I was having a conversation with my brother the other day and I asked him if he had any heroes. It took him a second to respond. “What do you mean by hero?” he asked. “Well…” I had to pause to think for a second… “Someone that you can look up to and use as a sort of model or guide, but who is also iconic because of their display of a particular virtue.” He could not come up with any at first, but eventually threw a few names out: To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, Les Misérables’ Jean Valjean, and the characters in a book about soldiers in Afghanistan that he recently read.
Of these three examples, the soldiers were the only real people whose real actions have real consequences. Sure, Atticus Finch and Jean Valjean had to deal with the consequences of their actions, but Harper Lee and Victor Hugo as the authors of those novels had already resolved their conflicts for them. The thing about real life heroes is that they have to deal with the consequences of their actions in a way that is always messy – for the soldiers, it was the events that these men had lived through, as well as the carnage they witnessed and visited upon their opponents.
At the end of the day, the soldiers in my brother’s book were not doing what they were doing for God, or country, or even for justice – they were attempting to survive and look out for one another. They were regular guys who were put into a terrible situation, and gave themselves to the fight because their brothers depended on them. This is heroic, to be sure. But it is also very, very messy.
I think of the terrible things that soldiers have witnessed. Or I think of the stories of those who arrived first after Katrina or 9/11. I think of the uncommon bravery and the courage they showed. But I also think of the unbelievable destruction that they witnessed. The terror that haunts some of them. The lingering smells. The visions that wake them up at night. The PTSD and medical bills and the fear of speaking out because people would not understand or because its not what heroes are supposed to do. I think our culture is trying to kill our heroes, or at least demand that they live as close to the grave as they can.
The sacrifices some people have made are terrible, and the consequences they have to deal with are insane. Are these the only criteria we offer for what is heroic? Does a person have to run the risk or being physically or psychologically disfigured for the rest of his or her life? Seems like a strange qualification. Since the one thing I know about our commercial culture is that ugliness and sickness are ridiculed or ignored, the question becomes whether we are condemning real-life heroes to this same tortured and disfigured fate.
Any potential hero I could name had been dragged so far into the mud that their name provoked as much negative response as it did positive. For example, no matter how much people want to make our Presidents into heroes can we honestly say that the last three have really lived up to any of the hype?1 What about sports stars? Actors? Business gurus? Musicians? No. Not really. They are just doing their thing. Sure, they’re celebrities, and public figures, but heroes? Not likely.
How about peace activists? Or people who participated in the Arab Spring? Or the 99% protesters? Or the people who were keeping the 99% protesters in line? How about everyday heroes? Still no. See, every actual person that I can come up with I have a hard time calling a hero. The images and icons that we hold up have become filled with so much baggage that I am not sure we can look to them anymore and say that yes “iconic person A” is a hero.
Is that a bad thing? Though not terribly decisive, the answer has to be “yes and no”, and I am not sure what to do about that. What I do know is that it is an issue for me because I, Paul Lickteig, am not all that good. I am struggling to find a life-giving way to live in this world that is rooted in integrity and I fail. While I look to Jesus and offer myself in his service, my imagination is woefully stunted and I find it hard to do the right thing in the here and now. I long for a voice that speaks of heroic virtue in our time, but I don’t know where to look.
We used to have pious stories that filled our heads with tales that often blurred the lines between historical fact and fiction. Ancient stories of saints performing miracles and acts of unbelievable sacrifice for the sake of others used to seize our imaginations and capture our hearts. They weren’t supposed merely to entertain or fill people’s heads with false ideas about the human experience, though they may have done both.2 Rather, they pointed to the possibility of embodying a deeper reality.
Even among the most pious of my friends, if I asked them “Did Saint (insert saint’s name) really do (insert jaw-dropping feat of wonder)?” I might get a response ranging from a head nod to a shoulder shrug to a “probably not… but.” It is that “but” that matters most. It is the “but” that allows us to imagine a possibility beyond what we can account for in rational terms or according to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. It is the “but” that leaves room for God in a world that seeks to crowd out any notion of the power of faith, hope and love to truly transform and conquer this world.
Believing in saints and miracles leaves the door open to the emergence of different types of possibilities. Even apocryphal stories of bizarre happenings that often occasion the lives of saints, I think it is safe to say, are a mixture of things that happened and things that people think should have happened. They are accounts of really miraculous events mixed with less than likely occurrences. All of these are arranged to orient the individual to the possibility of something outside of our common experience that points to the Transcendent God made Immanent.
Of course, belief in miracles or the possibility of saints leaves a person open to all kinds of criticism. You might be called a fanatic or a fool because the stories of saints are almost too fantastic to believe. Dorothy Day, herself now up for sainthood, is believed to have said “When they call you a saint, it basically means that you are not to be taken seriously.” To believe someone is a saint sometimes implies that the person being held up is somehow a better human being – even superhuman. It is as though that person somehow had been given special powers that allowed for a different kind of response to God’s call. The real shock is that saints are saints precisely because they are like us. A saint does not have any exceptional quality other than the fact that the way they lived their lives can help reveal God’s goodness in a way that others recognize – anything else would just be for show.
We want miracles to be like magic and our saints to be like wizards, but miracles are never works that celebrate the individual performing them. Rather, they are works that reveal the grace of God. We forget that all saints were sinners first. We forget that the goodness we see in them often emerged out of numerous failures. We mischaracterize goodness and grace when we understand them as displays of perfection. In our zeal to disprove the presence of grace in another, we might find ourselves being hyper-critical of how she acts. Or, in a similar fervor to name a holy person in our midst, we might lionize him and make him into something he is not and never was.
We can be either too permissive or too critical, but both are problematic. Our tendency towards one will often justify other people’s tendency towards the other. That is, those who disbelieve will point to the overzealous faithful and shake their heads at such stupidity. Or those who believe will do so in response to the rational cynic and lament the hardness of their hearts. The narrow way demands we be both faith-filled and skeptical.
We don’t believe every account, but we are open to believing. We must believe in saints and miracles – not because it is a mandate, but because it is the language and the disposition of faith – how hope stays alive. Belief in miracles and saints is what gives us eyes to see the grace present in our midst. Without this willingness, we fail to see the good, even when it is right in front of us.
Saints and heroes are connected, but different. What makes a hero is someone who fulfills ordinary obligations, but also shows a profound willingness to give themselves to service in extraordinary situations while somehow holding on to their humanity. The humility of living with the consequences of their actions and finding a way to remain life-giving is what makes a true hero. If we claim that this type of humility, courage and perseverance are the ear-marks of a hero, we might claim that a hero, plus faith, hope, and love are what make a saint.
We also have to admit one more possibility. We might not ever know that we are living with heroes and saints. We might not know because their stories will be messy. We might catch them in the midst of failure, or sin, or sadness. We might see them in the depths of their darkest hours. But if we know where and how to look, we will see them.
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- I am still not sure Barrack Obama has quite earned that Nobel Peace Prize just yet. As for Bush and Clinton, I am still trying to remember the last time I heard credible voices offering witness to their awesomeness. ↩
- See: Ignatius of Loyola spending his free time reading these stories in lieu knight-adventure sagas and then wrecking his stomach due to self-imposed ascetic observances learned from reading said pious stories. ↩