Of saints, sinners and sprinters
By Daniel Thwaites
Quite unforgettably, Fr Ho Lung (Gleaner, July 12, 2012) wants Usain Bolt "to walk humbly before God and man ... never forgetting others but always sacrificing himself for others". He wants Jamaica's premier track star to be "a stranger to this world". It was a splendid piece of writing. Of course, Ho Lung assumes that the point of Bolt's life is to be a saint - a "great man", according to Ho Lung's Christian understanding of it.
As I reread Ho Lung's piece, I recalled Orwell's contrasting observation that most people actually don't want to be saints, and that sainthood is a thing human beings must avoid. The very religious assume that ordinary people are 'failed saints' because sainthood is too difficult. But that's like blaming someone for failing to climb a mountain they never intended to climb.
Consider Paul and Raul, who both work hard and retire. Paul donates his money to charity, then serves the poor every day. Raul wants no part of that life. He puts the money on fixed deposit and enjoys himself, becoming an expert in literature, music, or gardening. He may give some money to charity, but not if it would interfere with his Miami vacation. Both are 'good persons' in some recognisable sense. Most of us are Raul, not Paul.
Christianity, particularly the stern monastic version, makes heavy demands. And Ho Lung is, I think, right that as Christianity declines as a social force, pagan ways of approaching the world re-emerge.
Take 'pride', for Christians the original and most serious sin. For pagans, this same pride was 'the crown of the virtues'. To the ancients, to be good at something and know oneself to be good at it, is excellent. Enjoying one's powers, attributed to one's own capacities and work, is the pinnacle of human satisfaction. The pagan hungered to be legendary - for his name and reputation to persist after he sank into death. Achilles chose fame and death. Odysseus chose fame and Poseidon's wrath. Ideas of 'humility' and 'self-sacrifice' are alien to this mindset.
Christian world view
To Christian ears, this is blasphemy. For starters, we are not the authors of our powers, which are the grace and mercy of God. Thus Ho Lung:
"The matter of being a legend and proclaiming oneself as being a legend is very much lacking humility, and creates false values in our nation. Muhammad Ali is perhaps the greatest of boxers ever, and today he can hardly articulate a sentence of proper English. Whitney Houston is now dead; she had the most beautiful of voices. Same for Princess Diana, a mother and a woman of great beauty, dead in a crash early in the morning with an extraordinarily rich man, after wining and dining."
Ho Lung is wrong on one point - the wining was to happen after Diana got back to the hotel. Anyway, he isn't being cruel by pointing to human frailty. Christian artists would include memento mori - 'remember you must die' - in paintings of life's finery and achievements. The trappings of this world are vanity and dust is Ho Lung's reminder. Store up your treasures where moths and rust cannot destroy them. Be "a stranger to this world".
Pagans were, of course, also acutely aware that fame and glory were ultimately fleeting. So he exulted in the moment, enjoying it all the more because he knew it was passing. He shone more brightly in this world, believing no place is protected from the moth and rust.
We inheritors of these two traditions are still uncertain about pride. Is it good: "Yuh mus' take pride in yourself and your nation?" Or is it bad: "Pride cometh before the fall?" Or: "Him too show-off and proud?"
With all that, poor Bolt may outrun the competition, but not our conflicting demands. We want him to say his prayers and be humble, but also to win and look 'boasy' so that we might be reflected in his glory. It's worth remembering that the Olympics originated as a pagan religious festival.
The difficulty of squaring the pagan desire with the Christian demand is, well, legendary. I have more than once gone to dinner with fellows holding forth lyrically on the evils of the wealthy who ignore the poor. Their steak alone costs more than an average week's wage for domestic helpers.
As a rule, people talk like Paul when criticising others, but they live like Raul. It's a source of enormous hypocrisy, comicality, and torture of conscience - these conflicting inheritances from Athens and Jerusalem. For we all want to be in that number when the saints go marching in. But suspiciously pagan-like, we'd like to be at the front of even that line.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in Westchester and Bronx counties in New York. Email feedback to email@example.com.