We’ll Cross that Bridge…

As part of the Kansas City Public Library’s Winter Reading Program, I agreed to do a promo for St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.  And in that promo, I indicated that I would be posting daily on my readings of the work through Lent.  But as Lent does not begin until February 13, and the Winter Reading Program ends before Lent does, I thought I would start early.  Not this early, I’m afraid.  I will start posting on February 1 and aim to be through the work by the middle of March.  As I indicated, I’ll be reading a selection (5-10 pages, I’m guessing) per day and then writing something about what I found there, or questions I have.

I was thinking lately, though, about Saints.  I’m a big fan of Saints in the Roman Catholic tradition.  I am no longer a practicing Catholic, partly from my own doubts and misgivings about the institution of the Catholic Church, but more importantly in that beliefs in Jesus consubstantial with God was a bridge too far for me.  And I couldn’t accept the idea of Jesus Christ (or anyone else) as a personal savior.  That doesn’t mean that the message preached by Jesus (or at least what we have of it) doesn’t resonate.  A lot of it does.

But I wondered about Saints and their peculiar position.  How is it that some people get to be saints, and others do not?  What, in the life of saints, draws me (or others) to them?  Are political matters at play in the choosing of saints?  How much is the human factor in choosing saints crucial in their recognition?

Some saints don’t surprise me at all:  the Apostles, and some early leaders in the Catholic (at that time Christian) tradition got declared saints because they were instrumental in the tradition and the church we now have.  Saints like Jerome, who was largely responsible for the Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), and who was a tireless advocate for a particular vision of Christianity — of course, he’s  a saint.  And theologians and philosophers like Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas — of course, they get canonized.  And the founders of orders, like Benedict, Dominic, Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, are sainted because they founded orders which have remained strong over the years and have an influence in the development of Catholic thought, and in the dissemination of that.

But what of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement?  She has not been canonized, and, so far as I know, is unlikely to be canonized.  And yet, the Catholic Worker movement did a lot to advance the Social Gospel in America.  It would seem that she might very well be deserving of sainthood.  Or Daniel Berrigan, or Thomas Merton.  These have not been canonized, and I think it unlikely they will in the current environment, but both spoke the truth to power and were strong advocates of social justice.

In 1950, the Holy Year (every 25 years) dedicated to Mary by Pius XII, the Pope chose to canonize Maria Goretti, an Italian peasant girl who had been attacked and killed because she would not submit to her rapist.  This has been a canonization that has always troubled me, not only because it went a long way to reinforcing the idea among Catholic girls in my generation and the one preceding it, that death before dishonor was the better path, and to make those who had submitted feel badly about a decision that may have saved their lives.  I think the current debate among the Republicans between “rape” and “forcible rape” has some of those undertones, that abortions should be outlawed, because only a woman who secretly wanted the attack (who complied with her attacker) would get pregnant, and that shouldn’t count as rape.  That sort of talk really gets me boiling.  Now, I don’t blame Maria Goretti for what she did.  I have no doubt she was an observant Catholic who wanted, someday, to become a nun.  But to elevate her to sainthood to use her as an ideal against which to judge other women, or against which women judge themselves — that I find reprehensible.
I also have trouble with the push by the current Pope to put John Paul II and Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood.  This all seems to be an attempt to validate the current conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy, and to silence those who embraced the reforms of Vatican II.  They seem designed to value orthodoxy, and even an enforced orthodoxy, over innovation, over a spiritual openness that is not so tightly identified with dogma.

The saints I especially value are people who seemed to have some revelation, some vision of possibilities beyond their current reality.  So Francis of Assisi saw a return to simplicity at a time when the Church itself was often bloated and fat on the wealth it had taken from people hoping to buy their way into heaven, or out of hell.  His was a vision of the blessed community, rather than the officially sanctioned community.  And I take it as something of a miracle that he got to live out his vision, and not be shut down by the Church.  For his vision of simplicity is a dangerous one to a large organization.  It argues for a more direct experience of the divine, without the necessary intercession of the Church.  But I wonder — did Francis change the church?  He did begin an organization that was based on holy poverty and on service to others rather than aimed at enriching oneself.  But that didn’t change the monarchies of his day, nor did it really upend the church and give it a rebirth.  Just as John XXIII promised a reorganization of the church and making the organization serve the people, as is its stated goal, but that dream did not last long, as the bureaucrats in the Vatican, and those bishops jealous of their power made sure that the church took a hard turn towards orthodoxy and away from divine love.

St. John of the Cross was a mystic, and mysticism is always a bit of a conundrum when it comes to the organization.  For the organization is all about analysis and compartmentalizing and control, and mysticism seeks to get beyond the whys and wherefores of our day to day existence to see something beyond.  And, like Francis, he was a reformer interested in changing his own part of the larger organization.  A Carmelite, he was upset by the way the Carmelites had lost their way from a vision similar to that of Francis, so he and Teresa of Avila both created a new branch of the Carmelites, the Discalced (“Barefoot”) Carmelites, that would observe that simplicity and radical poverty.  And both are amazing accomplishments, but, in his own lifetime, he failed to change his order, and had to create a new order (or a new division of that order).  The Carmelites still exist, and they may be more observant of simplicity than they were during John’s day, but he didn’t quite change things.

So we have saints who are made to serve as shills for the organization, and others who question and try to shake things up, but are not entirely successful in their efforts.  That is not to minimize the efforts of those who try to make a difference, but can lead one to become disheartened.  The organization continues apace, changed cosmetically, but often not profoundly.  Of course, for individuals, the efforts of saints can still have a profound effect.  We can see behind the marketing of the Church and see poor Maria Goretti and become involved in efforts to help battered women or to put a brake on domestic violence.  We can see the challenge of Francis and how that may affect us, even if the Church failed to fully heed his call.  We can witness John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila, or any other of the mystics and try to puzzle through their mystical visions and see what they might mean for us, Catholic or not, and not worry so much about the business the Catholic Church, and much of organized religion, has become.

So, look forward to posting come February 1, and for several days thereafter as a Lenten Observance.  I welcome your thoughts and observations as well.

0 Responses to “We’ll Cross that Bridge…”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: