Choose Your Saints Wisely
|by Richard Smoley|
We do not live in what you could call a trusting age. Today everyone seems to want something. People call us up at dinnertime with newspaper subscriptions to sell. We are deluged with mail touting everything from mutual funds to women's pantyhose. And even men and women of God often seem more interested in what they can get out of us - whether it be money, adulation, or more intimate forms of regard - than in the teachings they espouse.
Hence a certain lack of precision about who qualifies as a saint or a scoundrel. Today the serious seeker can be forgiven for seeming a little bit chary about the whole subject. Didn't a lot of those masters from the Far East turn out to be more than a little interested in the sexual favors of their devotees? We've seen exposes in various publications of a number of yogis, swamis, and gurus - and I'm not sure that their Western counterparts can claim a much better record. True or not, such charges do leave you wondering about just who can be trusted in this line of work and who can't.
The Christian church, which has shown an extraordinary canniness about such matters, adopted a shrewd policy in regard to saints: no matter how holy you might seem, you don't get to be one until you're dead (and have a few miracles under your belt). This not only helps keep the virtuous from getting swelled heads, but enables the faithful to see an individual's entire life before passing judgment on it. Someone who looks good today can go bad tomorrow.
So why do we need saints at all? The Protestant Reformation, which has shaped all of us in the United States whether we like to think so or not, tossed out the whole notion of sainthood for the same egalitarian reason that led it to toss out hierarchies in general: if we are all children of God, we should all have equal access to God. Why talk to the help when you can talk to the master?
This much said, it can be seen that saints in general serve two purposes. In the first place, they serve as role mod-els for a community of the faithful. As Brother David Steindl-Rast points out in this issue's interview, saints in the Catholic Church are reckoned to be those who have followed Christ with "heroic virtue"; he also says that "the hero creates community."
Yet if you look at the issue from a broad perspective, you can see how many disparate virtues communities revere. Christians may hold up the qualities of meekness, faithfulness, patience; but other spiritual traditions obviously feel quite differently.
To see this we have only to look at ancient Greece, which in fact gave us the concept of the hero. Heroes in Greece in many ways resembled saints in Christianity; to begin with, they furnished examples of behavior to the community at large - particularly of the nobility and greatness of spirit that strike us so forcefully in the Homeric poems and the Athenian tragedies.1
On the other hand, the characters of the Greek heroes were nothing like those of Christian saints. The heroes of the Epic Cycle are proud, vainglorious, contentious, and often cruel - qualities that are quite different from those cultivated by saints in more recent times, but which the Greeks tended to admire (or at least did not mind as much as we would). Is it too much to say that the community literally makes its saints by choosing the virtues it wishes to foster? Perhaps saints, like the gods of old, do not live unless they are fed by our devotion; and it is our choice of virtues that directs our devotion.
For it is also quite clear that saints, apart from serving as glorified role models, have a real, palpable existence for their communities. Many people can attest to feeling the presence of parents or relatives soon after their deaths; but the sense of this presence generally diminishes over time and in any case is rarely experienced by others. Not so with saints. Their presence retains some kind of life for centuries and even millennia after their tenure on earth. The Prophet Elijah is still said to visit devout or mystically inclined Jews, as Khezr, the legendary Green Man of Islam, does for Sufis.2
If saints live in a sense that other departed ones do not, it would follow that they might give us some help if we ask them nicely. As Stephen Muratore's article in this issue illustrates, one can say a number of things for and against Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Nonetheless he is revered as a saint in some branches of the Orthodox Church, partly because of his character, partly as an embodiment of the ideal of Orthodox rulership. Apart from these considerations, some people have apparently received help from the late emperor. In 1925, for example, a Serbian woman who had lost two sons in World War I feared the loss of a third, who was still missing. Nicholas appeared to her in a dream and told her, "You will not die until you see your son." Soon after this, the woman got word that her son was indeed alive. In a more recent instance, a Spaniard, who was not even Orthodox at the time, claimed the tsar healed him of a kidney stone.3
To take another example of saintly assistance from the tradition of Orthodox Christianity, there's the case of the eighteenth-century St. Seraphim of Sarov. According to Paul Weyrich, director of the Free Congress Federation, in a recent issue of Policy Review, St. Seraphim, among his other virtues, had the power of prophecy. He predicted that in the twentieth century Russia would see seventy years of darkness, but that when his bones were returned to their proper resting place in Sarov a new epoch of Russian history would begin.
St. Seraphim's relics were discovered in the spring of 1991 in a resting place that he probably would not have appreciated: the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad. And they were in fact returned to Sarov one week before the failed coup of August 1991 that marked the end of Communism in Russia.4
Coincidence? Perhaps. Stephan Hoeller's column in this issue offers another metaphysical explanation for the amazing events in Russia - this one involving the Virgin Mary, whom the Catholic and Orthodox churches have over the course of centuries elevated to the status of nearly a goddess (if not the Goddess). Nonetheless, it seems to be true that if saints and heroes can safeguard the values of a community, they can also safeguard the community itself. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, the hero Oedipus promises that the presence of his remains in Athens will protect the city against its enemies (which, at the time the play was written around 406 B.C., ironically included Oedipus' home town of Thebes).5 And John Carey's article in this issue shows how the formidable - and often wrathful - figures of Irish saints served as tutelary spirits to the towns and monasteries that venerated them.
So much can reasonably be said of saints. But one man's saint is another man's scoundrel - hence our theme for this issue. Perhaps you are a Russian Orthodox emigre and venerate the memory of Tsar Nicholas. If so, it may be that you honor him as the embodiment of Holy Russia, called by esotericist Boris Mouravieff "the last surviving nation of the ancient world," whose collapse unleashed the Communist tide on an unsuspecting humanity. On the other hand, a Jew whose family was driven out of Russia by Nicholas's pogroms will probably feel differently - and will savor a bitter pungency in the words "Holy Russia."
GNOSIS readers are a diverse bunch, and there are quite a few, I'm sure, who will find it easier to revere the memories of such arch-scoundrels as Cagliostro and Aleister Crowley than of those venerated as saints by the Catholic and Orthodox churches - or, for that matter, by other traditions. And indeed the scoundrel exercises an allure that's often more compelling than that of the saint. Why?
To begin with, nobody likes to be put down. The saint is frequently presented to us as being like the kid down the street who was nicer to your parents than you were, so that the church is often saying in effect, "Why can't you be more like that nice St. Francis?" One usually responds to this with a combination of irritation and insolence, producing the opposite effect from what was desired. We know ourselves well enough to entertain a furtive love for those whose faults make our own look petty. If we can't be giants of virtue, we can congratulate ourselves on being dwarves in vice.
Moreover, however heroic the virtues of a saint may be, the scoundrel has something of the hero in him too. We remember Gregory Rasputin as a disreputable lecher who enforced his will on the tsar and tsarina through a combination of shrewdness, ingratiation, and hypnotic power, but we forget that he was the first Russian peasant in centuries to gain the tsar's ear. Cagliostro's attempt to convert the Pope to Egyptian Freemasonry may seem quixotic - indeed it won him the distinction of being just about the last individual to die at the hands of the Inquisition - but had he succeeded, the wedding of the Vatican's power with the tolerance and openmindedness of Freemasonry might have altered the history of Europe for the better. Similarly, though Sir Francis Dashwood (see "The Hell-Fire Club" in this issue) had the reputation of being both a libertine and a Satanist, a look at him in the context of eighteenth-century England reveals him to be a intelligent and far-sighted statesman who helped prepare his nation for the leadership it was about to assume in world affairs. Scoundrels they may have been; but there are aspects of their characters that we can well wish we had ourselves.
And that points to one conclusion that I've come to in my brief perusal of the wild and woolly world of saints and scoundrels: you can't buy your identity off the rack; it has to be tailor-made, and you're the one who has to make it. Sure, we can have heroes; we can want to be like Doctor Zhivago or Indiana Jones or Frida Kahlo - or Jesus or Buddha or the Prophet Muhammad. But personally I have my reservations about wholesale imitations of even the most sterling examples of humanity (a point which Brother David also makes in his interview).
Peace to his memory, but I don't want the belligerence of the Prophet Muhammad.6 And despite the many allusions to the Buddha's compassion, it's important to remember that the Buddha himself, after reaching enlightenment, didn't feel any particular desire to share his insight with anyone else; the god Brahma had to wheedle him into teaching.7 As for Jesus, he obviously had many virtues, but a sense of humor doesn't appear to be one of them; a very old tradition relates that he never laughed.8 While there is nothing in the canonical Gospels that confirms this assertion, there is also nothing that would refute it. The shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, tells us that "Jesus wept" at hearing the news of Lazarus' death; but no verse anywhere else says that Jesus laughed. Whether this is an accurate biographical detail or not - and of course we have no way of knowing - it reminds us that Christianity, for all its greatness, has always had a strong streak of humorlessness. (On the other hand, perhaps Jesus was not as dour as his followers portrayed him; after all, as the Pharisees complained, he clearly preferred the company of scoundrels to that of scribes and priests.)
At this point you may be saying, "Who is this man to pass judgment on these monumental figures?"And of course you would be right. But I'm not talking about imposing the verdict of history. I'm saying that the creative, conscious individual has the right, the duty even, to choose what influences will pass into his or her life - and that includes the choice of which models to emulate, and how. The point is not that there was something wrong with these holy men, but that if we imitate them mindlessly, we're likely to go astray. So with the scoundrels we may secretly or openly admire. I respect Crowley's indomitable explorations of the worlds of magic, consciousness, and will; I don't feel impelled to emulate his drug habit, which caused him serious problems for much of his life. I might want to study Cagliostro's energy and enthusiasm, but I'd just as soon avoid his duplicity and egotism.
We as humans forge our own identities. To some extent our qualities are instilled in us by nature and nurture; but we can also choose which characteristics we want to strengthen, weaken, take on, or put off. We are not shackled to what family, society, or culture may attempt to put on us - though the dynamic between our conscious choice and environmental factors will probably always cause us tension. Nor, I'd say, should we take on a single role model, whether that of saint or scoundrel, wholesale. In some respects we may want to emulate the best of humankind, but in other respects we may want to emulate the worst.
For my part, I'm reminded of a beautiful passage in one of Horace's satires, in which he describes how his father indicated models for him to follow in his life, both positive and negative:
My dearest father taught me,
We are all like Horace in this sense: we have the examples of people around us, as well as the great figures of history, to help us fashion our identities. Here, as in other parts of life, we need to be careful shoppers. We do well to model ourselves on our heroes, saint and scoundrel alike; but we also do well not to model ourselves on any one exclusively.
1. For a discussion of heroes in Greek religion, see Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 203-08.
2. Peter Lamborn Wilson, "The Green Man: The Trickster Figure in Sufism," in GNOSIS #19 (1991), pp. 22-26.
3. R. Monk Zachariah (Liebmann), "Martyrology of the Communist Yoke: The Life of Tsar Nicholas II," in The Orthodox Word, Vol. 26, No. 4 (1990), pp. 216-17, 219-20.
4. Adam Meyerson, "Conscience of a Cultural Conservative: Paul M. Weyrich on the Politics of Character in Russia and America," in Policy Review, Winter 1992, p. 10. I am indebted to Jay Cornell for pointing this out to me.
5. Burkert, p. 207.
6. For a discussion of Muhammad's warlike qualities, see Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992), ch. 8. Armstrong does a good job of placing Muhammad in the context of his time, but his is still not an example I'd care to emulate.
7. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, ed. Joseph Campbell (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952), pp. 465-66.
8. G.I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949), pp. 236-37. Gurdjieff says that laughter is the release of a certain form of tension, and certain individuals, presumably including Jesus, don't laugh because they don't experience negative emotions. But of course that's not the usual reason.
9. Horace, Satires 1:4, 105-112, 120-24, 129-34; my translation.