Thursday, 18 January 2018

Encountering the Saint: Understanding Sainthood as the Meaning of Life

The saint breaks the shell of the cocoon called ego to make the birth of Man possible.
The most compelling proof of  the Divine that impresses even the atheists is the presence of a saint. Albert Camus, the atheist, described Simone Weil, a saintly figure for secular times, “the only great Spirit of our times” and visited her shrine – her room – before going to take Nobel Prize. Eyes that have not seen God or what, in human form, reminds us of God (saint) have not seen anything. The irresistible Ramana, one of the greatest sages in recent history, has said “The true birth is only the birth in the Self.” Saints alone are truly born and the rest are still struggling to be born against the hard cocoons of ego. “There is only one misery . . . not to be saints” as Léon Bloy said. And “What the Church is sent apostolically to do is to make saints, i.e., to make humans completely human.” If “The meaning of life is to become a saint” we must strive to imitate saints. Indeed, for the Secular Age, the key problem is how to become a saint without God as Camus noted in The Plague. In response to Camus, one may note that the saint recalls – or makes one experience – God by his very presence and constitutes the mirror of God. We know there have been/are saints in non-theistic traditions.
      Those who have intimately seen a saint can’t afford disbelief in the higher world. Saints are the windows that offer lesser mortals a peep into the otherworld. To those who fear encountering saints Chesterton remarked that every age has needed the saint that contradicts it most and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need. As T. S. Eliot said of Weil explicitly: "We must expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of a saint." Encountering the saint is for recognizing the “celestial dimension, archetypal, angelic, which is the celestial pole without which the terrestrial pole of his human dimension is completely depolarized.” And recall the point “I shall not attempt the impossible here by trying to describe the indescribable, which is what Master Kayhan was. Suffice it to say that if he was human, we are all subhuman; and if we are human, then he was superhuman. Since the overwhelming majority determines the name of the species, we must call him by the latter term.”
      Some of the definitions of the saint are worth recalling. “The person who kept on trying when everybody else gave up.” “A saint is always someone through whose life we learn what God is like - and of what we are called to be. Only God 'makes' saints.” G. K. Chesterton said that the saint is the person who exaggerates those values which the world has forgotten. 
      What makes one a saint? “But cannot we live as though we always loved? It was this that the saints and heroes did; this and nothing more.” A saint works on making himself/herself nothing and learning to suffer the pain of others. From the saint “there radiates an imperturbable silence and peace, and yet a participation in the pain of others that reaches the point of tears.” A saint seeks to be perpetually vigilant and attentive to the other, to the moment. A saint’s prayer can be as demanding as this one by Simone Weil: “Father, since thou art the Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me and make them into things for your use, and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or else nothingness.” The saint recalls the Prophetic preference for faqr. Weil identified with the workers – and thought that one year spent in factory work transformed her – and would eat less and less because others were going hungry and did not heat the room because she could not bear to be comfortable while her Nazi occupied compatriots in France in were suffering.” Feeding the hungry while fasting oneself” ideal, not hurting anyone, courting  anonymity and blame rather than fame, saints are the moral compass of generations. Saints aren’t obsessed with ritualism and proving their path as the best.
      According to an interesting model developed by Spiritual Science Research Foundation, on a scale of hundred, a saint’s score should by 70 or above while an average person today scores only 20. A hard climb indeed for those interested in sainthood. But we need not despair as right effort or purity of intention never goes waste and as Weil noted “when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.” All we need is a leap as we read in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair “For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you – with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell – can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap.” 
      A saint can’t brag about being a saint as saintliness is not his but in him and its presence makes him disregard the “I.” As Ibn Arabi noted the saints have dropped the possessive adjective (ya) three times, so they do not say 'for me', 'I have' or 'my possessions' (lî, 'indî, matâ'î). One recalls Kreeft’s pithy statement: “Go back to Socrates: "Know thyself." For Socrates, there are only two kinds of people: the wise, who know they are fools; and fools, who think they are wise. Similarly, for Christ and all the prophets, there are only two kinds of people: saints, who know they are sinners; and sinners, who think they are saints. Which are you?” Division of people into believers and non-believers is a theological one that saints question by deepening belief into knowledge/gnosis. The real division is between those who know and who don’t know according to the Quran as pointed out by “the seal of saints” Ibn Arabi. About the religious identity of saints one must note that saints are heirs of prophets and “For a saint, to be the heir of one of the prophets is always to be the heir of Muhammad.” One of the best descriptions of the saint reads:
  • “In the saint there is nothing trivial, nothing coarse, nothing base, nothing affected, nothing insincere. He is the culmination of sensitivity and transparency. The saint grasps the various conditions of the soul in all who come before him. Avoiding everything that would cause them sadness, he does not avoid what will help them see and overcome their weaknesses. He is able to read the least articulate needs of others and fulfill them promptly, even as he reads their faults, however skillfully hidden; and through the delicate power of his being, he exercises upon them a purifying action.
          There is no one more humble or simple, no one less artificial, less theatrical, or hypocritical, no one more natural in his behavior, no one more fully accepting of all that is truly human. The saint has overcome every duality within himself, as Saint Maximos the Confessor says…. At times, through a humor marked by his gentleness, he shrinks the delusions created by fear or pride or the passions. He smiles but does not laugh sarcastically. He is serious but never frightened. He finds value in the humblest of persons, considering them to be great mysteries created by God and destined to eternal communion with Him. Through simplicity the saint makes himself almost unobserved, but he appears when there is need for consolation, for encouragement or help. He is the most unassuming of beings, and yet his appearance is so striking that it gives rise in others to the sense of discovering in him, and thus in themselves, what is truly human.”

          "His presence is at once endearing and bracing, drawing—unintentionally—the most attention. He becomes for you the most intimate of all and the most understanding. You never feel more at ease than when you are near him, but at the same time he forces you into a corner and makes you see your inadequacies and failings. He overwhelms you with the warmth of his goodness and makes you ashamed of how far you have fallen, of how far you have sunk in your artificiality, superficiality, and duplicity. For these appear in sharp relief in the comparison you are obliged to make, unwillingly, between yourself and him. He exercises no worldly power and gives no harsh commands, but you feel in him an unyielding firmness in his convictions and in the advice he gives. His opinion about what you should do, expressed in delicate words or by a discreet look, becomes for you a command, and to fulfill this command you find yourself capable of any effort or sacrifice.”

      This takes care of the question whether one needs a saint’s company or a Master and certain criticisms often rehearsed by religious and secular critics. For instance, Cioran’s “It is no sign of benediction to have been obsessed with the lives of saints, for it is an obsession intertwined with a taste for maladies and hunger for depravities. One only troubles oneself with saints because one has been disappointed by the paradoxes of earthly life…”
      There is often an anxiety to judge saints by the scriptural letter or particular theology of particular religions. This often confounds distinct – and, as warned by Shah Waliullah, methodologically independent – paths of walâya and nubuwwa, takes certain reading of sha’ria as the reading and misses an important point that norms are ideally for helping fashion saints – “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Even granting the Akbarian distinction between two paths for the walâya – the path of action and the path of witnessing – it may be stated that saints may be misinformed or even naïve about certain political or social issues – Weil’s stand on the Jewish question and political stance of some Sufis has been justifiably criticized. In order to speak to the likes of Cioran, Maughm or others who have inherited the knack of suspicion one requires a new saintliness as Weil remarked: ”Today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent.... A new type of sanctity ... is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and of human destiny.” It is here that we find difficult problems and contestations from classical times which we need to revisit today, take note of modern Qalandar like figures such as Iqbal and engage with modern and postmodern sages and philosophers in order to recognize and relate to saints of our times.

Post Script:
The so- called modern day Sufis in Kashmir are often superstitious and obsessed by their own list of rituals – going to shrines, celebrating anniversaries of Pirs, conducting music sessions or holding sessions of sermons in so- called conferences – and, unlike great classical figures, are not deeply interested in academic, intellectual and religious pursuits or activism of various sorts. It is indeed hard to encounter a saint but one is sure to see one if there is genuine thirst and preparation for meeting him. One must qualify as a Murid and then demand where is the Master.

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