Monday 5 September 2016

Written in Water, Digression: On the Magical Identity of Saints

They're already making icons of her. They have been for ages.
Yesterday, Mother Teresa got sainted

I think the whole thing about Mother Teresa being something horribly, appallingly other than the lovely old lady she's generally painted as (or, if you prefer, THAT sort of nun rather than THAT one) wasn't especially hidden from the world. And yes, some of the stuff said about her is extreme, obtuse, kind of silly and actually more to do with problems with the institution of the Catholic Church (she was a nun born in the first half of the twentieth century – who seriously expected her to be pro-choice?) but the charge of her being aggressively and unrepentantly terrible at the one thing she's being sainted for, that's troublesome. But. But. In the end, that's not the whole thing.

Throughout history, frankly awful, flawed people got made saints all the time. I think of St. Athanasius, one of the architects of what history has considered Christian orthodoxy, who hit people with chairs, and basically ran Alexandria like a mafia boss. Or of St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate Bible, who, when he fell out with former friends, hounded them beyond the grave. Or St. John Chrysostom, who absolutely despised women. St. Augustine's work on the Donatists suggested converting them by force.

And then there's St. Cyril, who was such a quintessential workplace bully, such a colossal jerk that on his death one Christian leader wrote this to the Pope: 
At last and with great difficulty the villain is gone... His survivors are indeed delighted at his departure. The dead, maybe, are sorry. There is some ground of alarm lest they be so much annoyed at his company as to send him back to us...

Great care must then be taken, and it is especially Your Holiness's business to undertake this duty, to tell the guild of undertakers to lay a very big heavy stone on his grave, for fear he should come back again...

I really am sorry for the poor fellow. For the news of his death has not caused me unmixed delight, but it is tempered by sadness. On seeing the Church freed from a plague of this kind I am glad and rejoice; but I am sorry and do mourn when I think that the wretch knew no rest from his crimes, but went on attempting greater and more grievous ones until he died.
From a letter attributed to Theodoret (ep. CLXXX)
The point of all this is, I think, that the problematic thing about saints like these stems from the Catholic Church not in fact being interested in them as people; the Church doesn't canonise a person, not a real one. A saint is the elevated idea of a person, it's a story, a hagiography made into part of the extended canon. Pope Francis and his cardinals don't actually care who Mother Teresa really was. It's not about them believing in her public face above the bad and abusive parts; it is about the public face being a discrete big-T Truth in its own right. It is about the creation of an entity, a hollow receptacle in which faith can be stored.
An 1892 poster for the Salon de la Rose+Croix, an exhibition of Catholic magical art.
The way in which the Western Magical Tradition (and I'm talking the more traditional parts of it, although it does actually feed into the more recent developments of your chaos magic and such) treats angels is derived from this same methodology; the creation of a thought-form ideal of God and the Agents of God, of the Holy Guardian Angel, comes from the same realisation that these prefabricated mythical proxies we create are simply the saints. They intercede for us with the central Divine Force of the Universe. They stand for us. They represent us.

Is it OK to create this myth-form of a real person when it might obscure her mistakes and sins? I have no idea. But in the end, you can reshare that Christopher Hitchens article or whatever all you like, you can scream to the skies how awful she may or may not have been. it doesn't matter. It's irrelevant. Because that isn't actually who the Catholic Church sainted. They didn't saint a real person at all.