They did it their way
Your book All Saints tells the stories of a broad range of saints-some officially canonized and some not, some Catholic or Christian, some not. How did you select whom to include?
They are people from all corners of history who stood out for me and whose memory I wanted to recover. Certainly, to some degree, the selections reflect my own interests. But I was also looking for a diversity of types. I could have included innumerable desert fathers or founders of religious orders or Roman martyrs, etc. But instead I tried to limit those to a couple of representative stories so that I would also have room for different types of saints as well as a range of witnesses and prophets who speak to the challenges of our time.
The kinds of people who interested me were those on the frontiers, the pioneers of their times.
What made these people stand out for you?
In working on this book, I became fascinated with the constant dialogue that occurs between the gospel and local culture, by the kind of questions and challenges that are posed by a certain historical situation. The people who interested me were those who didn't just accept the tradition as handed down to them but were struggling to define ways to make the gospel appropriate or relevant to their own time and place.
And because they were pioneers, a lot of them looked like dissidents, problematic figures who suffered misunderstanding or persecution.
Standard church history often overlooks the underside or forgotten byways of spirituality, theology, and Christian discipleship. Things that are not part of the mainstream story are not included because they are not considered relevant.
Give us an example of this forgotten "underside" of Christian discipleship.
You can look at a group like the 14th-century Beguines, a women's religious movement in the European lowlands. These were women-many of them middle-class and educated-who were looking for a way of being Christian that was apart from either the options of being married, conventional family life, or entering a cloistered religious community. They wanted to live together in community to support themselves with their own work, to reflect on scripture, to pray together without any ecclesiastical supervision.
They wrote books in their vernacular, and some preached. They cared for the hungry with soup kitchens. You might say they were sort of the Dorothy Days of their time.
They attracted a great deal of suspicion. Questions were raised about who was controlling them-as frequently there has been anxiety among church authorities about women who were not "controlled" somehow.
So ultimately they were suppressed, their communities were dissolved and their writings burned. Some of them joined religious communities, others were burned at the stake. They passed into oblivion, but today we have rediscovered them and we celebrate their memory.
So it's nice to read the stories of saints who overcame all kinds of adversity and misunderstanding and ultimately triumphed, but it's important to remember that there were just as many saints whose wisdom did not take root in their own time, who were persecuted and swept away.
Why is it important to remember these stories?
They enrich our spirituality, they enlarge our moral vocabulary, they open our imaginations to new possibilities today. What stifles the gospel and the truth is the notion that there are only a limited number of options, only limited ways of being faithful and that they have all been worked out: You can do this, that, or the other thing.
I wanted to break open the way we tend to think about saints as falling into just a few categories: You've got your virgins, your martyrs, your confessors, your bishops, your founders of religious orders, your apostles, etc. But there have been-and continue to be-a lot more varieties of holiness than that.
Sometimes these new ways are handed to us, sometimes we have to invent them. Many saints invented their own way, cleared a new path. Those trailblazers are the people who interest me.
What are some of the trails these people blazed?
Some of them in 19th-century Europe found new paths despite the then-emerging trend in the church of trying to impose uniformity. It was at this time that the idea gained prominence that the church needed to speak with one language, one authority, one official theology, one canon law, and so on.
People like Cardinal John Henry Newman in England or John Lord Acton-who was so offended by the claims of temporal power of the Vatican-felt this new absolutism was a great millstone around the church. Henri Dominique Lacordaire, who refounded the Dominicans in Paris, would be another. He tried to bring about a greater openness of the church to some of the positive spirit of the French Revolution.
Those people paved the way for theologians of our own time like Karl Rahner or Yves Congar. Many of these creative and innovative thinkers were silenced at one time or another or were considered suspect because they didn't just accept the narrow band of the given but explored new ways.
But there have also been individuals who heard forgotten notes of the gospel and tried to apply them to their time.
For example, the gospel has a lot to say about peace, and there's a tradition that runs through the church from the early martyrs and confessors-who saw the incompatibility between serving in the Roman army and confessing Christ-to Saint Francis of Assisi and people like Erasmus, and then up to peacemakers of our time. Even when that note of the gospel of peace seemed otherwise totally forgotten, there were people in all times who heard it.
In your book you recount the fascinating story of Ben Salmon.
Ben Salmon was a Catholic layman from Denver who during World War I was the only Catholic who refused to serve in the army as a conscientious objector based on his Catholic faith and principles. He was arrested and sentenced to death, as many of the conscientious objectors were in those days. Later this was commuted to 25 years in prison, where he lived on bread and water and did chain-gang work. When he refused to work, he was put in solitary confinement in a windowless, vermin-infested little hole above the prison sewer.
His imprisonment continued after the end of the war, and eventually he went on a hunger strike. The prison authorities resorted to forcing a tube down his stomach, pouring milk into it. For months he lived on nothing but milk, growing steadily weaker, until they eventually transferred him to a hospital for the insane and released him in 1920.
Salmon was vilified in the local press, which called him a coward and a slacker. He had no support from the church, which at this time considered it impossible for a Catholic to be a conscientious objector. The church taught the just-war doctrine, and after all what could be a more just war than "the war to end all wars"? There were priests who even refused to give him the sacraments because they said he was a heretic.
At one point, Salmon, armed with nothing but the Bible and the Catholic Encyclopedia and weakened by his hunger strike, sat down to write a 200-page manuscript in which he laid out his critique of the just-war teaching. The just-war theory, he argued decades before anyone in the mainstream of the church was saying this, could no longer be applied consistently in the era of modern warfare. But ultimately, he said, whatever one said about the just war, he could see no way to reconcile killing with the gospel command to love one's enemies-it was as easy as that.
Salmon was somebody who, all alone in his time, rediscovered an important message of the gospel that had been widely neglected and abandoned. And until the recent publication of a book about him, his story had been almost totally forgotten, even within the Catholic peace movement.
We tend to think that maybe all has been said or done, but there continue to be new ways to rediscover the truth and challenge of the gospel. Another recent example is the women's movement, which sensitized us to questions about gender and the status of women in the gospels. Now, suddenly, hundreds of books have been generated that have rediscovered what has been plainly in front of us but that we couldn't hear because of our cultural, ideological, or theological blinders.
Are there people who didn't make it into your book whom you would have liked to include?
Actually, right up to the end I was discovering new people and substituting stories from my manuscript. At the last minute, I included Henri Nouwen and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who had recently died. And since the book has come out, more people have died whom I would have liked to include.
One of them is Viktor Frankl. He was a survivor of the Holocaust who wrote the extraordinary book Man's Search for Meaning. Another one is Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which had a great influence on liberation theology. Then there is Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the Guatemalan bishop who was killed after he had released a report on human-rights abuses.
But inevitably, there were regrettable omissions. I would have liked to include Michelangelo, for example, and I feel some regret about not having included Malcolm X.
Why Malcolm X?
I think he was an extremely important prophet and religious figure of our time, and he also would have been a good representative from the Muslim tradition. I did not set out to write an all-encompassing "World Book of Saints," but I did want to include people who have had an impact on the Christian tradition in the way someone like Gandhi has or Jewish figures like Martin Buber or Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I would certainly put Malcolm X in that category.
Malcolm X was one of the great masters of suspicion, like Marx or Freud, who raised a challenging question: To what extent has Christianity really been "good news" for black people historically? The black-consciousness perspective that he introduced, along with the ethic and spirituality of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been very influential in black theology.
And Malcolm X's conversion story itself is so extraordinary and inspiring. In a situation of hopelessness, in prison, he rediscovered his identity, his pride, his purpose, and his religious faith. And he kept on changing and growing, moving to a more universalistic perspective so that toward the end of his life he was emphasizing not so much a kind of separatist nationalism, but a solidarity with all peoples struggling for justice and social change.
Conversion experiences have always been a staple of many saint stories. Is there a common thread?
I think it is interesting that in many of these stories there is a conversion not simply from unbelief but from a feeling of meaninglessness or lack of focus to a life of faith. There are, of course, the dramatic sinner-to-saint kinds of stories of Saint Augustine and others. But there are also many stories of a more continuous turning toward God, a work in progress.
In The Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton tells the story of how he became a Catholic and then later a Trappist monk. When you read that book it seems that at the end this story is finished, that he has arrived and has found what for him is the center of the universe-Gethsemani Abbey. But it's much more interesting to look at his life as it unfolded from that point on. That story was not finished; it continued to evolve right up until his accidental death in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was exploring his deep interest in Eastern spirituality.
There is a famous moment Merton describes in his journals. He had been in the monastery for some years, and he had begun to look at the world in this traditional pious dualism of the secular world on the one hand and the religious-the "real" world-on the other. He had come to view the monastery as an escape from the disdainful world, the still-point in this turning world.
So one day he was on some kind of errand in Louisville, Kentucky when-at the intersection of Fourth and Walnut Streets-he looked around and suddenly all of this phony dualism fell apart. He suddenly realized that all these people he had previously disdained as having one foot in hell were his brothers and sisters.
From then on, there was no more "us" and "them" for Merton, no religious world versus the secular world, there was just one graced world. He writes, "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the s . . . There are no strangers! . . . The gate of heaven is everywhere."
Some of us may have these Road-to-Damascus kinds of experiences such as when Saint Francis kissed the leper. On the other hand, Dorothy Day once said, "I've kissed a leper many times, but I can't say I'm any better for it."
For all of us, sanctification is about putting off the old man or woman and putting on Christ, and that is something that occupies our whole lives. It's not ever finished, and it's to that that we're being called.
You can't break it down into "seven steps to holiness." There are saints whose lives were more or less fruitful, and there are others who were totally anonymous and known only to God. But in each case the important thing is what they were being called to and not where they got to. Our assignment is to be faithful for our entire lives; we don't get special credit for finishing early.
What did you find in people like Oskar Schindler?
One of my aims is to expand our concept of holiness, to escape the idea that God speaks to us only through "perfect" people. I like Schindler's story because he is an example to me that holiness is about something quite different from just being a "good person" in the conventional sense. During the Nazi era, many of the people who killed Jews were good, nice, religious people who followed the rules and went to church.
Oskar Schindler was definitely not an attractive or a good person in that sense. He was a member of the Nazi party, he was a flagrant adulterer, he liked to drink and gamble, and, worst of all, he was a profiteer who operated a factory with Jewish slave labor from the ghetto in Kraków, Poland.
And yet at some point-and why Schindler did this, no one really knows-his business turned from making money to saving lives. Ultimately, that became his only business, even to the point that he spent his entire savings paying for the maintenance of the factory and the upkeep of his workers until by the end of the war he was totally penniless. He did this at an enormous risk to himself; for if it had become known what he was doing, he would have gone to the ovens of Auschwitz himself.
The Holocaust is often cited as representing the mystery of evil and iniquity, but the surprising story of someone like Schindler also represents the mystery of virtue, of goodness.
Schindler is an unconventional figure and a very unlikely hero, and yet his actions constitute a small circle of light in that dark era. How important it is for those kinds of stories to be told and repeated! Our community in its best potential is constituted by the shared memory we maintain.
Ultimately, that's also what the Litany of the Saints is all about, when we invoke that whole cloud of witnesses. But to the extent that saints become mere names or figures in stained-glass windows our memory dries up and so does the creativity of our faith.
Did you find your own faith enriched by your studying and writing about saints?
It would be nice to think that it makes you more holy to write about the saints! But I can say that whatever I know about the Christian life has come in dialogue with the people whose stories I have collected here.
I also discovered how important an encounter with a saint or the reading of a book about saints was for the formation or conversion of another saint. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was converted after reading a book about the saints.
In his Confessions, Saint Augustine describes the impact of his discovery of the life of Saint Anthony, the desert father, who had lived only 30 years or so before him. Here-in what seemed like the "modern age" of the fifth century, far removed from the times of the Bible-was a relative contemporary who had heard the call of the gospel. That made a big impression on Augustine and helped him to complete his own conversion.
Holy lives and deeds often have a chain reaction, a ripple effect. I've even seen that happen in my own family. When I was growing up, my father, Daniel Ellsberg, became famous for releasing to the press the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War. I was 15 when my father was arrested and charged with treason and espionage.
As a high-ranking government official with top-secret clearance, he was one of the few people who had read these papers and understood the levels of deceit and lies that underlay them. And after having been in Vietnam for two years, he had come to the conclusion that the war was a terrible crime, which he was determined to oppose. But it was the example of young draft resisters-19- and 20-year-old young men who did not know all that he knew and yet had been able to see that there was something terribly wrong and were willing to go to prison for their conviction-who moved him to more costly resistance.
My father asked himself what he could do if he, too, were prepared to go to prison over his beliefs on Vietnam. And he realized the answer was sitting right there, locked up in his safe, 7,000 pages of top-secret documents. He didn't expect that releasing these papers would end the war by itself. It was simply what was available to him, a step he could take. Perhaps others, in turn, have been inspired by his example to take their own steps.
My father and I have had many wonderful discussions about the stories in my book. He is particularly intrigued with the idea of the hero or the saint not being a perfect person. He likes the notion that there are people in the book who are morally complex and more complicated-as we all are. That ambiguity is something some of the more traditional saint books tend to filter out.
It seems that many of the saint stories were sanitized in this way and then were used for taming children, for telling them how to be "good."
Yes, but these men and women saints usually were not at all "good children." Take someone like Saint Francis of Assisi who embezzled money from his father's business to give to the poor.
Today that may sound very edifying, but you have to have some sympathy with what his father must have been going through. He has lavished every kind of luxury on his son and has brought him up; and the son has survived the war and is just getting ready to take over the family business. What's wrong with this kid?
So his father drags him to see the bishop and says, "My son has humiliated me, he's stealing from me." And the bishop asks, "What do you have to say to defend yourself?" So what does this kid do? He takes off his clothes, gives them back to his father, and says, "From now on I have only one father in heaven." For a father, that would cut pretty deep.
We may think that parents must have been so proud of their sainted children to see them being so holy. But many of the parents must have just felt sick that their kids were acting in this rebellious way, "throwing away their lives," and becoming the scandal of the town.
What do you think about the official canonization process?
In the early days, saints were declared by acclamation. The local church would recognize a saint who was in their midst. The original proof of sanctity was martyrdom, and the whole cult of the saints came out of the cult of the martyrs. The idea was that the martyrs had offered a perfect witness to the gospel by laying down their lives for it. Even if they had never done anything else that was heroic or saintly, their martyrdom was a sure sign that they were now in the presence of God.
In time, the stress on martyrdom gave way to a broader appreciation of those who offered an exceptional witness of prayer, asceticism, and charity. But eventually, the emphasis shifted away from the story of the life of the saint to his or her presumed sacred power. So over time we came to the point where people knew much more about the miraculous blessings a saint had posthumously bestowed upon the faithful than they could tell you about what the saints actually did during their lifetimes.
The official process of canonization, which was taken over by the Vatican in the Middle Ages, was a way to regularize the process and to restrain the enthusiasm of people who might just automatically proclaim that some good person in their midst was a saint. Rules and procedures were put in place to make sure that we know as much as possible about this person and what they did and to make sure that they were really orthodox and that there was a reputation for holiness that endured for some time. So the intent was to not just yield to the enthusiasm of the moment.
Eventually the emphasis on miracles as a part of the certification process became very important. Miracles came to be seen as proof that the person was in heaven. But over time this emphasis had the effect of making the saints appear more and more otherworldly, of filtering out any of their flaws and ambiguities. This also led to the imposition of certain stereotypical standards or patterns of sanctity-as if we could ascertain that a person is a saint by checking off heroic virtue, heroic faith, heroic charity, heroic orthodoxy.
Again this reinforces the notion that saints really are completely different from the rest of us because they are perfect in every one of these respects. The emphasis on the miraculous also contributes to the "otherness" of saints and makes people today question their relevance.
I am not saying that we should disavow respect for or not be open to the miraculous, but when people almost universally acclaimed the holiness of Mother Teresa when she died last year, they really weren't looking to whether she ever performed any miracles. Maybe some day legends will be told about the miracles she performed in her life. But people are hungry not so much for saints who mediate divine favors, but for saints who somehow mediate the face of God to us through divine charity, truth, courage, and faith. We hunger for saints who can stir us to believe-just as Saint Augustine found with Saint Anthony-that, yes, God is working through people in our own time.
Pope John Paul II has canonized and beatified far more people than any other pope in history. Is that a good thing?
There is always the danger that by flooding the market with saints you will debase the currency, so to speak. How much do we really know about most of these recent saints? Does an increase in the sheer number of saints inspire greater veneration, or does it become a kind of spiritual inflation? There are no simple answers to these questions.
The pope is very interested in holding up local examples of sanctity that affirm the dignity of local churches. In the countries he has visited he has encouraged people to recognize that holiness is expressed in our culture, in our race, and in our time as well, and I think that's a very positive thing.
He has also streamlined the process of canonization so that it makes it more likely that someone like a Dorothy Day will be canonized. Instead of starting with some abstract definition of holiness, now the process starts with the needs of our time and how this person responded to these needs. What was the kind of holiness that was expressed in that life, and what are the gifts of that life?
On the other hand, we still tend to be presented with a fairly stereotypical range of saints, strong as always on founders of religious communities, short on laypeople, and short as always on the prophetic figures who make church authorities uncomfortable.
How can we reclaim our connection with the saints and their stories and convey to young people that these people who went before us have some really exciting and inspiring stories to tell?
I feel there is no more important task. In our homes and schools and parishes we really need to enter into discussions with our children about who inspires them. When you ask children today, "Who are your heroes?" they will name Michael Jordan or Bill Gates, Madonna or the Spice Girls-like my daughters who can go on arguing about the comparative advantages of Posh Spice versus Scary Spice. But who can blame them if they haven't been exposed to these other heroes?
We are very much formed by what we admire, and so it's very important that we are offered examples that are really worthy of our admiration. That is particularly important for young people because they grow by imitation when they decide they'd like to be like this or wish they could be like that person.
The kinds of examples that they are offered in today's culture-through MTV and other media$#151;tend to celebrate values that are so different from those of the Beatitudes. But, as with Saint Ignatius, when you learn some of these stories, when you hear the heroism of some of these people, it can ignite all kinds of possibilities in you.
Young people, Dorothy Day liked to say, have an instinct for the heroic, and I certainly identified with that in my youth. From a very early age kids are repulsed by phoniness. But they are also capable of responding without cynicism to a person whom they see as "the real thing." We need to cultivate that.