Sainthood and the Moral Horizon
Popular culture disdains the saint because of what he represents: the complete lack of “moral allowance”. They cannot do wrong. They are not tempted to tear out the tire of that one person you despise, or scan through the Internet actively looking for source of temptation—and in our world, entertainment. They become a distant, alien thing, distant and seen only barely in our moral horizon…
There is an old movie that starred Robert de Niro and Sean Penn entitled “We’re No Angels”. It involved two escaped convicts on the run and forced to play the “pained” role of priests. The humor revolves around the hijinks of two “men of the world” forced to take on the role of figures that seem alien or foreign to their understanding.
In a similar vein, there is the clichéd phrase of “I’m [we’re] no saint(s)”. The person who utters the line says it when confronted with something that would have been morally reprehensible. We cheer or break into a grin when we hear Ash of Army of Darkness say “I’m not that good” promptly after blowing the face of his villainous counterpart. Sainthood—and holiness, in consequence—is so alien to the popular imagination that it is treated with disgust, distance, indifference or violent opposition. It is often equated with hypocrisy. And we cheer the man that is the complete opposite of what we imagine as a “saint”.
In the popular view, a saint is a pious, devoted person who offers everything up for the sake of the greater good. In this vein, he is often intermixed with the martyr, who manifests this piety with an expression of sacrifice. A saint, however, may “endure” the rest of his life in prayer and good works without being given the opportunity of the martyr’s sacrifice. Popular culture disdains the saint because of what he represents: the complete lack of “moral allowance”. They cannot do wrong. They are not tempted to tear out the tire of that one person you despise, or scan through the Internet actively looking for source of temptation—and in our world, entertainment. They become a distant, alien thing, distant and seen only barely in our moral horizon.
And because the piety of the saint is unattainable, we make it an excuse to not do an effort at all. Why should one strive to constrain ourselves, limit our “moral allowance”, and actively give up the things that the world offers? Why should we do anything at all? We see our lives—its daily routines, habits and activities—as inherently good. Living without doing harm—or not doing evil or the negation of sin—becomes an act of good. Sometimes, we go so far as saying merely living is an act of good. We’ve turned the laws of inertia in on its head. It is implied—maybe not in thought but in action—that we actually expect to be rewarded or saved without any work on our part. Worse, sometimes the thought crosses our mind that “we’d be going to Hell”—but the sin is so good that it would be “worth forever”.
Sainthood should not be a deterrent, but a goal. Many will not become as pure, and as holy as a saint, but we can apply the axiom of “it’s the journey, not the destination” here. We at least have to make an effort to be better. We should not sit on our asses waiting till our salvation becomes complete. “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”, as a Bible passage explains, “for it is God who works in you”. And doing the minimal effort is not enough—a toddler does not live the rest of his life crawling, but progresses to walking and then running. Similarly, a few prayers and the “token charity” should become an active willingness to study doctrine—our manual for morality—whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. And then we live that doctrine. Sure, the saint is like the marathon runner or sprinter–but we can run, can’t we?
We cannot expect to be accepted into salvation by just lifting our little finger—when God Himself is reaching down his whole Being to lift us up.