(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 18, 2014)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ It’s hard to know what it means to be human some days, let alone a saint, but there are clues here and there, like in this novel, The Plague, by Albert Camus, where two atheists – one a doctor, one a journalist – have a brief conversation.
They’re in Africa fighting a devastating plague when one says to the other, “It comes down to this. What interests me is learning to become a saint.”
There’s a mystery to the whole thing, a hunger, a longing not unlike what’s in this other novel, by Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. The hero, or non-hero, is a hopeless Catholic priest, a bum, really, an alcoholic and seedy sort of fellow you wouldn’t want your children with.
Running from Mexican revolutionaries who are hunting religious figures, he’s finally caught and brought to the eve of his execution. There, sitting alone with his tears and flask of brandy, the priest is overwhelmed not by fear as much as a profound sadness and disappointment when realizing he has nothing to present to God.
“It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to become a saint,” Greene writes. “It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like he had missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.”
These pictures aren’t what we normally equate with sainthood, not like, say, the noble service of a Mother Teresa or gnarled hands folded in prayer or even glowing halos. They show more of that longing, longing for a new home, really, and a deep, almost buried, desire to show gratitude.
Of course, thanking God isn’t easy in a culture of über-independence. “Dear God. We paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing,” is how Bart Simpson eloquently prayed once.
But maybe we aren’t so different from the characters in these two novels, hopeless atheists and hopeless believers alike in the thick of our own war, not to conquer any person or place but a war to somehow live at peace in our own humanity, if not with the news of the day, even these autumn days now falling between Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day.
That news, as you know, is that thousands of West Africans have fallen to Ebola. And aid workers, not from fiction but from our very real world, are close enough to the edge of death that they surely can’t help but think something of these inner-life matters.
The news here in Uganda, on Africa’s other side, is that a case of Marburg, Ebola’s just-as-deadly cousin, recently arrived.
Over your way, meanwhile, we’ve had the much publicized comments of adventurist company Amaruk Corp, including from manager Olaf Amundsen who wrote Trinity Western University graduate, Bethany Paquette, a Christian, no, she can’t have a job with the B.C. company and, further, if he ever met Jesus he’d like to “f**k him,” apparently to show what he thinks of Paquette’s and the university’s, in his view, intolerant views.
Which proves this world is full of all types, including those who sniff for even the slightest whiff of someone else’s intolerance without noticing their own hot bigotry is a stink-bomb of national proportions.
True, some religious types also degrade the notion of sainthood by making it an onerous list of rules or a trite series of steps to follow, like a recipe for cupcakes, the men appearing like they have a great used car deal, the women like they could use considerably less make-up.
But most people, it seems to me, want to live somewhere different from either of these uninspiring destinations, in a different country, if you will, discovering a different sort of freedom where sainthood is, strangely enough, for the unworthy, where it’s more of that divine mystery, like the wind blowing first here, then there, nobody knowing where it might go next.
Living with such mystery, of course, doesn’t make anyone very comfortable either. It’s not meant to. But it’s far more worthwhile and interesting.