Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Saints: Virtues not Scripts

I came across an article today about efforts by Catholics to provide appropriate care and support for women in abusive marriages. The piece is good on that topic, and as is often the case what I want to write about is a somewhat tangential topic which struck me. A woman talking about how a priest offered her help in getting away from a husband who had recently expressed his rage by roaming the house with a loaded gun while threatening to kill himself and perhaps others, said of the response her priest had:
“He had no hesitation, and I didn’t get St. Monica’d,” Jessica said. (Her name and the names of others who have shared accounts with America by phone interview or email have been changed to protect them.)

“Getting St. Monica’d” or “St. Rita’d” is shorthand for a common, blithely pious response to abuse from many Catholics: Be more like these holy women! They patiently endured abuse from their husbands, and they were saints!
I'm a little floored that someone would have that response to someone in a clearly dangerous situation, and it strikes me that it represents a misunderstanding of how we should relate to the lives of the saints.

When Theresa of Avila was a child, she ran away from home hoping to be martyred by the Moors -- something which was at least plausible in the 1500s. This childish impulse shows us what I think is the wrong way to emulate the saints. The point of having so many and varied examples of holiness to pray for us and provide us with examples is not to pick one to seems applicable and to slavishly follow their life story as if following a script. If the Moors capture you and demand you renounce the faith, you should refuse and suffer what may.  But that doesn't mean that you should seek out Moors as the only path to holiness.  Rather, the saints are examples of people who showed heroic virtue in particular circumstances. Following the saints in virtue does not necessarily mean reproducing their circumstances or their reactions to them.

Thus, for instance, St. Francis is revered for his willingness to renounce the goods of this world and pursue the mission of the Church, but that doesn't mean that everyone who deals with a parent who desires a more worldly career for him should act as Francis did and strip naked in front of a public gathering in order to hand his clothes over to his father and express complete independence.

Similarly, while St. Rita may have shown great virtue in a particular circumstance where she was forcibly married off at twelve and was trapped with a physically abusive husband, that does not mean that abused wives who have the ability to leave for the protection of themselves and their children should not do so. (Nor does it mean that we should accept girls being married off at twelve, but I trust no one is advocating that.)

What we should copy from the saints is their love for God and for others. The specific ways they expressed that love may or may not be appropriate for imitation in any given circumstance.


Devra Torres said...

SUCH an important point! I think it often happens that good, holy people who don't believe they have it in them to figure out their own path to sanctity pick a saint they admire and figure: I'll just do it this way--can't go wrong--after all, he turned out to be a saint! And they not only may thrust themselves into unnecessary hardship that God is not asking them to endure, but they also miss out on the whole adventure of figuring out who THEY"RE supposed to be--the "best version of themselves."

Dorian Speed said...

Excellent post! Trying to follow the life of a saint as a script strikes me as only marginally better than checking around to see what your peers are doing in pursuit of holiness. Possibly helpful, but more often just a "make work" exercise instead of focusing on Christ himself.