Introduction to Saints

Book Review

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Coyle, Sheila and Ely, Dina (compiler) - Introduction to the Saints - Suite101, 2004

The late Pope John Paul II beatified and sanctified more people than all his predecessors in the previous five centuries combined. Saints offer tailor-made succor and intervene  in difficult circumstances under their "jurisdiction". But whether one is a believer or not (and I am emphatically not), the lives of saints make good, riveting stories. Hagiography - the tales and histories of saints and sainthood - is one of the oldest literary genres. Coyle's contributions to it are vivacious and compelling.

This slender tome contains the narratives of the lives and deeds of 23 saints all over the world- from St. Philomena to St. Anne. The author does not lapse into devout zeal and fanaticism. She never loses sight of the essential humanity of her divine subjects - and of their adversaries and torturers. With gentle humor and compassion, she makes us see the light: saints are people dedicated to their own version of the truth. They derive fortitude (and frequent divine assistance) from their certitude and rectitude. They persevere because they firmly believe and, in a virtuous cycle, their very survival against all odds and agonies buttresses their faith.

There is something disarmingly naive about the contention that the lives of saints are micromanaged and guided by God as part of  Divine Plan. It appeals to the child in us who seeks reassurance in a seemingly chaotic, indifferent, and unjust universe. In this sense, hagiography is a form of folklore, an anthology of morality plays, an assemblage of fables, and a kind of mass therapy. It introduces an organizing principle to dispel the darkness and the fears that besiege us. We are enchanted and bewitched and led into a land of eternal light and benevolence (even if these are usually discernible only with the benefit of hindsight).

But, to me, the most interesting revelation afforded by this booklet was the fact that few saints realized that they are saints. The typical saint simply went on doing his or her thing, rather compulsively and doggedly, ignoring his or her own welfare and sometimes resenting this sacrifice. Sainthood is not an acquired trait, it would seem, but a constitutional, all-pervasive pattern and a state of mind. Sainthood is conferred by the Vatican bureaucracy in an incredibly opaque but time-tested process. Most saints do, indeed, work miracles, claim the awed believers.

Every religion and ideology, no matter how secular, have their gallery of saints. These are ostensibly selfless people whose lives reified the concepts of altruism and self-sacrifice and whose conduct benefited their community greatly even as it harmed the saints themselves, sometimes fatally. We, lesser mortals, need such elevated figures to restore our trust in human nature and in the ultimate triumph of reason and good over the arbitrary and evil.

Moreover, saints - as opposed to angels - are fully human, inadequacies, vulnerabilities, weaknesses, doubts, vices, warts, and all. It is easy to identify with them because they are very much like us. They constitute a bridge between the mortal and the immortal, one foot firmly printed on either side of the divide. Coyle writes:

"... (T)here is one thing that is the same for all the saints, and that is their strength made from weakness, the great things that happened to them the result of struggles and the practice of virtue in their ordinary lives."

It is an open question how would modern psychology classify saintly conduct (probably as a form of mental illness). Some saints are hopelessly delusional, others narcissistic, all are compulsive, and many are reckless. But in this colorless, uniform, bureaucracy-laden, stifled world of ours, one cannot but regret that there aren't more of them around.

Averse as I am to religion and all things religious, I still greatly enjoyed this book. If nothing else, it is great entertainment. To true believers, it is an enchanting mini-cyclopedia of people dedicated to their calling and to others. Recommended.

Also Read:

"Morals for the 21st Century" - Book Review

Morality as a Mental State

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Affiliation and Morality

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On Empathy

The Happiness of Others

The Egoistic Friend

Ethical Relativism and Absolute Taboos

Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice

The Murder of Oneself

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The Argument for Torture

The Myth of the Right to Life

Euthanasia and the Right to Die

The Aborted Contract

In Our Own Image - The Debate about Cloning

Eugenics and the Future of the Human Species

The Rights of Animals

The Impeachment of The President

Surpassing Man - An Epistolary Dialogue

Atheism in a Post-religious World - Book Review

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