How to be a Saint

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 17, 2021

Being brought up Jewish, I never learned much about being a Saint. At least one Hebrew prophet (Isaiah) made a mockery of the whole idea of any human claiming to be “holier than thou.”

Of course, besides people, virtually every religion — even Judaism — has its holy places and holy objects, to say nothing of holy writings. (We were taught in my Hebrew school that if you dropped a prayer book, you were supposed to pick it up and kiss it.) One Friday night, when I was still living at home with my family, my father, turning a newspaper page, accidentally blew out one of the Sabbath candles which were on the table. But he joked that this wasn’t a great sin, since the paper he was reading was our weekly “Jewish Chronicle.”

But other religions, I’ve come to learn, have a different take on this whole principle, and really believe that there may be more holiness in some special individuals, whom Christianity, for example, designates as “Saints” (from the Latin “sanctus,” meaning “holy”). This, I feel, is all right as far as it goes — but the trouble is, it tends to go too far. Among some groups, even the bones of dead Saints are revered.

I live in a state which is dappled with the names of Saints, bestowed by the early European settlers, who were nearly all Spanish-speaking Catholics. If the namesake were male, the place name would begin with “San,” like San Diego. If female, it would be “Santa” as per Santa Monica. Even Los Angeles, meaning “The Angels” is a shortened form of the whole original name, which honored Saint Mary, Queen of The Angels. (And of course, we do also have a city named Santa Maria.)

But how does a person become officially recognized as a Saint by the Catholic Church? For one thing (as is also the rule for getting onto a U.S. postage stamp or piece of currency) the person must be dead. (This is the opposite of the Nobel Prizes, which you must be still alive to qualify for — a good incentive for some of us to keep living.)

But, to me, the most interesting requirement is that the “candidate” must have performed miracles. Unfortunately (in terms of theatricality) this category has been considerably toned down. There’s no more of that walking on the water or multiplying the loaves and fishes kind of performance which made old-fashioned miracles so dramatic. The only acceptable miracles to have been performed nowadays are of a medical nature, i.e., otherwise-inexplicable cures, and they must be attributed only to prayers offered in that dead person’s name. All the evidence must be considered and approved by panels, including doctors and theologians — and one is not enough — there must have been at least two such miracles.

But, even after all that, being a Saint is not a tenured position. In 1969, Pope Paul VI actually used his Papal power to remove as many as 93 Saints from the Catholic Calendar, and to revoke their Feast Days, on the grounds that enough wasn’t known about them to establish their historical validity. This list, I regret to say, included the namesake of my own city of Santa Barbara, who had been a Saint in good standing for nearly two millennia. Our citizens were not even consulted.

The name had been bestowed in 1602 by Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino because it happened to be the eve of Saint Barbara’s Day. (I will not even speculate as to any possible connection, in that year of 1969, between the Saint’s demotion and the notorious Santa Barbara oil spill — the largest ever in U.S. waters up to that time — a disaster which sparked the entire modern environmental movement.)

This whole story calls into question the whole idea of human holiness. In our own era, we’ve had figures like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, who at least accepted being recognized as spiritual leaders. But then there was Jiddu Krishnamurti who, in 1929, after having been virtually worshipped as a Saint by a large group of followers, chose publicly and emphatically to renounce that role, and spent the rest of his long life (1895-1986) trying to convince people that they hold their own sanctity in their own hands.

As for Yours Truly — who indeed has his own “following” — I can only quote one of his own epigrams: “If I ever become a Saint, it will be a miracle.”


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