Every major culture known to us has honored persons held to be sacred. Some of these people are wonder-workers, who have supernatural powers—seers and sacred healers. Some have liberating exemptions—they seem less dependent on their bodies or on physical comfort than the rest of us are. The most spectacular exemption is demonstrated by martyrs—they escape the need to live. This awes those less willing to sacrifice themselves for some value beyond life itself. William James observed the phenomenon:
No matter what a man’s frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever. Inferior to ourselves in this way or that, if yet we cling to life, and he is able “to fling it away like a flower,” as caring nothing for it, we account him in the deepest way our born superior. Each of us in his own person feels that a high-hearted indifference to life would expiate all his shortcomings.
Not even martyrdom is enough of itself to make the slain hero a leader. Some martyrs were not leaders before they died for their beliefs. Their posthumous influence does not create followership, though admiration may cause emulation. Other people may lead lives that are slow martyrdoms—“witnessings,” as the word means in Greek—by devotion to a cause beyond most worldly cares. They; too, are not necessarily leaders. The Catholic church may canonize reclusive saints, giving them an influence on the believers who pray to them. But the cultist who wears a hairshirt in honor of Saint Thomas More is, in terms of mere psychological mechanics, like the fan who refuses to wear an undershirt because Clark Gable wore none in the movie It Happened One Night. Some saints can be “holy” without having any earthly influence recognized outside the circle of such admirers. As William James said of Teresa of Avila:
In the main her idea of religion seems to have been that of an endless amatory flirtation—if one may say so without irreverence—between the devotee and the deity; and apart from helping younger nuns to go in this direction by the inspiration of her example and instruction, there is absolutely no human use in her, or sign of any general human interest.
This is what many people think of as “the saint,” holy perhaps, as idiots are in some cultures, but of little use as a leader in the rougher world of human needs.
Yet there are other saints who do earthly work as well as bear heavenly witness. They usually put the heavenly witness first in their own minds; but the world honors them for services performed here below. To continue quoting James:
When we are in need of assistance, we can count upon the saint lending his hand with more certainty than we can count upon any other person.
One does not have to be …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.