The Secular Saint


Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Arthur Plotnik, a former student of Roth's at the Iowa Writer's Fiction Workshop, tapped into some of those deeper issues in a piece he wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. Arthur Plotnik felt shocked when he first heard the news that Roth was retiring. “I can't help feeling,” Plotnik wrote, “as if the Master — the patron saint of fiction for two generations — has let me down.” Plotnik further recalls how Roth would tell his students that he “imagined fiction to be something like a religious calling, and literature a kind of sacrament.”

I don't think this religious language should be taken lightly. Calling Roth a saint is not exactly a metaphor here — it is something deeper than a metaphor. We have to think about what a saint actually does, what role a saint performs. A saint is a person set apart for their holiness. The saint is still a human being, of course, still a sinner. There is a famous quote by Fr. Bernard Carges that says: “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” But the seriousness of that trying, the relentlessness of that trying, marks the saint as beyond a normal human being. The saint thus becomes a model for everyone else struggling to make difficult choices, to behave well when there are so many motivations for behaving less-than-well. But it is even more complicated than that. It was always acknowledged, from the time of the early Christian saints, that the vast majority of human beings would never achieve a saintly level of holiness. So the saint is both a model and an impossible standard. The fact that the saint takes on the task of living life at a higher and unachievable level adds meaning to the lives of everyone else. For many centuries, human beings seem to have enjoyed stories of the saints as a way to acknowledge their own limits. People have been glad that saints exist and simultaneously glad that they do not have to be saints. There is a tension in those two feelings but not, I think, a contradiction. Confronting a saint is like confronting a better version of yourself, a version that you know you cannot ever become. The confrontation creates feelings of inspiration, then frustration, and then acceptance. Or so it was for many centuries of Western Civilization.

Then, to condense much history into one phrase, secularization happened. Saints didn't go away. The Catholic Church is canonizing people to this day. Mother Theresa lived and died and is well on her way to sainthood. Nevertheless, saints are less important than they once were. They have lost their mainstream social role. And yet, the world still holds a spot in its heart, a saint spot.