Tuesday, October 26, 2010

21 Icons of Mystery

I’m trying to write short stories featuring the Saints as part of a new project that I’m working on that pairs fictional vignettes with spiritual exercises, wrapped up in the slightly dark, solitary aesthetic that used to be so popular in Medieval Christianity, but which has fallen by the wayside in recent years. It’s a somewhat daunting task, because I’m horribly scrupulous and apprehensive. Generally, when I write fiction I stick to the “speculative” genres: mostly fantasy and horror. In those genres, you get to make up your own world, which follows rules that you establish yourself, and you don’t ever have to be afraid about getting in “right” -- except in so far as it has to ring true and follow the inspiration.
Writing with Saints is a different matter, because there’s some sense in which I’m always worried that I’m maligning them by making the portrayals insufficiently rich, unique, beautiful, etc. It’s also a difficult task in general: most of the time, when people try to insert Mary, or the Saints, or Jesus into fiction it comes out horribly maudlin, sappy, sentimental, trite, and flat. It is, however, possible to do it well. Probably the best examples that I know of are Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony, and his short story, “Julian the Hospitator.” Bulgakov’s Master and Marguerita is interesting because it provides, simultaneously, one of literature’s best portrayals of Pontius Pilate, and one of it’s weakest and most banal images of Christ (probably this was at least in part necessitated by the desire to be publishable in the Soviet Union.) Dostoyevski’s “Grand Inquisitor,” from the Brother’s Karamazov, is the best literary depiction of Christ that I know of, though he pulls it off largely by having Christ remain silent while the Grand Inquisitor rants.
Anyway, that’s the task. Prayers are appreciated. I could also use leads on good female Saints to include the project. What I’m looking for are women with interesting lives that will provide good fodder for the imaginative mill. They should be Saints that aren’t already well-known to most Catholics. Ideally there should be some good source material available in English, though older Saints whose lives have been almost entirely reduced to legend can work as well. Seven spots remain.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey

I’ve recently moved from the city to the country – about two and a half weeks ago, I think. The expectations that one has moving into a new home are interesting; my real estate agent noted, wisely I think, that when people buy a new house they’re not really looking for a house, but for peace. And you really do feel that way on some level: you will move, and you will have a new life, and somehow all of the difficulties of the past will evaporate like frost in the morning.

Naturally, intellectually you know that this isn’t true, but on some deep archetypal level, the feeling remains. It is, I think, a pointer towards the desire for heaven. The Jewish people, when they were wandering around Sinai searching for the promised land, seemed to have that sort of experience. It was going to be a land flowing with milk and honey, where they would live in peace with their children, blessed by God, a people no longer homeless and enslaved.

Of course the actual promised land was a land teeming with Canaanites and other undesirables. No sooner had they taken possession than they were plunged into an endless series of wars, conquests, persecutions. When things went well, they became bloated and proud and turned away from God, which in turn occasioned more chastisements, more wars, more conquests...

Yet the image of the promised land remains compelling. No one, except perhaps for the extremely dry and cynical atheist, reads the accounts of the pilgrim people in search of a home and thinks, “Yeah, sure. Milk and honey. Just you wait and see, bubba...” There is some level on which we can all sympathize, on which we know that yes, the land will not actually be a perpetual stream of uninterrupted earthly joy, but it is still worth hoping for on those terms. The unfulfillable promise is not actually a lie, it’s just a sign of a higher reality.

Besides which, there is usually a certain amount of milk and honey to go with the Canaanites. My new farm has not caused my children to cease from fighting amongst one another or sulking disgracefully when they lose at games. It has not rid my husband of his choleric temperament, or me of my melancholic one. Rain occasionally falls, and I worry about money, and feel insecure about my writing, and all of the usual trials. Yet out my window, there are trees stretching as far as I can see, and down around the corner and I can go and sit by a pond framed with a blazing fringe of autumn sumac. Flocks of birds descend to sing in the branches of the massive pine in my front pasture, and even on rainy days, there is more light pouring in through my windows than there ever was on a clear day in Toronto.

Not heaven, obviously, but I’m still happy to give it a nine out of ten on the milk and honey scale.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lunatics in Heaven

One of my favorite Saints is a little known woman named Christina the Astonishing. She was a mystic schizophrenic who flew up into the rafters during her own funeral, then ran around hiding in bizarre places in order to escape from the smell of human sin. She tends to get dismissed as a madwoman.

I like her because she broadens the definition of a Saint. The purpose of canonization is not to present the faithful with a small group of uniformly pious, bland, safe personalities in order that we may all become cookie-cutter images of saccharine devotion. There are madmen and women singing the perpetual Holy Holy Holy before the throne of God. It would be totally unrealistic, not to mention unfair, if there weren’t. The canonization of a crazy person doesn’t suggest that in order to become holy, we ought to be crazy – and I don’t think that anyone reading St. Christina’s life is likely to be inspired to climb into ovens to escape the stink of human corruption. It’s clear that the woman is totally insane; what she offers is not an image of piety that the ordinary, sane Catholic can imitate, but an image of sanctity that expands and demolishes our prejudices.

There is a widespread tendency for Catholics, and all Christians really, to believe that sanctity and sanity are somehow co-extensive. You can have any sort of physical ailment in the world and still be a Saint – it is simply considered a legitimate cross. Mental illness is a different matter. Amongst the ultra-conservative, it is liable to be seen as a manifestation of demonic possession, or at least interference, whilst the liberal are more likely to take a kindly, but ultimately condescending view of persons with mental illness, as poor, suffering souls who ought to be treated with compassion and led up the ladder to the higher levels of self-integration and fulfillment.

The truth is, a lot of Saints suffered mentally as well as physically. Some were crippled with anxieties. Others were plagued with a guilt that was more pathological than theological. Some suffered from severe sexual hang-ups. Some were obviously obsessive compulsive. But so what? Heaven is not the in-club for the high-fliers on Maslow’s pyramid. It’s a place where the crippled, the lame, the leprous, the crucified, the tormented and the mad are lifted up, their sufferings redeemed, and their earthly trials transformed into a sublime and inconceivable beauty.

St. Christina the Astonishing, pray for us.