a little odd that the way to grow a new religion came to mean encouraging its members to die — nobly, of course, but die nonetheless. Perhaps that’s just me. Still, when Eusebius wrote his book around 323, persecutions of Christians were still going on, as they had been for the better part of several hundred years. It was probably incumbent upon religious leaders to attempt to put the best face possible on a very bad situation. It also explains, though in no way excuses, the reason the persecuted became the persecutors once Christianity had become the dominant faith in most of the Western world. It seems revenge, not divine dictate, is the usual response when a downtrodden sect rises to the top of the human heap — all the while calling it divine dictate, naturally.
Here’s a great explanation of the origin of the word “saint” from the Online Etymology Dictionary, lest we take the word (and ourselves) overly seriously:
Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. [italics mine] The Duchess of Orleans relates that the irreverent old calumniator, Marshal Villeroi, who in his youth had known St. Francis de Sales, said, on hearing him called saint: ‘I am delighted to hear that Monsieur de Sales is a saint. He was fond of saying indelicate things, and used to cheat at cards. In other respects he was a perfect gentleman, though a fool.’ [Ambrose Bierce, “Devil’s Dictionary,” 1911]
I love that the meaning of saint became “a dead sinner revised and edited.” It’s the story of all our lives, isn’t it? Well, perhaps not the “dead” part — yet. But, in so many ways, we’ve all been revised and edited throughout our lives. Still, it’s a long way from the meaning assigned the word by Paul in Corinthians. The idea originally was that the community was to take care of itself and its members. That meant taking care of each member, despite their ability to contribute to the overall community. Makes Jesus sound like a Communist, doesn’t it? No, what it really sounds like is what I believe the word “community” is truly all about. But, if I’m never enough, I will never have enough. If I never have enough, I’ll be damned if I’m going to give part of it to you! Well, now, you may force me to share, but – and let’s be clear about this – you’ll have to force me. Sound familiar to anyone?
God says I’m enough already. I’m good enough. I have enough. There’s enough to go around. That, I believe, was the message of Jesus. That’s what the feeding of the five thousand was all about. Was it a miracle? Depends, I suppose, on what you mean by miracle. Did Jesus pull food out of the air, then have it distributed to the crowd? Perhaps. Is that what’s really important, though? Isn’t it even more of a miracle that he made his disciples, then the crowd gathered around him, see that there was already enough available? We have it in our power to do the same miraculous things and I believe that is what we were being taught. Seems too often, in reality, we believe little of what we profess to believe. Mouthing the words is not the same as implementing the call to care — and to share.
The more I hoard, the less I am. The less I have. The less there appears to be to go around. The less I think you should have because, naturally, that would mean less for me. My world gets smaller, as do I. The age of miracles is most definitely past. Defending what is “mine” becomes a full-time job and “mine” rapidly begins to include things of yours I believe should be mine.
I think I prefer Paul’s meaning for the word saint. By that definition, for instance, my mother was a saint. She was a caring member of a community who was willing to reach beyond her “natural” communal boundaries. She was willing to consider Jesus’ definition of “neighbor.” She showed me, when I was finally willing to look, what it looks like to share — what it looks like to be a saint. That didn’t mean being perfect. Instead, it meant understanding her limitations and working for something better anyway.
So, perhaps it’s not where I go to apply for sainthood that’s important. Perhaps what matters is simply allowing myself to become one of what Paul called “saints” – a caring member of community. A dear friend loves to refer to this as being “just another Bozo on the bus.” Nothing particularly special, but a needed part of the whole, nonetheless. Knowing it’s more important to be one of rather than being the first. And knowing it means being willing to look beyond our own stereotypes and, instead, see the people in front of us for what they are – fellow human beings with needs and fears just like our own. And, not unlike ourselves, potential saints, every one.