Superheroes

Saints: A Very Short Introduction, Simon Yarrow, Oxford University Press.

We think of saints as exceptional people. Even in a non-religious setting we bestow the name on individuals who are superhumanly generous or stoic. Indeed, Simon Yarrow writes in his book on saints that Christian veneration of saints follows in the Greek tradition of honouring virtuous citizens. But in the Christian tradition saints are distinctive by bridging heaven and earth, by becoming something more than human.

Protestants tend to be uneasy about the tradition of saints, especially when it comes to intercessory prayers to saints. The Protestant churches recognise official saints, particularly of the early church (without the devotion) but then there is also the recognition that Saint Paul called all the faithful saints, and throughout church history there is a mix of the wider and narrower senses, of small s and capital S saints.

Martyrs were the focus of initial early church devotion to saints. Sainthood then broadened beyond actual martyrdom to include the symbolic martyrdom of asceticism, which impressed many believers, including St Augustine, who was converted partly because of reading about St Antony in the desert. At the same time there arose a belief in the miracle-working powers of dead saints and their relics. The cult of saints became like polytheism, with local saints resembling local deities. In the New World, the two became mixed up, as in the Mexican cult of St Death. Such was the growth of saints in the Middle Ages that it got out of hand until the church took control with an official system of canonisation, which still today includes the authentication of miracles, for some a bizarre and unnecessarily supernatural consideration that is as inappropriate a combination of scientific method and the spiritual as creationism.

The pantheon includes the grotesque and bizarre. After decapitation, St Denis reportedly walked away, carrying his head in his hands and still preaching. St Marina was so pious she was mistaken for a man (!) and admitted into a monastery, though later she was, ironically, accused of fathering a child. St Joseph of Cupertino couldn’t stop levitating, doing so even during an audience with the Pope. Unsurprisingly, he is the patron saint of air travellers.

Not being human is no barrier to sainthood either, apparently. The archangel Michael is also a saint, and many will have heard of St Guinefort, a canine saint, who may prompt some to reconsider the question of whether dogs go to heaven.

Much of this hagiography is, of course, dubious. But we have a hunger for the exceptional. Yarrow begins his book by likening saints to modern superheroes, and we might see in our adulation of sporting heroes awe at the unattainably elite, even if they provide some level of inspiration. But in its original form the idea of sainthood is not exceptionalism but merely the recognition that those who walk beside and before us in the church community are role models for work any and each of us can do.

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