Saturday, February 27, 2016

On "normal" saints: I'm going to need a bigger tweet

Recently on Twitter, a complaint was raised that saints like Elisabeth Leseur get promoted as normal, relatable people despite having social privileges that the targets of this promotion lack.[1] The response was made that holy men and women are never "normal" -- because their holiness makes them unusual, and their lives are always going to be distinctive as a result. This is an interesting discussion to me, and as you can tell, I already have too much to say to be able to say it on Twitter, not least because I think there are some important distinctions that need to be drawn -- so here we are.

So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about "normal"? We have to make a distinction between the spiritual and the historical here. The objection that saints are never spiritually "normal" is exactly right, of course; holy men and women get held up as spiritual role models precisely because they are not normal, and this spiritual excellence often (although I don't think always) puts their lives on a different track than if they weren't so holy.

Historically, though, we can absolutely talk about saints being "normal" -- although it's a fuzzy and, I think, ultimately pretty unhelpful label, although you can't beat it for being popularly accessible I guess. What we're really talking about is how unusual a particular person's background and circumstances were for their time. Is this someone who had a lot of advantages or disadvantages? Were these activities or those choices pretty typical? This is obviously essential to understanding how someone's spiritual life played out in practical terms.

However, the root of the complaint that started all this is in "promotion". Members of the church in all states of life recommend particular saints as role models, and in the modern era there has been a special emphasis on finding "normal" saints who can be relatable to a wide variety of "normal" people. It's at least a post-Victorian thing [2] but John Paul II's unprecedented burst of canonizations was meant to strengthen the saints as agents of teaching and evangelization precisely by increasing their diversity. Eagerness to find a saint for every demographic is part of what gets Elisabeth Leseur a spot in the saint rolodex even though she's not quite there yet.[3]

So at last we come down to the nut of the question: is it classist to suggest that Leseur is a good role model for wives struggling in a marriage to a difficult and irreligious man? Leseur was a wealthy woman at the head of an affluent upper middle class household in 19th century France. Her life was worlds away from what is the average in North American and Western Europe today. I don't know much about her, but I would assume that her job was primarily to direct and manage servants, and to ensure that she and her husband maintained their social status. She certainly didn't have to worry about a career and as far as I know she didn't have to worry about money.

Suggesting that Leseur is relatable for 21st century women can feel, from this perspective, a little bit GOOP-y. However, I would push back against the inclination to dismiss her as an unrealistic, impossibly privileged role model. For one thing, it's undeniable that women do find inspiration and role models in women like Martha Stewart, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a whole host of impeccably curated instagram/pinterest/reality tv stars. Yes, these figures can inspire feelings of shame and inadequacy, but I don't think we can say that's all they inspire, and women so reliably flock to such figures that it's just not true to say they aren't relatable. They clearly are on some level, if only in the realm of fantasy and aspiration. In that sense, Leseur's material circumstances can't be an absolute barrier to being perceived as "normal" and her life story as encouraging.

More importantly, however, Leseur was normal for a woman of her time and social position. The older I get and the longer I spend studying history the more profoundly I am struck by the fact that we all live our lives in a historical context that is totally out of our control. The elements of a holy life are timeless, but we don't live our lives in a vacuum. The options that are available to us -- even to those who are willing to break out of the mold and forge new paths and whatnot -- are limited. Leseur was a married woman who lived a married life that must have looked pretty normal to her contemporaries.  As such I think it's perfectly valid to put her forward as a model for women whose lifestyles wouldn't raise any eyebrows, even though that looks vastly different these days. It's true that none of us are nineteenth-century haute-bourgeoisie [4] but I am tempted to say that's the whole point. She didn't live in a vacuum any more than I do.

If there's a problem, it's less about the desire to find "normal" saints who can help people with the problems in their lives and more about a narrow approach to the saints as historical figures. If we expect "normal" people in the past to look like "normal" people today we're setting ourselves up for failure, or at least fiction. We shouldn't waste time with such an unrealistic expectation. Granted, I would say this, but a good social-historical perspective works wonders. The saints become a million times more interesting and inspiring when we stop trying to set them up as "just like me" dolls and start trying to understand them as people who were called to live in the times they happened to be born in -- which is in fact "just like me" -- and succeeded.

This point also applies if we step from the historical to the spiritual side of things, incidentally. The saints have achieved holiness precisely because they have followed God's call to address the particular weaknesses of their personality and the sins that are especially tempting to them. My particular struggles might not match exactly with a saint but that doesn't mean he or she can't help me; or my triggers to pride might not be exactly like a particular saint's occasions of sin, but his or her struggle with pride can still give me the example I need.

Ultimately I think that while the communion of saints provides us with a wide range of role models (as well as "holy helpers" with the inside fix), the saints also call us to learn solidarity across time and place and difference. Studying the lives of the saints should provide us with moments of insight into our own lives and connection -- think CS Lewis's definition of friendship as a "me too" moment. But it should also open our eyes to the diversity of human life and struggle. And of course, it's precisely through that diversity that God's mysterious unity becomes clear. I'll end this off before I go too far out of my depth, but I'll just note how struck I always am, when you start looking at saints in aggregate, by the way that diversity starts to align around the same simple (!) characteristics. There  isn't anything new under the sun even as the past is a foreign country; and when I get to a paradox I consider I've arrived in the right place.

[1] Leseur is actually a Servant of God, so rather far from being canonized, but she is often held up as a role model, so for the sake of our discussion I think we can elide the distinction. I will come back to this.

[2] One of my favorite books of saints is the 1949 collection edited by Frank Sheed, Saints Are Not Sad; the title is taking aim at the somber plaster statues of the 19th century.

[3] Although given that for centuries the process for canonization was basically popular acclaim I think it's fair to say that Catholics have a venerable tradition of not worrying too much about promoting people before their time.

[4] I look forward to being corrected in the comments.