In a recent post, I offered this quote from Pierre Hadot: ““the figure of the sage thus plays a decisive role in the philosophical choice of life, yet it is offered to the philosopher as an ideal described by philosophical discourse more than as a model incarnate in a living human being.” Religions, on the other hand, do tend to incarnate the lofty model of human perfection in the figure of the Saint. Throughout history, men and women from Paul of Tarsus to Mother Teresa, have been revered as exemplars of extraordinary moral and spiritual accomplishment.
It is the word “extraordinary” that I found problematic in my younger days. I saw myself as far too ordinary, as too much of a sinner, to even dream of being a saint. If being a saint meant giving up my sincere enjoyment of good food and drink, the intimate company of intelligent and beautiful women, and the vibrant energy of the nightclubs in which I played piano several nights a week, then the austere life of the saint was distinctly unattractive.
Moreover, while saints appeared admirable, they also seemed to give up an essential part of the joyful vitality of being human. They were martyrs, celibates, and people so unusual that they sometimes bordered on the weird. One afternoon, my wife and I were visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and we wandered into a room whose walls were covered with portraits of saints. Both of us were quickly overwhelmed by the ponderous, joyless energy flowing from those pictures, and we immediately left the room. We felt that the Saints were looking down on us with a dour righteousness tinged with a profound sadness. Saints, in their high achievement, seemed suspended in a lonely realm. Even saintly couples like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or Francis and Claire, seemed to love in the rarified atmosphere of a Platonic heaven.
Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most beloved saint of all time and all cultures. His peace prayer is an exquisite expression of love. Most scholars agree, however, that this famous prayer was written by an anonymous author in the early 20th century, and widely attributed to St Francis during the second world war. This is an important fact, I think, because the magnificent sentiments of that prayer give color and depth to the modern image of St. Francis. But consider: if some strange man should knock on your door this afternoon, clad in shabby and dirty garments, full of holy zeal, and begging for money, what would be your reaction? It might be tempting, at least, to turn away in fear and dismay. In fact, his own followers, while continuing to revere him on the one hand, managed with the help of Rome to eviscerate his original vision. Francis was a living conundrum: a stern taskmaster, an extreme ascetic who ruined the body he called Brother Ass, sometimes intolerant toward backsliding followers, and unbending in his devotion to absolute poverty. Yet he was also absolutely devoted to the poor and ill people of his day, a magnificently tolerant emissary to the leaders of Islam during the fifth crusade, humble to point of refusing to be ordained a priest, and an unabashed lover of nature who preached to birds and tamed a savage wolf. It is said that he had attracted 5000 followers in the first two years of his ministry.
The book that tempered my idea of the saint as extraordinary was The Power and the Glory, written by Graham Greene in 1940. The story takes places in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the time of a vicious purging of the Catholic Church. Every priest has been driven out, killed, or forced to renounce his vows. Every priest except one: a drunkard who had an affair and sired an illegitimate daughter. The only name he is given is the “whisky priest.” Yet this broken human being is driven by compassion for suffering campesinos. At great peril, he hears confessions and says Mass with the army two steps behind. After reaching a safe haven, he returns to Tabasco to tend a dying man, knowing it is a trap and that he will be executed. In the end that is exactly what happens, but as he grew into integrity, love, and self-abandon, the whisky priest “acquires a real holiness.”
I find “holiness” a beautiful word. It is, of course, the literal meaning of the Latin “sanctus,” or saint. We might say that it refers to the divine quality in a place, or a human encounter, or a human being like the whisky priest, who manages ultimately to stop worshiping his own egoistic self, and to revere and celebrate that which he sees as holy in others.
I would like to draw two corollaries from the above reflections. First, holiness does not entail a hyper-ascetic rejection of the delicious flavors of this world. The Buddha was a forest ascetic for 6 years, and he finally realized it was leading him nowhere. He adopted the Middle Way of moderation. In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes a lovely essay entitled Everything That Is, Is Holy. He says, in part, “A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all. His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket. “
St. Francis seems to be have followed the path of harsh asceticism regarding his body, but he was madly in love with creation. We might even see his asceticism as an expression of ego that simply served as a counterpoint to the brilliance of his magnificent soul. This leads me to my second corollary: I would like to suggest that holiness is not at all “extraordinary.” To use the Buddhist analogy, we are all lotus flowers growing in the mud. I find the teaching of the Chandogya Upanishad, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That; You and Divinity are one), to be a belief that brightens the world and each day I spend in it. Within the framework of that belief, we can see holiness shining all around us. Clearly, the light within is dimmed by fear and egocentricity, but each of us, I think, is longing to shine that light.
I am working with an image created by Zora Neale Hurston. She tells us that Janie “had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. … When God made the [human being], he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”
Teachers of all ages and all cultures have urged us to make the journey from the darkness of a mind trapped within the prison of its own ego to the emancipation of the light always shining in our heart’s center. It is the holy light of kindness and love. In a recent graduation speech, George Saunders put this point persuasively:
“Your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving. … There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. … Do all the other things, the ambitious things, … but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality–your soul, if you will–is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”
Finally, I think there are many more people who are well along the road to holiness, to saintliness, than is commonly believed. Once you start looking, you can see acts of grace and kindness in the most ordinary places performed by the most ordinary people. Perhaps the Starbuck’s down road or the grocery store at the corner are full of saints-in-the-making who will never make the evening news. The cacophony of heart-rending violence assaults us every day, but I just can’t shake the belief in a human family that has come into this world to flower into the most ordinary and the most exquisite saintliness.