My Back Pages: Saints and Sinners

(Note: I wrote this for The Daily in November, 2011. It is no longer extant, so I am republishing it here).

In America today, we may not know what it means to be a saint, but it can’t be said that we lack for opinions on what a saint is not. Or at least who a saint is not.

As Christians prepare to celebrate All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 (or the following Sunday), we see the saints — those officially identified by the Roman Catholic Church as well as the broader company of noteworthy faithful — being subjected to withering scrutiny. Mother Teresa’s sanctity has been challenged on account of her long period of spiritual desolation. Pope Pius XII, once a plausible candidate for canonization, stands famously accused of cowardice in the face of the Holocaust. Earlier this year in the Washington Post, Hampton Sides explained that Martin Luther King Jr. (who is commemorated in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches) was not a saint because he was “flawed, vulnerable, uncertain about the future, subject to appetite and buffeted by the extraordinary stresses of his position.” If no man is a hero to his valet, in this age of no-holds-barred biography, we’ve become a nation of valets.

Over the millennia, Christian saints have been called on by the people who revere them to play ever-evolving roles. By the second century A.D., martyrs and apostles were celebrated for their unique function in spreading the faith. In the centuries after Christianity became the official religion of Europe, they constituted a veritable Hall of Fame of virtue, with different saints exemplifying different kinds of moral accomplishment. By the late Middle Ages, the saints served as the divine bureaucrats of popular piety, directing prayer requests within their area of expertise (you can still buy a St. Joseph figurine to bury in your yard if you need to sell your house).

Yet whatever else has been claimed on their behalf, the saints would have been dismayed to learn that these things — or depression, political indecision or bad judgment — would be considered disqualifications for sanctity. One looks in vain for heroes of Christian history who lacks these experiences, even by their own accounts. If they’ve been made into what Sides calls “fleshless icons,” it’s not their fault.

Indeed, the modern tell-all cannot document the pitfalls of sainthood any more searchingly than the saints did in recounting their own lives. Augustine of Hippo, in his “Confessions,” set the standard for unsparing self-examination, but you can find similar battles with doubt, sin and despair in any number of memoirs, down to King’s last speeches.

Modern writers are liable to diagnose the people of the past rather than taking their accounts at face value: Augustine did not understand the human body; Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century ascetic who wielded considerable influence in Italy, was a desperate anorexic; Martin Luther launched the Reformation because he hated his father. Still, the saints are usually people who admired themselves far less than posterity has admired them.

Sniffing out the flaws of the famous validates the popular prejudice that sanctity is just a cover for hypocrisy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and anti-Nazi martyr, called this suspiciousness the “revolt from below.” But this is a misunderstanding of sainthood. The concept of purity is at odds with what a saint is supposed to be. In fact, as historian David Steinmetz recently put it, “saints and not sinners” are “the real authorities on sin.” This is obvious enough when you think about it; you only notice a current, Steinmetz explains, when you begin to struggle against it.

So, if you’re inclined to knock the saints down a few pegs this week, try thinking of them less as hypocrites and more as stubborn and prideful. What kind of person, after all, persists in battling sin with such apparent futility when going with the flow would leave them little worse and much happier? Why didn’t King bid farewell to the likes of striking sanitation workers and retreat to a sedate campus and a life on the tenderloin-and-keynote circuit if he was so racked with uncertainty and stress? If the grace of God on which all the saints, both famous and unknown, relied day by day availed so little in mending either themselves or the world, why not junk the notion of grace and settle for more modest moral ambitions?

On the other hand, maybe that sheer doggedness is something we still want to admire. What Sides calls King’s “messy ambiguity” is in fact his most saintly quality. The humanity of a saint is not reduced by perfection. Just the opposite: The saints are those who are made even more human by their willingness to struggle against the current of their time, their place and their own unyielding flaws.

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