Friday, February 13, 2015

From Good to Better

Almost immediately after Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra—the priest who founded a number of missions in modern-day California in the early 18th century—a veritable firestorm of criticism began. One of the most recent voices to weigh in is Ricardo Lara, a California state senator who wants to remove Serra’s statue from the U.S. Capital’s National Statuary Hall, citing that the Franciscan Friar was "too controversial."

The statue of Bl. Junipero Serra
in National Statuary Hall.

President Obama’s recent comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast, the ongoing debate about Serra, and even the celebration of Saints Cyril and Methodius (along with the Saint Valentines... yes, Valentines) on February 14 have led me to reflect on how we view the saints and what they should and could mean for us.

In a recent editorial on this theme in America Magazine, Fr. James Martin, S.J., wrote:
Canonization does not mean that the church is declaring that a person was perfect. At the same time, we must ask: Are there some things that should prevent a person from being canonized? The answer is yes. But what things? And how shall we evaluate yesterday’s actions using today’s moral calculus? In the future, will some commonplace activities (to take one example, eating meat) seem monstrous, and thus a roadblock to canonization? Likewise, will some things that seem to bar a person from canonization today—say, Thomas Merton’s late-in-life affair with a young nurse—seem insignificant?
These are valid questions.

The reality is that, despite our efforts to turn the holy women, men, and children of the past two millennia into plaster statues—representing doe-eyed do-gooders with larger-than-life virtues—those we honor as saints and beati got it wrong, at times. They made mistakes, they sinned, and they, most especially, were people of their time who tried to serve Christ in the ways they thought were best.

Even the most cursory glance through any responsible collection of saints’ lives will reveal that these holy people were imperfect. And so, the question I would add to those of Fr. Martin is this: when did holiness become equated with perfection?

A painting of John of Capistrano
from the collection of the California
Mission San Juan Capistrano depicting
the Crusader-Saint trampling the heads
of slain heretics.
Perhaps our unwillingness to concede that holiness and imperfection aren’t mutually exclusive comes from some part of us that is looking for an easy out. We like to talk about the mistakes and doubts of figures like Peter and Thomas, but their long-ago relationship with Jesus seems to insulate them, allowing us to politely shrug off their shortcomings. But what about more recent figures? Fr. Martin lists some in his article, as does Fr. John W. Donohue, S.J., whom Fr. Martin references. Great figures like Saint John Paul II, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed Pius IX, Saint Thomas More, and Saint Jerome stand alongside other (perhaps lesser-known) saints, including Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (my personal patron), Saint John of Capistrano, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Rose of Lima, and, of course, Blessed Junipero Serra. These are infinitely complex individuals with checkered stories… just like each of us. (As an aside, in the piece by Fr. Donohue, I learned that one of the Martyrs of Gorkum—a diocesan priest now honored as Saint Andrew Wouters—had a concubine prior to his martyrdom by Calvinists in 1572.)  

In saying all of this, I’m not intending to dismiss or excuse away abuse, neglect, or sin, but I think we have to be careful of how we judge history and what our motives are when we praise (or criticize) the saints.  

Dorothy Day (herself a controversial figure whose cause for beatification has recently been introduced) once declared, “Don’t make me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” But, cheekiness aside, her devotion to the saints can teach us an important lesson, even as we recall that the saints were also sinners. In her book, On Pilgrimage, she wrote: 
The choice is not between good and evil for Christians—[it] is not in this way that one proves his love. The very fact of baptism, of becoming the [child] of god, presupposes development as a [child] of God. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Screwtape Letters, points out that the child in the mother’s womb perhaps would refuse to be born if given the choice, but it does not have that choice. It has to be born. The egg has to develop into the chicken with wings. Otherwise it becomes a rotten egg. It is not between good and evil, we repeat, that the choice lies, but between good and better. In other words we must give up over and over again even the good things of this world to choose God…
It is so tremendous an idea that it is hard for people to see its implications. Our whole literature, our culture, is built on ethics, the choice between good and evil. The drama of the ages is on this theme. We are still living in the Old Testament, with commandments as to the natural law. We have not begun to live as good Jews, let alone as good Christians. We do not tithe ourselves, there is no year of jubilee; we do not keep the Sabbath; we have lost the concept of hospitality. It is dog eat dog. We are all hunting whales. We devour each other in love and in hate; we are cannibals.
In all secular literature it has been so difficult to portray the good man, the saint, that a Don Quixote is a fool; the Prince Myshkin is an epileptic in order to arouse the sympathy of the reader, appalled by unrelieved goodness. There are, of course, the lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though they were not of this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times. We get them generally, only in their own writings. But instead of that strong meat, we are generally given the pap of hagiographical writing.
These are strong words, but anyone who has read Day's books or columns in the Catholic Worker knows that hers was a fiery and prophetic voice who knew how to use words to their fullest. And, in this passage, her point proves true. We have reduced so much of life to simply being black or white that we lose much of the dynamic that exists within Christianity… even while we justify our individual worlds of grey.

The murder of Saint Andrew Wouters
and the Martyrs of Gorkum
by Gerrit Rietveld Zigzagstoel (1932)
in the Gorkum Museum
For those saints who challenge our perspectives on holiness and perfection, we owe a debt of thanks. They remind us that the Christian life is a movement from good to better, not good to perfect, or even to "best." We are to strive for holiness, yes, but each of us struggles against the drives of our human nature and the perspectives (or baggage?) of our own time and place. For example, generations after Saint Peter Claver was tirelessly struggling to secure the rights of slaves in Colombia, men and women religious in America owned slaves (an example of one community's efforts to confront this part of their history can be found here). Does that reality negate the good work, virtue, and faith of these religious? No, I don’t think it does. Does it make them products of their time—even if it is a time we can look back on with regret? Yes, it does. But to judge past generations by our “enlightened” standards is arrogant at best. Times moves on and the practices and perspectives of past generations evolved. We ourselves have wars, violations of human rights, and theological tensions. But these also reveal that our generation is dynamic, moving toward a future point whose own generations will judge us based on our care (or lack thereof) of the poor, the sick and vulnerable, the migrant, the refugee, and the environment.

Each of us is called to seek perfection, even as we understand that perfection is an attribute of God and God alone. I am proud to number those imperfect saints as members of our family and I find great encouragement and inspiration in their lives and the witness they offer. They remind me that, in order to be perfect—to be a saint myself—I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be moving from good to better.

A prayer in honor of all the Saints +
Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good examples of your servants, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at last we may with them attain to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men)

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