Respect & Forgiveness for Flawed but Courageous American “Saints”
One of the more remarkable features of Pope Francis visit to North America was his request that we remember and reflect upon the lives of certain charismatic Americans whom few U.S. citizens would have placed into the same category of greatness: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the newly sainted Junipero Serra. What do these five persons have in common? Why has each of them been either vilified or ignored by certain Americans? And perhaps most importantly, what do these selections tell us about Pope Francis’ own sense of what saintliness is, particularly as it relates to peace, justice and caring for creation?
What first strikes me about all five of these individuals is that they had suffered from deep personal flaws and self-doubts that wounded or haunted them for life; they were not “infallible” saints. At age nine, Abraham Lincoln was kicked by a horse left unconscious for 24 hours; From that point on, he suffered bouts of severe depression for the rest of his life, particularly when he broke off his first engagement to Mary Todd; when he was estranged from his oldest son; and during the Battle of Bull Run. He suffered from malaria, small pox, and possibly from syphilis; he was addicted to little blue pills that were laced with mercury that his wife later confessed had made him emotionally instable. Our greatest American president lived much of his adulthood come to grips with the dark night of the soul; because of that, he was not an easy man to live with or work for.
But who can say how long it would have taken for America to deal with the issues of racism, slavery and economic inequality if it were not for Lincoln’s riveting presence 150 years ago? Where would the U.S. be today without having had to ponder those short but elegant speeches urging Americans to take the higher ground of morality and civility. Who would we be as a people if those words had not have etched into our hearts and minds over the century and a half since they were first penned by Lincoln?
Martin Luther King, Jr—like Nelson Mandela—was a charismatic man whose life was filled with contradictions and flawed by indiscretions that deeply hurt his own family and friends. He often argued with or dismissed the concerns of other African-American civil rights strategists who helped King shape the very same movement to which he had committed his life. His brutal and untimely death forever changed the debate about civil rights in America just as much as his life’s work had done, but it allowed some Americans to sugar-coat his image and dismiss his deepest messages rather than focusing on finishing the important work he had begun. As a result, we have witnessed within the last two years the heartbreaking and terrifying consequences of having left much of his work toward true civil rights undone for the last have century. Witness Ferguson, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York City, Albuquerque, and Nogales. For all his human flaws, where would we be without the powerful voice and awesome moral poetry of Martin Luther King’s speeches reverberating in our heads?
Young Dorothy Day was certainly not a poster child of what are now dubbed Christian family values by the media. While still a young woman, she hung out in Greenwich Village with a rowdy crowd of anarchists and literati, rubbing shoulders with Trotsky and Eugene O’Neill. She became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion. While still an atheist Bohemian, Day was jailed for protesting in front of the White House in 1917 during efforts to secure the right to vote for women; she did not “give in” to the police, but went on a hunger strike after her arrest. But after ten tumultuous years as an angry young woman, she married, had a daughter and became a deep practitioner of the Catholic faith.
Within another five years, she met former French Brother, Peter Maurin, and co-founded the Catholic Worker, numerous settlement houses and soup kitchens. Bureaucrats in the American Catholic church demanded that she drop the word Catholic from her publications and gathering places, as if the church itself had patented the term. Needless to say, she was not amused.
Over the next five decades, she tirelessly endeavored to live the Gospel through living with the poor. Inspired by the courage and example of this one iconoclastic woman, the Catholic Worker movement took root in more than 200 communities in the U.S. and 28 communities abroad. But until she died, she would sneer at anyone who tried to put her on a pedestal, snapping back at them, “Don’t call me a saint.”
Thomas Merton, too, got off to a rough start, losing his mother at an early age, and drifting from one interest to another. He apparently squandered many of his days in college as a party-boy and pretentious poet wanna-be, while drinking, carousing and seducing women. About that time, he fathered a child out of wedlock, a daughter who apparently died in the German air raids on London during World War II. This secret wound no doubt haunted him for the rest of his life.
Enamored by St. Francis of Assisi, he tried to join a Franciscan order, but was rejected by it. He eventually landed among the Trappists of Gethsemani in Kentucky, but was frequently censored by his superiors at the monastery and by Catholic Church leaders at large. To this day, many of the surviving brothers with whom he lived among at Gethsemani still resent his years of presence among them. Not only did his notoriety disrupted their daily lives and skew their collective reputation, but his criticisms of their lack of a commitment to a “truly contemplative life” hurt them to their core.
And yet, along with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, Merton broke the church open to rigorous forms of interfaith catholicism, pacificism and contemplative practice. He embedded a deeply contemplative stance in social justice and peace work. His poetic words are as elegant and as timeless as any offered over the entire course of Christian history.
Lastly, we must deal with the controversial canonization of Fray Junipero Serra. Serra emigrated from the Mediterranean to the Californias rather late in life, after distinguished career as a priest and theology professor in Majorca and a missionary to the Pame Indians in the remote Sierra Gorda in Mexico. While in the mountains of Mexico, he suffered an insect bite that caused his leg to swell and break out into sores; this affliction caused him daily pain throughout the rest of his life and was no doubt exacerbated by many tedious journeys that he made on foot across thousands of miles of American soil.
While still in Mexico, he became an Inquisitor and harsh critic of native shamanistic practices which he took to be demon-driven witchcraft. He rigorously practiced self-flagellation with a chain adorned with sharp iron barbs, and once, when he began whipping his own back during a sermon in Mexico City, a sobbing parishioner came up, took the chain away from Serra, and whipped himself until he collapsed. While Serra still carried the chain with him, something began to shift in his relationship to parishioners, which had always demanded as much of them as he demanded of himself.
While he became a trail blazer in the tragic colonization of California Indians, Serra softened in the presence of these humble and generous native peoples. He became widely known for defending the dignity and the land rights of Native Californians, treating them with respect and expressing humility in the face of their own inherent spirituality and grace. Much of the recent criticisms about Serra in the media are somewhat misdirected in that they are not so much based in facts about Serra himself, but are a larger and more appropriate indictment of the imperialism and racism associated with the entire process of missionization in the Americas.
So what do we take home from Pope Francis’s focus on these five individuals during his brief but evocative visit to North America? First, as the Pope has frequently said about his own life, he has not been infallible, but has had to learn deeply from the regrettable mistakes he made earlier in his career. And so perhaps he chose to the focus on the lives of charismatic Americans who made a marked difference in the trajectory of social justice, but were clearly sinners just as much as they were saints. (Incidentally, we can also say this about civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Jesse Jackson iin addition to King; American Indian Movement leaders Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Leonard Peltier and native prophets such as Nicholas Black Elk and Thomas Banyacya, Sr.). They all fell as many times as they ascended to greater heights.
More importantly, all of these individuals learned from their early traumas, flaws and wounds. They gained a capacity to sharply focus on a vision beyond themselves, one of that embraced the poor, the marginalized and oppressed in an unprecedented manner. While several of them were prolific in the speaking and writing, it was how they lived more than their words alone that have changed so many of our lives. They were viscerally and almost preternaturally in contact with and attentive to people and the earth with a soulfulness that few of us can claim to have achieved. To say this same thing through another metaphor, the Holy Spirit seemed to work through them despite their flaws and wounds, or perhaps because of them.
I sense that the Pope was telling Americans something we all need to hear at this critical moment in time, when the hardest work of dealing with climate change, the unprecedented number of political refugees, immigration, structural racism and grinding poverty still lie before us. Our society will not solve such challenges and achieve its loftiest goals by having a few charismatic leaders with their heads in the clouds. If we are to survive and get beyond a future filled with post-apocalyptic dystopias. We all must descend to the lowest levels of the earth and to the lowest stratum of our society where the most marginalized among still suffer on a daily basis, We must de-romanticize our heroes, de-colonize our tendencies to be merely “do-gooders,” and de-ideologize our social and environmental justice movements if we are to truly live and work in the Franciscan spirit of both St. Francis and Pope Francis.
Gary Paul Nabhan (Brother Coyote, OEF), is an agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist and writer whose work has focused primarily on the desert Southwest. He is considered a pioneer in the local-food and heirloom seed-saving movements.