18 January 2015

Heroes and Saints

“If I could give you information of my life it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led by God in strange and unaccustomed paths to do in His service what He has done in her. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all, and I nothing. I have worked hard, very hard, that is all; and I have never refused God anything.”

Florence Nightingale

"A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition for power or wealth, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires."

Marcus Aurelius
No one is born a hero. Or a saint.  I think this is obvious in its very definition.

If a person has no faults or fears, they have no need of courage or character.  They are just doing what they do naturally as if by instinct. 

Courage is doing what one must do, in the face of even terrible doubts and fears that might paralyze the heart if our minds allowed it.  And it is critical that this imperative be deliberate and properly informed, not just some impulse of a flawed heart or a false voice.

And no hero is perfect. I don't know why, but that seems to continually surprise each generation. Some delight in 'digging up the dirt' on great leaders, to show their imperfections. And they have them! And some take comfort in this, when they rationalize their own bad choices.

John F Kennedy was a philanderer. Winston Churchill was an alcoholic. Abraham Lincoln was a chronic depressive. Mother Teresa was tempted by a terrible dryness of faith. Sophie Scholl was not a very effective protester.  And the two apostles in the story below showed a remarkable ambition of place, and a shockingly misplaced pride.

Human nature can be deeply flawed, and always an imperfect thing. This is how it is, for everyone. But the response of human beings to their natural weaknesses is what determines their character, even though no one is ever perfect in all things all the time.

Some give in to their every impulse and weakness without caring. Most like to think of themselves as upright, but rationalize their missteps and think them no transgressions in their case. Their conscience informs, but the mind rationalizes. And some of this inspires the tearing down of everyone else, of leveling all that is good, and calling the resultant lowest common denominator 'human.'

If you speak to anyone who has ever gone badly wrong, you see it usually not as one major life changing decision, but a hundred upon a hundred decisions and rationalizations that grow into something, one on the other. And through it all, evil whispers to their hearts.

And yet others are exemplary, heroes. We sometimes know the ones whose actions stand out. In a secular context we call them heroes, and in a religious context, we call them saints.

But there are many, many more who, despite their fears and doubts, continue to do the right thing, every day, in quietness and a devotion so something greater than their own weakness and themselves, whatever that may be.  They see that with freedom comes not only power, but responsibility and obligation.

And these are the hidden heroes, and those who live their lives 'hidden in God.' They may be drum majors of a sort, but as wives, husbands, parents and march to a very small parade that is not seen so much in their own time in this world, but in history, and always the world to come.

And sometimes their greatness shines across the ages, like a beacon of what a human being in its full manifestation and glory of goodness and greatness can be. We rise, by rising above 'ourselves' and so find ourselves.

And Martin Luther King corrects this tendency to be self-serving, rather than serving, in a most memorable way in this famous sermon about serving something greater than ourselves, an excerpt of which was played at his funeral observance.

That is a dirty word in this age of empire, to serve. Not even public servants want to serve anyone but themselves and their corrupt benefactors.  Ironically we all end up serving something or someone, even if it is only ourselves.  And we become defined by what we serve, and have an affinity for it.

Anyone can be a hero or a saint, not flawless, but faltering, not perfect, but persevering, not proud but pushing forward often in fear and trembling, not losing their own way but following the light of righteousness and goodness, even while stumbling and going forward again, because everyone can serve, if they choose something lasting and worthy.
It is a commonplace that those who are truly courageous and saintly do not think of themselves as such.  They are not looking at themselves, they are focused on the object of their true affections, that which they serve above their own fears and failings.

And what then is worthy? What does it mean to be truly human? This is the realm of religion and philosophy, and not science. It is the supra-rational, whether we would acknowledge it or not.