Silence, Please

Before becoming one of the four horsemen of the “new atheist” apocalypse, the late Christopher Hitchens made his debut as an antireligious provocateur with his scathing takedown of Mother Teresa. In the BBC documentary Hell’s Angel (1994) and the book The Missionary Position (1995), Hitchens excoriated the “living saint” for ministering more effectively to the guilt of the criminally rich and powerful than to the needs of the innocently poor and pitiable. But the primary target of his ire was not the “angel” herself. An erstwhile Marxist, Hitchens understood that spiritual commodities are produced as much from the desperate desires of the materially insecure as they are from the efforts of those who might exploit such desperation. “If Mother Teresa is the adored object of many credulous and uncritical observers,” he remarked, “then the blame is not hers, or hers alone. In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjurer is only the instrument of the audience.”

From the other side of the faith divide, Dorothy Day—no stranger to Marxism or Christianity—seemed to share Hitchens’s suspicion of manufactured illusions, at least when it came to her own canonization. As David Tracy recounts in Saints: Faith Without Borders, a reporter once opened an interview of Day by confessing, “I am told you are a saint,” and received a truculent response: “Do not trivialize me, young man.” Hitchens and Day are not the only ones who worry that “sainthood” is, at best, a comfort to misty-eyed believers and, at worst, an opiating philanthropic distraction from the structural injustices of this world. It is in rescuing the “saint” from this oscillation between romantic fetishization and cynical derision that the fascinating, if somewhat haphazard, collection of essays in Saints makes its strongest contribution.

The volume is dedicated to the memory of the literary scholar Marc Eli Blanchard, whose lead essay pulls together three major traditions that make up contemporary Cuban identity: Afro-Cuban Santería, missionary Roman Catholicism, and revolutionary nationalist politics. Though each of these traditions has its own notion of “sainthood,” Blanchard’s comparative analysis draws out what might be called a certain family resemblance. He locates the “saint” at the crossroads of theo-political idealism, nostalgic folk history, and immediate everyday concerns. For Blanchard, “canonization,” whether culturally or institutionally administered, involves all three of these elements. When sanctity is reduced to one-dimensional heroism, the trivialization that Day worried about and Hitchens derided begins to erode the liberating power of sainthood. Thus, “saints” are always in danger of being uncovered as mere theo-political ideologues (or pawns), quaint storytellers, or superstitious objects of quotidian devotion.

If this sounds a little slippery, it is. Taken together, these essays convey a sense that sainthood deserves to be taken seriously by believers and nonbelievers alike, but that the borders between authentic holiness, supererogatory heroism, and emotional manipulation are all but impossible to discern. This indeterminacy certainly can’t be blamed on a lack of specific examples. In Blanchard’s essay alone, in addition to the Afro-Cuban orisha, the Roman Catholic saint, and the mythological escaped slave, or cimarrón, we get commentary on the Virgin Mary, freedom-fighter Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales, “warrior and poet” José Martí, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Elián Gonzalez. Tracy, in his piece, carries this encyclopedic approach further still, moving from various Christian examples of sainthood to their interreligious, literary, and philosophical analogues, before settling on the “Sophoclean daimonic hero” as the most “relevant to developing a new model of the saint.”

While implicitly using Blan-chard’s three loci of sanctity, Tracy is more concerned with sanctity’s individual features, which he takes from Sophocles: spontaneous action predicated on strength, a dual agency drawing on both human and divine sources of power, the willingness to suffer for the sake of others, and an irreplaceable singularity that defies typical modes of abstract categorization. It is perhaps owing to this last attribute that a collection of essays aimed at capturing sainthood in all of its manifestations is, in some ways, destined to fail. With photo essays on the cults of Elvis and Padre Pio, political analyses of St. Joan of Arc and Rabbi Me’ir, a psychoanalysis of Teresa of Ávila, an art-historical look at St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata, a literary analysis of Milton’s Lycidas, and a psychiatrist’s reflection on St. Dymphna, the volume collapses under its own cumulative weight.

The most successful essays are those that take up a single figure or phenomenon while maintaining a clear theoretical point of view—for example, Françoise Meltzer’s rigorous and troubling discussion of how President Nicholas Sarkozy, with a little help from Pope Benedict XVI, tried to reinvigorate the cult of St. Joan of Arc in an attempt to leaven traditional French secularism with enough theo-political identity to neutralize the growing Islamic population. Simon Coleman expands Blanchard’s paradigm to include the technological and economic valences of a new cyber form of pilgrimage, in an essay examining the technological transfiguration achieved by charismatic preachers selling indulgences to devotees via living room television sets and stadium jumbotrons. Simon Ditchfield contributes an excellent essay arguing that early modern intellectuals used “saints” and the language of sanctity to think through the mutual implication of science, history, religion, and politics from which contemporary consciousness was born.

While each of these essays is a valuable contribution in its own right, there is little conversation across the collection that might help the reader synthesize its various accounts of “sainthood.” One leaves the book with the impression of a saint-shaped hole at the intersection of numerous interdependent social structures. To be sure, such an agnostic conclusion might be intrinsic to any academic examination of sainthood (and this volume is most certainly aimed at an academic audience). As several of the essays acknowledge, saints seem to be most present when they are absent, invisible, or dead. How fitting, then, that the last two essays depict silence as the most characteristic attribute of saints. Jean-Luc Marion argues that because “holiness is unaware of itself,” any interrogation of sanctity depends on a presumptive objectification of “sainthood.” Jas Elsner extends this notion, arguing that saints are symptomatic of the inherently uncertain character of faith. It is for this reason that believers most often deploy saints for apologetic or polemical purposes when either the veracity or the uniqueness of their tradition is under attack. Read alongside Marion, Elsner’s examples of how saints are used suggest the anxious ventriloquizing of idols that accompanies the most profound absence of the divine, similar to what took place at the foot of Sinai after Moses was thought to have abandoned his tired and complaining Israelites to take up with YHWH.

In the end, Marion claims that if Christians want an account of sanctity, they need look no further than Christ’s silence before his accusers. Ironically, this volume suggests that silence might also be the only possible response to the question of “sainthood” more broadly. To their credit, the editors seem to be aware of this, closing with a numbered set of aphorisms provided by historian Aviad Kleinberg—the aphorism being the favorite genre of failed rationalists from the pre-Socratics to Wittgenstein. If Blanchard provides the paradigm for the positive program of this volume, it is the last proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, quoted by Kleinberg, that captures its negative, if not defeated, conclusion: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

One wonders whether four hundred pages of dense academic prose might be a high price to pay for what would seem to be an obvious truism. Dorothy Day, for one, arrived at the same conclusion more economically—or at least with less eyestrain. Yet, if Christopher Hitchens is to be believed, the pursuit of contemporary sainthood can be quite costly indeed. Meltzer and Elsner’s collection should provide a healthy caution to those who are excessively eager to canonize—or be canonized.

Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: 
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Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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