Holier Than Thou
|Art by Brian Stauffer|
These days, it's easier to be declared a saint than it used to be -- as my status among the select goes to show. All you need do is log onto the First Cyber Church of the Millennium, or Sainthood.com (www.sainthood.com), and you can choose from a variety of canonical options designed to make sanctity accessible to all. The inspiration of two former Marine Corps pilots, Bob Schmitt and George Proudfoot, Saint hood.com offers, for the righteous price of $24.95, a Proclamation of Sainthood Certificate ($34.95 if you want to customize it with your photograph). An additional $5 gets you an online "Cyber Shrine." It's a pretty good deal when you consider the alternatives, which, as a quick visit to the Vatican's Web site (www.vatican.va) makes clear, are really no alternative at all. For the Holy Roman Church to saint you, not only must you be Catholic (which I'm not), but a five-years-dead Catholic. Then you have to prove your faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude -- attributes I possess in short supply. Even if you finesse these qualifications, you're still responsible for two miracles, both manifested (here's the tricky part) from beyond the grave. Assuming, for argument's sake, that such a thing is possible, why go through the process if you can't enjoy the fruits of your labor? Or, in the immortal words of Sainthood.com's home page, "Obviously, several well established religions have elaborate and thorough procedures for creating real saints and our newly created category of 'Cyber Saints' should not be confused with any real saints. But, let's face it, while other saint creating bodies have their standards and patient processes, cyberspace is big enough for a lighter, faster sainthood! And this is where it all starts."
At first glance, the notion of a lighter, faster sainthood seems like little more than sacrilegious jesting, ã which, to be sure, is part of the point. Even Schmitt acknowledges this; the product of 16 years of Catholic education, including four at Notre Dame, he goes by the cybersobriquet Bishop Bob of Burbank, MvP (Most Virtual Prelate). And the day we meet, he's carrying -- in addition to my "Proclamation of Sainthood" -- a framed declaration canonizing Jay Leno, with whom he shares an obsession with cars. Still, for all the site's low-key irreverence, Schmitt insists, the idea isn't to poke fun at sainthood, exactly, but to re-imagine it as an avenue of connection, a way for people to share part of themselves. In that sense, it's less a cynical than a sentimental process, with friends and lovers sanctifying each other to express intangible emotions, which makes the concept funny and moving all at once. "Initially," Schmitt says, "we were concerned about how people might take this, but they seem to understand it in the lighthearted way it's meant." Of the "Cyber Saints" enshrined thus far, 75 percent have been canonized with what Schmitt calls "genuine feeling," including one couple who nominated the husband's father -- because, at 92, he's the ultimate man-who-has-everything.
The question, of course, is what we are to make of this, whether we choose to see it as a novelty (which, on the most basic level, it is), or try to read it as something more profound. The site itself offers few clues other than ordering information and some guidelines on the canonization process; there's no cybercathedral for visitors to "walk" through, although Schmitt is looking into 3-D Web technology with the idea of constructing such an environment. You can't see the shrines or read a list of saints, since, in the interest of privacy, that information is limited to the sanctified alone. Yet as any great saint -- hell, as I -- will tell you, the path to holiness is individual. It's an easy thing to laugh about, but I can't help thinking that even joking about sainthood puts us in proximity to the ineffable, and never more than when the joke involves ourselves. What sainthood offers, after all, is really just the illusion of authority, which in turn allows us a momentary whisper of immunity to, or absolution from, the ambiguities of daily life. And isn't that what we all want, especially now, when any semblance of the absolute has deserted us? By demystifying sainthood, Sainthood.com suggests a way for us to find it, if only by making light of the entire endeavor, which adds up to its own kind of authority in the end.
In that regard, Sainthood.com reminds me of nothing so much as an odd little item I used to receive called the Jubilee Saints Calendar, which, on each day of the year, honored what we might refer to as a secular saint. These "saints," such as they were, represented a wide array of human history and culture, from the Catholic Church to literature, philosophy, music, science and even crime. Turn to March 12 and you'd find the bleary, sad-eyed face of Saint Jack Kerouac (whose birthday it was). Saint John Lennon peered out from the square marked December 8, the date he died. In between, the Jubilee Calendar interposed individuals as diverse as Al Capone, Charles Darwin, Mother Jones and Saint Augustine. Not many of us who received the calendar were religious in any traditional fashion, but we all did have our heroes, and it was powerful to see them elevated, even (or especially) in the service of an elaborate put-on. And the same is true of Sainthood.com: With its cybershrines and halos, its appropriation of the iconography of sainthood, it operates on the level of both the sacred and the profane.
Still, if both Sainthood.com and the Jubilee Saints Calendar operate from the same impulse -- to return our saints to Earth, where we can touch them -- there is a fundamental difference in how they ask us to interact. I'm not talking about technology here, but intention: the distinction between what we aspire to be and what we are. The Jubilee Calendar may make sainthood accessible, but it remains a tribute to our icons, while with Sainthood.com, the saints we recognize are ourselves. That's a key development, for it suggests a way for us to move, finally, beyond our heroes or, at least, to put them in their place. I don't mean that having a cybershrine actually changes us, my saintly Christmas to the contrary, although I'd have to do a survey of the blessed to be sure. But what I do believe is that it's only fitting, as we stumble into the new millennium, to have found a model for becoming our own saints here on Earth.
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