Saints, mine and yours

March 21, 2007

Among other stuff, I study Catholic saints. All saints are interesting, but the non-canonized saints of the borderlands are one of my primary foci.

Knowing this, my office-mate and fellow graduate student shared the following with me. It was written by George Orwell.

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.”

I like what Orwell says about the importance of embracing our own humanity, warts and all, but I am not comfortable with how he characterizes saints as almost inhuman goody-two-shoes. Most of the folk saints I study are deeply flawed individuals who, for some reason or other, have gained popular devotion–perhaps because of their flaws.

What is a “saint” for you? How should a saint behave, and how should he or she be made a saint? What powers does a saint have in your religious practices? (Some of my more Protestant readers may deny that “saints” have any powers. Are you sure? Do you not think that your beloved dead ones have the ear of God? Think it over.) Do you want to be a saint?

(Image of Jesús Malverde, patron “saint” of drug smuggling and other illegal border crossings.)

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3 Responses to “Saints, mine and yours”

  1. Matt Says:

    Brett, I’m glad to see Orwell worked his way over here.

    This is an excerpt from an essay on Gandhi, and I think Orwell sees sainthood, and the type of sainthood being bestowed on Gandhi at the time, as serving the idea that one could be perfect in this life (the ideal of the “inhuman goody-two-shoes”). Actively striving for sainthood, especially in a way that entails renouncing the messiness of this world (or trying to stand outside of it), is what Orwell finds inhuman. I think his central point is that we (and life in general) are so inherently flawed that the only way one should become a saint is to back into it.

    Here is the last few lines of Orwell’s essay:

    “One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!” January, 1949

  2. sheepdays Says:

    Matt,
    Thanks very much for sharing more of the Orwell article. I need to check out the whole piece. He’s definitely on to something (as are you) that “messiness” is somehow more redemptive and human than the other-worldly or the ascetic. I’m thinking of people I look up to in my own life; their flaws do not stop my admiration, or even my desire to imitate them.

  3. Matthew Says:

    I want to be a saint, but in a more reformed way. The way Paul talks about how being beaten up and broken by life is where we discover that being human and being a saint are not incompatible at all, but rather where Christ meets and redeems us.


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