The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making “Saints”

The word saint means “holy one”. It can refer, as it frequently does in the Holy Scriptures, to all of God’s people. The word “holy” denotes the state of being dedicated and set aside for the use of God. In the Old Testament, God called Israel out from among the nations and consecrated her to Himself, and the covenant He made with her contained both moral commandments, which forbade behaviour that was wrong and demanded behaviour that was right, and ceremonial commandments, the purpose of which was to separate her as a people God had set apart as His own. Old Testament saints, therefore, were Israelites, keeping in mind, of course, St. Paul’s remarks that “he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Rom. 2:28-29). New Testament saints are all those, Jew or Gentile, who have been baptized into the church, the body of Christ, in which the wall of regulations separating Jew from Gentile has been torn down. St. Paul’s distinction between outward and inward circumcision, of course, can be applied to baptism as well, and the true New Testament saint is the person who believe in Jesus internally, in the heart. It is in this New Testament sense of the term that the Apostle’s Creed speaks of the “communion of the saints”, i.e., the mystic union and fellowship of all believers, here and in Heaven.

There are other ways in which people can be specially dedicated and set apart for and by God than by merely belonging to His people or His church. This is why from the earliest days the church has used the word saint to honour those that she has regarded as being particularly holy. In early centuries, local churches would honour their martyrs, those who had been persecuted and killed for their faith, as saints. Later, the catholic or universal church decided that the recognition and honouring of saints should be standardized throughout Christendom. This required that a canon, or list, of recognized saints be drawn up, which in turn required that the church define what it meant to be a saint in this sense of the term and that criteria be stated by which saints can be identified.

A consequence of this, as you may imagine, was that the concept of the saint within Christendom developed somewhat differently among the churchgoing populace than it did among the theologians and ecclesiastical authorities. You might call the one the popular concept of the saint, and the other the official concept of the saint.

The writers of literature have drawn upon both concepts for inspiration. In Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess presents a fictionalized version of the history of the twentieth century as told from the perspective of Kenneth Toomey, a successful gay novelist who is reviewing his life in anticipation of writing his memoirs. He is doing so in part at the request of the Roman Catholic Church who have asked for his assistance in the canonization of the last pope, who had been a close friend of his and whose brother had married his sister. The Church approaches Toomey, because he had been the only witness of certain miracles that had been performed through the late pope and proper certification of miracles is part of the canonization process.

That miracles are performed through saints is common to both the official and popular understandings of the term, and in Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford trilogy, Robertson Davies introduces us to Dunstan Ramsay, a scholar who has made popular folklore regarding saints the object of his life’s studies. The novel is narrated by Ramsay, who, like Burgess’s Toomey, is telling the story of his own life, and in the telling Ramsay explains what lies at the bottom of his unusual line of expertise. He had experienced a miracle performed through a woman who had been driven out of her wits in an unfortunate incident in which he had been an unwilling participant as a small boy and over which he felt terrible guilt. He had become convinced that she was a saint, although few others were willing to share that conviction.

George Grant, the Canadian philosopher, reminds me a bit of the fictional Dunstan Ramsay in this respect. He was convinced that his favourite twentieth century thinker, Simone Weil, was a saint. His biographer, William Christian, quotes him as saying that Weil was “both a saint and a philosopher…She was a saint in the sense that she gave herself away to the divine charity.” (1) Like Mary Dempster, the character that Ramsay believed to be a living saint, Weil was an unusual candidate for sainthood, albeit for different reasons. Neither the fictional character nor the living philosopher-mystic would have met the church’s official requirements for canonization.

Had she been born a couple of thousand years earlier, Weil might have qualified as an Old Testament saint, for she was born of Hebrew stock to the wife of a Jewish doctor in 1909. This is an honour she would have rejected for herself, however, for she disliked the Old Testament and regarded Judaism as a barbaric religion. Needless to say, when she later embraced the Christian faith in her twenties, her theology was something less than orthodox. The great litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, had been drawn up by the church against the early heretics who claimed, among other things, that the God of the Old Testament could not be the same God that Jesus Christ declared to be His Father. Weil expressed admiration for heretical groups like the early Gnostics and especially the later Cathari who rejected most or all of the Old Testament. This, and her persistent refusal to receive baptism despite the pleas of her friend and spiritual advisor Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin, her letters to whom explaining this refusal were later published under the title Waiting For God, (2) would surely raise a few eyebrows among any ecclesiastical authorities asked to consider her for canonization.

Having said that, remember what I said earlier about how St. Paul’s distinction between inward and outward circumcision applies to baptism too. While under ordinary circumstances the persistent refusal to receive baptism would be a sign of unbelief, Weil’s reasons for so refusing were anything but ordinary. If she cannot be so easily written out of the “communion of the saints” in the creedal sense of the term, neither should her heterodoxy be regarded as disbarring her from the company of the particularly marked, holy ones to which Grant and several others believed she belonged. The ability to pass a theological exam is hardly the first thing that is looked for in considering a person for canonization. Indeed, Weil’s heterodox view of the Old Testament and admiration for the Cathari is itself an example, albeit a clearly misguided one, of the very characteristic that was perceived as being most saintly about her.

Weil was a lifelong sympathizer with the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the powerless, the voiceless and the downtrodden. This is a trait which can be very admirable but which can also be very easily taken to an ugly excess or diverted down unworthy channels. It is this trait that led Weil to condemn the religion of the Old Testament as condoning the abuse of power and to sympathize with the Cathari as the victims of power abuse. As a young teacher she was led by her desire to take up the cause of the downtrodden into political activism of various sorts, most of which were highly misguided at best. In this, she was hardly an atypical intellectual. What set her apart was her willingness to pay the price of her idealism personally. Her death from consumption in 1943, for example, seems to have been at least partly due to a refusal to eat enough to keep up her strength out of solidarity with those starving in Nazi-occupied France.

Indeed, Weil seemed driven by an insatiable desire to share in the sufferings of others. She herself tied this desire to her Christian faith. After her early radicalism she had come to a mystic version of Christian faith, grounded in her personal experiences with God, such as when she felt compelled to pray in a Catholic basilica in Assisi or when she felt “Christ himself came down and took possession of me” while reading a poem by seventeenth century metaphysical poet and Anglican divine George Herbert. In a fascinating comment in one of her letters to Fr. Perrin she remarked that “every time that I think about Christ’s crucifixion, I commit the sin of envy”.

A remark like this can really only be explained in one of two ways. Either she was out of her mind, or God Himself had marked her out for Himself and placed within her this holy, almost superhuman, desire to take up the cross.

If it is the latter, then what better word could there possibly be to describe such a person than the word saint?

(1) William Christian, George Grant: A Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 228
(2) Most of the books attributed to Weil are compilations of her writings put together after her death. In the case of Waiting For God it is letters to a priest that are compiled into a book, in the case of Gravity and Grace it is excerpts from the notebooks she had written while staying at the farm of Gustave Thibon early in the war and which she had left in his possession. The notebooks have more recently been published in an unabridged format. Of her best known writings it is The Need For Roots which actually reads like it was composed as a monograph for publication. This is because it was originally written as a report for the French Resistance.

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