Heroes and Saints
by Donald DeMarco
It is a truism that children need role models. Parents, surely, are solemnly obliged to fill this role. But children also need models that are larger than life. Hence, the enduring place of myths and fairy tales. Their only glaring weakness, however, is that their robust and immortal characters are not real.
When we look to real people who are larger than life, we are confronted with a choice between secular heroes and genuine saints. The usual problem with the former is that they are seriously flawed, particularly in their personal lives. Their shortcomings inevitably come to light, no matter how much their images are sanitized and propped up by media hype.
Take the case of Henry David Thoreau. I recall, with some dismay, an ABC television programís concelebration of Independence Day and the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Liberty and independence were very much in the air on this occasion, and the figure shown to embody these cherished American values was Thoreau. In this 1986 dramatization, we followed him as he walked briskly and defiantly along the edge of Walden Pond. He was doing something he could not have done in the middle of the nineteenth century-reciting his own prose to a crew of pursuing technicians. The sequence ended as he delivered the now-too familiar lines of his anthem to untrammeled individualism: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Thoreau embodies the American spirit of liberty and independence. But there is a crack in his armor. Liberty and independence, separated from humanity and responsibility, are mere abstractions. They do not provide a formula for real living. Thoreauís one-sidedness and his preference for the discarnate naturally made him an enemy of Christianity. After all, Christ extolled corporal works of mercy.
Thoreau was not a man who wanted to touch people. He complained, "We live thick and are in each otherís way, and stumble over one another," and he recommended that there be "but one inhabitant to a square mile." "The value of man is not in his skin," he asserted, "that we should touch him." He failed to recognize that to be enfleshed is part of being human. And while he is, to many people, a hero, he is not a saint.
An Exercise in Contrasts
Conversely, there is no saint in the hagiography of the Catholic Church who better exemplifies the importance of corporality than St. Francis of Assisi. The story is told that when Francis first touched a leper and even kissed the sick manís fingers, a sweetness, happiness, and joy streamed from his soul. According to one of his biographers, Johannes JÝrgensen, by overcoming his repugnance to touching the most repulsive of men, Francis gained the greatest victory man can win-victory over himself. The chronicles of the life of St. Francis tell stories of other instances in which he touched lepers and miracles of healing took place. Moreover, the stigmata that Francis suffered can be viewed as Godís penetrating touch that has both physical as well as sacramental significance. In contradistinction with Thoreau, Francis wanted to be with people. He founded communities, rebuilt churches, anointed the sick, and begged food from door to door. St. Francis was intensely tactile.
The incarnate spirituality of St. Francis brings to mind another Franciscan and more contemporary saint, Padre Pio. Like Francis, he bore the wounds of Christ. Or Blessed Damien of Molokai, who was willing to touch the skin of lepers. Damien spent 16 years on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai caring for people afflicted with leprosy. He died of the disease in 1849, but, because of his dedication and untiring work, made this dreadful malady better known to the world. As a result, he inspired many improvements in the care and treatment of lepers. This past February, Pope Benedict approved Blessed Damienís cause for canonization, and he will be canonized on October 11 of this year.
Henry David Thoreau, like the Poverello of Assisi, professed a great love for nature and animals. But his affection for Godís creation was marred by his animosity toward human beings. "It is pleasant to meet the dry yellow-colored fruit of the poison dogwood," he wrote. "It has so much character relatively to man." St. Francis loved all nature because it reminded him of his fraternity with all creation. Thoreauís love of nature separated him from his fellow creatures.
The story of St. Francis taming the Wolf of Gubbio and his sermon to the birds are charming as well as edifying. Another saint, St. Martin de Porres, also had the gift of being able to converse with animals. He once ordered a whole army of pestiferous rodents out of the monastery and into an unused shed. Like St. Francis, his affection for animals did not in any way compromise his great love for his fellow human beings.
Laughter and Love
St. Teresa of Avila prayed that the good Lord would deliver us "from silly devotions and sour-faced saints." In Saint-Watching, Phyllis McGinley described this great saint as being "irrepressible as a volcano, unsinkable as balsa wood." She, like Francis, and in contrast with the dour personality of Thoreau, was a woman for whom humor was a constant companion. Once a young nun came to her boasting of being a great sinner. St. Teresa advised her, deflatingly: "Now, Sister, remember, none of us are perfect. Just make sure those sins of yours donít turn into bad habits."
In this vein, we are reminded of St. Thomas More, whose humor never left him, even when he was facing death. As he mounted the scaffold, he said to his executioner, "Assist me up, if you please. Coming down I can shift for myself." John of Saxony, a good Dominican, once noticed his novices laughing. "Keep on laughing," he advised them, "itís the way you escape from the devil."
Humor, joy, and an intense love for God and man are qualities that characterize saints. Indeed, saints are not champions of a fashion or an ideology, but whole, integrated human beings. Karl Marx could not have been more wrong when he said, "It is easy to become a saint if one does not want to be a human." The truth is that in order to be a saint, which is not at all easy, one must be fully human. St. Philip Neri played practical jokes. St. Charles Borrormeo enjoyed a good game of chess. St. Ignatius loved billiards. St. John Bosco revelled in picnics, acrobatics, and "the civilizing effects of good music." Saints are not cast in plaster. Concerning St. Francis Borgia, biographer James Brodrick wrote: "Indeed, not only was he human but a humanist, a saint in the line of Assisiís Francis who . . .loved everything beautiful that kept its innocence."
Heroes are also significant. But the hero is praised for some specific, though extraordinary, achievement. It is Bill Mazeroski hitting a home run against the Yankees in the seventh game of the1960 World Series to give the Pittsburgh Pirates a championship. Or it is Joe Namath leading the underdog New York Jets to a stunning victory in the 1969 Super Bowl. It is Eddie Rickenbacker, Americaís top flying Ace in World War I, shooting down 26 enemy planes. Or it is Charles Lindbergh in 1927, being the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Such heroic accomplishments will not fade, though their heroes may do nothing to add to their heroism and may retire in comfort to rest on their laurels. Heroism is episodic; sanctity is a lifetime occupation.
Sainthood, unlike heroism, is a constant and undiminishing display of love for God and neighbor. It includes overcoming great obstacles and accepting the Cross of Christ. Moreover, no person is declared a saint until he has passed from this earth. Heroes are canonized immediately upon their heroic accomplishments. In fact, it is their accomplishments that are venerated, not the excellence oft heir lives. In this sense, it is within the capacity of each one of us to become a saint, since we already possess the substance of sainthood, which is our humanity.
The saint, because he is real, fully faithful, permanent, and transcultural, is the best role model for children. He is a model who cannot fail them. As Phyllis McGinley tells us, the saint is as "obsessed by goodness and by God as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language, Beethoven by sound." The extraordinary life of the saint should make him appear to a child as anything but remote. The saint is you and I as real, personal, and human as we can possibly be. He speaks to our heart, our hopes, and our humanity from any place in the world and from any point in history.
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Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy at St. Jeromeís University in Waterloo, Ontario. He also teaches at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and works as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He is the author of Architects of the Culture of Death, as well as 20 other books, including The Many Faces of Virtue
. This article first published in the May/Jun 2009 Issue of Lay Witness Magazineand is reproduced with permission. Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.