Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Eamon Duffy on the Saints

I've always found this intriguing (it's from a review of his book, "The Faith of Our Fathers" in the April, 2005 issue of First Things.)
Two essays are about saints, one on changes in Marian piety over the last fifty years and another titled “What Do We Want from the Saints?” In the latter Duffy mounts a critique of the present model of sanctity—the saint as exemplar, a person who embodies some aspect of the Christian ideal. In the past, especially the distant past, the saints were venerated as prodigies, miracle-workers, intercessors, protectors. The more they were unlike the rest of us, the better. They brought the majesty and otherness of God down to earth and allowed ordinary men and women to see and touch the divine. Hence the importance of relics. The body of the saint was the locus of supernatural power.

According to Duffy, the new model of sainthood fosters Pelagianism, “a wearisome emphasis on good deeds and moral effort, the saint as prig and puritan.” In his view the older model is far better, offering us the saint as spiritual tightrope walker, ascetic star, eccentric. This analysis seems plausible in theory, but it ought to be noted that the most popular person to be beatified in recent years is the stigmatic Padre Pio, who was very much an eccentric, an ascetic, and a prodigy. Another popular modern saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, lived a form of renunciation and mortification far beyond the reach of most Christians. Here Duffy seems to have let his ideas get out ahead of the facts.
The photograph has nothing to do with Duffy. It's the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, which is, as one might recall, the Church of St. Mary and all the Martyr Saints.


assiniboine said...

Isn't Eamon Duffy just absolutely splendid? Do you have his "The Stripping of the Altars"? I have had to restrain myself during many a dinner party from expounding with inappropriate expansiveness on his thesis there.

But there are firm reminders from time to time of just how far-removed from ordinary discourse such preoccupations are (one hates to think how difficult it must be for clergy to function socially in the general community when, presumably, such reminders don't come as often to them).

At an office lunch today the subject of religion came up (I immediately entered an urgent mental caveat: "Careful!") and after everyone’s star sign was canvassed (apparently I am a scorpio but I have heard otherwise elsewhere) the head of the firm, an ethnically Italian Catholic, wondered, "Just what does the word 'Christian' mean? I'm Catholic. What's the difference? Is 'Christian' anything like ‘Catholic?’ What about 'Buddhist'? Is it anything like that? But what DOES this word ‘Christian’ mean?" Another RC chimed in, “I’m Catholic too, but Christians I know say I shouldn’t believe in reincarnation, and the thing is, I really like Ganesha so as far as I’m concerned, those Christians’ religion just isn’t for me.” To which the – be it said, RC – IT wonk responded, "Oh no, Catholic is completely different; so is Buddhism. I went to a Christian Brothers school but part way through, the Christian Brothers left and then it became a Catholic school."

To which another responded, “Yeah, we’re Catholic too, and our kids go to a Church of England school but it’s called ‘Lutheran,’ whatever that is. Is that something like Christian? Are they very different?" "Oh yes: there is Catholic, there is Buddhist, there is Muslim, there is Christian...they are all different religions." Ahem ahem. Talk about the need to curb one's tongue! And these are, I urgently stress, well-educated professional people!

To my vast amusement, the Afrikaans-speaking South African lawyer (and, I have to say, a vastly lively and with-it fellow — so I have to assume he was teasing, but see also the wink, below), on being asked, "Erich, what are you? Catholic or Christian?" responded,

"Oh, I'm Dutch Reformed." "And what is that? That's something else completely? Is that anything like Christian? What IS the difference between Catholic and Christian do you know?”

“Oh” said the Boer (actually he really is a literal Boer, coming from a farming background as he does), “It depends on whether they believe in circumcision: I think that some believe in circumcision and some think it’s rather weird. We Dutch Reformed are Christian.” [DEAD SILENCE. ALMOST END OF BONE-HEADED DISCUSSION. Several winks by the Afrikaaner towards the Canadian.]”

“Ummm…we Australians don’t believe in circumcision, Erich: does that mean we’re Christian or Catholic?”

Some fairly basic sermons to be preached, I think, don’t you? These are, as I say, educated, professional people, don’t you know!

Gashwin said...

Oh my sweet lord have mercy! Do you mind asking me how long ago this conversation took place?

Talk about a complete lack of basic catechesis! It's not much better with the generation of college kids I've worked with. At least in the South, no self-respecting Catholic would think of themselves as not-Christian. Too many of their Baptist neighbors lay that line on them!

Most admirable restraint on your part. I would have blown a top ...! :-)

assiniboine said...