Being holy means being human, not perfect.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 20 2007 12:18 PM

Saintly Bad Behavior

The lives of the saints show us that being holy means being human, not perfect.

Pope John Paul II. Click image to expand.
Pope John Paul II 

Recently, word came that the miracle required for Pope John Paul II's beatification may have happened: A French nun's Parkinson's disappeared after her religious community prayed to him to intercede. But amid the growing enthusiasm for the canonization of Pope John Paul II comes some dissent from a surprising place—within the Catholic Church. Not that the dissenters are airing their grievances publicly. Grumbling about someone's canonization is a little like complaining about a co-worker's promotion: It makes you look like a spoilsport.

The naysayers, mainly on the left, see John Paul not as one of the great religious figures of the age, but as a person with whom they often disagreed, particularly on issues of the ordination of women, the Vatican's response to the sexual-abuse crisis, and treatment of gays and lesbians. The most common arguments against his canonization can be boiled down to two: First, I disagreed with him. Second, he wasn't perfect.

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Both objections fundamentally misunderstand who the saints are, and were. Many people envision the saints as perfect human beings whose flaws, if any, miraculously evaporated once they decided to become, well, saintly. Popular iconography does little to correct this misconception. Those pristine marble statues, romantic stained-glass images, and kitschy holy cards make it easy to forget that the saints were human beings who sinned not only before their conversions, but afterward, too.

Early sinning in the lives of the saints has always been a staple of hagiography, the study of saints. Biographers played up the preconversion badness to make clearer postconversion goodness. Even pious biographies of St. Augustine mention his dissolute early years, his living with a concubine and fathering a child out of wedlock. ("Lord, give me chastity," he prayed, "but not yet.") According to Butler's Lives of the Saints, the standard reference manual, the party-hearty young Francis of Assisi spent his father's money "lavishly, even ostentatiously." And St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, may be the only saint with a notarized police record, for nighttime brawling with intent to inflict serious harm.

But even after their decisions to amend their lives, the saints remained stubbornly imperfect. In other words: human. And the history of sinful saints begins right at the start of Christianity. St. Peter, traditionally described as the "first pope," denied knowing Jesus three times before the Crucifixion. As the priest in the film Moonstruck says, "That's a pretty big sin."

Four centuries later, St. Jerome, the brilliant polymath who translated the Bible into Latin, was a famously nasty Christian. When confronted with criticism, he was reliably uncharitable. In the early fifth century, the future saint wrote a snide public letter to a prominent theologian named Rufinus, addressing him as "my most simple-minded friend" and commenting that he "walked like a tortoise." Jerome kept up the invective even after Rufinus' death, when a gentler appraisal might have been expected.

Likewise, St. Cyril of Alexandria, archbishop of the city from 412 to 444, is described by Butler's Lives as "brave but sometimes over vehement, even violent." Reconciliation was apparently not his strong suit. During a church council in Ephesus in 431, Cyril led a group of unruly followers to depose and exile another bishop who had disagreed with Cyril's theological writings. The late Edward A. Ryan, a Jesuit church historian and seminary professor, said wryly, "We don't know anything about the last years of Cyril's life. Those must have been the years in which he was made a saint."

Contemporary avatars of holiness also had their foibles. Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century, could be vain, impatient, and short-tempered. Late in life, he also broke his monastic vows by sleeping with a young nurse he met during a hospital stay, sneaking off the monastery grounds to meet with her. (Afterward, Merton repented over misleading the woman and recommitted himself to a life of chastity.) And Mother Teresa could be occasionally tart with any of her sisters whom she suspected of malingering. "You live with the name of the poor but enjoy a lazy life," she wrote to one convent.

All these men and women were holy, striving to devote their lives to God. They were also human. And they knew it, too. Of all people, the saints were the most cognizant of their flawed humanity, which served as a reminder of their reliance on God.

Unfortunately, well-meaning hagiography often tries to dial down the saints' human side to make their lives seem more virtuous. So, the modern-day conception of Francis of Assisi ends up depicting him as a kind of well-meaning peacenick, rather than the complicated man who was something of a hothead. (Francis once clambered atop the roof of a house his brothers built and began tearing it apart—he felt it was not in keeping with their life of poverty.)

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