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The eccentricity of the saints

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, January 26, 2007

In the Martins’ parking lot the other day, I passed a poorly but enthusiastically maintained Mazda whose rear-end was overloaded with absurd bumper stickers, most of them along the lines of this: “Conscientious Non-Conformist.” The cheap shot one is tempted to make is that no person answering to that description could possibly have found so many bumper stickers to “express” his heart-felt opinions. It is a cheap shot, because most of us cannot make anything on our own – not even descriptions of ourselves – but must buy or steal everything.

Sometimes the cheap shot is correct, however, as it is in this case. When the mass of men and women subscribe to barbaric opinions or listen to savage, banal and unsublimated music, they generally do so for some arguably good reason that has nothing to do with their identity as “consumers” or “individuals,” as “conformists” or otherwise. The owner of this ideologically-loaded jalopy, on the other hand, could have put up that mass-produced, block-lettered, sticky declaration of individuality only for one end – a purpose it singularly could not achieve.

In one respect, I cannot help sympathizing with its trite, failed message. Reading the major intellectuals of the nineteenth century and after, from Alexis de Tocqueville to G.K. Chesterton and W.H. Auden, one encounters the constant fearful apprehension that men are all growing alike. The person under the reign of modern society had become a black-coated, straight-faced bore, and had so become because of the pressures of modern industry, the workplace and especially through the offices of that “hygienic” arm of the modern state, mass education.

Auden, a product of the elite schools of England, argued strongly that parents should be left as much control of their children’s education as possible, and that children should be let to run around with as many neuroses as they could without seriously hurting themselves. If conformity cast an increasing pall on former times, and if the commodification and “sanitization” of persons has continued unabated, what basis have we to believe the situation has gotten better rather than worse?

None. In ages past, occasional eccentrics sprung up in the hamlets of England or in the Villages of the Italian peninsula, and their exceptional attributes were but some of the signs by which they called one to greater devotion to God. They sealed themselves up in side-chambers of churches, fasted and prayed; they sat on pillars, moaned and prayed; or they flagellated themselves at the edges of town; or they performed works of mercy among the poor, sick and outcast. They shouted with joy the beauty of cats and the sublimity of shook foil. They were called saints, and it was on account of their unusual behavior that the great masses of people flocked in fascination to bathe within the light of their eccentric haloes.

The death of saints, I think we can say, was always the plot of some jealous few. In other words, the notion of popular saints – of persons being declared “saints” by popular demand – suggests the way in which most people once welcomed those different from themselves, so long as that difference was a signifier for a higher mode of life. Difference, when it reflected elevation, was a privilege not a derangement. And the makers of martyrs were those who did not so much persecute the difference in the saint, but rather, sought to exterminate the deep but exposed humanity in him: that self-revealing quality whereby the saint threatened to bring to light the frailty and thirst for mercy and justice in every run-of-the-mill person. The sorrow of martyrdom comes in part from our basest common character falling under the control of this jealous few, betraying and spurning that noble common need.

We, at present and as a rule, can no longer understand sainthood. When someone proposes the virtue of a celibate life, we look on in confusion and contempt. We whisper in corridors and rear back our heads like furious pack horses. When someone proposes the good of the life of contemplation, we sneer at her uselessness. “She’ll learn when she’s starving,” we say, though we have managed to avoid ever seeing anyone starve. We presume the celibate must suffer some secret sexual disorder – or what used to be called a “disorder” before it became just another consumer choice. And we simply accuse the contemplative of being “impractical” or “unrealistic,” although no one I have heard use those terms has ever bothered to think what they might mean.

This transformation from past to present is especially glaring at a Catholic university, where light of the saints in stained glass falls upon us all the time as we cross campus on our way to a marketing or economics lecture, where we learn the only truth worth countenancing is that of “supply and demand.” Or coming home from yet another “mock interview,” as we train to describe ourselves the way that will least expose our self and play up those fungible attributes that show we have the promise of being docile good workers.

St. Francis wore a tonsure; other saints wore hair-shirts. Chesterton wore a cape and saber. I do not write to recommend this. But rather than celebrating the “diversity” of what we listen to, wear, or copulate with, all the while we continue living lives thoughtless, identical and efficient, we might do better to seek after those higher goods that inevitably make the human wheel spin a little wobbly.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow, and recalls daily George Santayana’s avowal that “It is not wisdom to be only wise.” He can be reached at jwilson5@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.