Thursday, November 15, 2012

#130. An Extraordinary Collection of Extraordinary Biographies

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Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.

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Post #130 is about a book which might have been called "Saints Updated."


All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time, by Robert Ellsberg (Crossroad Pub. Co., 1997).

This is not a typical “lives of the saints.” It includes many of the old time saints, of course, but like Robert Lentz’s icons it includes many modern people whose lives are significant for the rest of us.

It is in fact an extraordinary collection of biographies; or maybe, better, a collection of extraordinary biographies. I found it enlightening and inspiring-- especially helpful in terms of my own self-understanding. And it was fun to see listed as “saints” several people with whom I have had some slight contact.


One of the most interesting things for me is the fact that most of these “saints” seem to fall into one of four categories, and which, with my "mandalic affliction," I see as expressions of the Jungian personality types.

One large group are the ascetics; they were more common in earlier times. [Today, this type is more likely to be found working out in the local health club.] They are unique in that they seem to inflict a degree of violence on themselves in their effort to escape from the world-- whether for them “world” has the dualistic meaning of matter, body and females, or the more conventional sense of the human society and culture.

Another large group of these saints are the activists, people who fight to make the world better by their work in trying to eliminate injustices of all kinds. A large fraction of activists meet violent ends.

It is amazing how much violence this book about saints contains!

Suffering seems to be an aspect of sainthood, whether it is self-imposed as with the ascetics, or imposed externally as with the activists and martyrs, who are always a threat, one way or another, to authority and power.

I thought one of the grossest examples of violence (psychological violence in this case) was the story of the founder of a religious order who was thrown out of the very order he founded.

A third group of “saints” are those who aim to live peacefully and quietly. They live lives of quiet devotion as followers of a “little way” (like St Theresa of Lisieux) or the “hidden life” (or "life of Nazareth,” as practiced by hermits like Charles de Foucauld), or of service to the poorest of the poor (as with Mother Theresa’s order).


A personal thought. It seems to me that these “ways” are expressions of the functions of consciousness-- Thinking, Sensation, and Feeling-- and that I don’t fit any of them. I wouldn’t last 24 hours as an ascetic, I’m clearly not an activist, and a hidden life or little way just seems too sentimental for my tastes.

What’s left? There is a fourth consciousness function, and so there ought to be a fourth group of saints to go with it.

And there is. These are the “saints” who I find most attractive. Since Intuition [or "Imagery," as it is perhaps more accurately called] is their primary function, they seem to be able to see more than others. [They are "seers" and have a bigger picture of reality.]

Their passion is to make sense of our existence, to manifest life’s goodness, beauty and holiness. I see them falling into two main groups.

One group are the updaters and innovators, whether in ethics, philosophy, theology, science or other areas of academic endeavor. They try to say things in new ways, and many of them, like the activist saints, suffer for it.

Unlike the activists, however, these pioneers and explorers of new perspectives tend to suffer at the hands of the church. At best, their creative intellectual efforts are ignored.'

But more often they are criticized and condemned-- they are refused the right to teach or publish, for example-- and often they have been imprisoned and tortured, even killed, at the direction of church authorities.

In spite of all this, many of them exhibit a degree of loyalty to organized religion which is nothing less than amazing. The institutional churches seems to represent for them something which is, in fact, far beyond-- far deeper than-- anything the external churches apparently can represent.

Perhaps nowhere is this groups of "saints" ability to see more than the rest of us more evident than their loyalty to a greatly tarnished tradition.


The second group of Intuitive seers are those who are especially sensitive to the goodness and beauty and holiness of the world. Their passion is to express the sacredness of reality in art, music, literature and other sacramental forms. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these mystics and visionaries-- more sensitive than the rest of us to the meaning and holiness of existence-- simply exist apart from the church. Tragic.

Of these two groups, I find those scientists with great imaginative insight, like Teilhard de Chardin, Giordano Bruno and Galileo, highly attractive. But I find myself even more attracted to “saints” like George Rouault, William Blake and Vincent van Gogh. This surprised me.

Also of personal interest is the fact that very few of these creative “saints” have anything explicitly to do with religious ritual. One more or less isolated example is the 20th century liturgical reformer, Dom Virgil Michael, of St John’s Abbey in Minnesota.

Others are those 16th century Jesuits who tried to live as Chinese or Japanese sages, and the 20th century Benedictine monk Bede Griffith, who lived the life of a Hindu holy man. A slim list, to be sure!

We have a ways to go!


There is one ecological “saint,” the Brazilian rubber plantation activist and martyr, Chico Mendes. He connected the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth to such an extent that he was “unable to distinguish justice for the poor from defense of the Amazon rain forests.”

Some areas of human endeavor, such as anthropology and psychology, remain to be represented. Imagine! There are no “saints” to be found among the anthropologists-- those who study human nature!

And of course neither Freud nor Jung is mentioned in this list of all saints.

But the very fact that we don’t expect them to be there-- although they are, in fact, the founders of the modern “science of the soul”-- says something. Something important.

We have a ways to go, indeed!


Perhaps the most interesting saint in this collection is Maura O’Halloran, a Boston-born, Irish-American, Catholic-Buddhist saint of compassion. (I’d never heard of her, either!)

Her statue is venerated by Eastern and Western pilgrims in a temple in Tokyo, where at the age of 25, in the early 1980s, she went to practice zazen.

She stayed three years, and was killed in a bus accident in Thailand on her way back to Ireland.

Her roshi said of her that she achieved in 28 years what took Sakamuni himself 80 years.

She said of herself that she felt she had done everything in her life she was meant to do and had now only to live for others. Having attained what her adopted Zen tradition calls "enlightenment," she planned-- like Teresa of Lisieux, with whom is she compared-- to spend her heaven “doing good on earth.”

Some letters she sent home and diary from her time as a monk are collected in a small book: Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Zen Journal and Letters of Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran (Charles Tuttle Co, 1994).

Update (some extra notes I recently found on this book): To my delight and astonishment, the county library had a copy. She was no weirdo. She mentions going to a rock concert, drinking beer and smoking a cigar at 3 AM, then getting up to clean the toilets at 4 AM. Stuff like that. I am impressed.

To add to the Litany of the Saints:
Holy Maura-san, pray for us!

ALL SAINTS of God, intercede for us! 


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