Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The perils of sainthood

There was a man came to Granada in the 1550's, forty or so years old, an ex soldier, Fought in all the vicious wars of conquest. Not am especially good soldier, because instead of killing his enemies he tended to feel sorry for them. So when he left the army he set up in the book selling business, let's say with enough stock to fit on the back of a donkey. Religious books, mostly, it not being altogether safe to try to sell books of any other kind. He wandered here and there, not doing especially well as he was more inclined to help people than do business with them, until he ended up in Granada, where he set up his stall at the poor end of the Calle Elvira. He also had a bad habit of shutting up shop to go to listen to famous preachers, and there he was listening to an especially good one when he felt moved half way thought to call out he was a sinner, over and over again, until the audience got cross with him for spoiling the sermon And then when he continued to behave that way for the next few days they got crosser still; and then when he started to give away all his books and everything he possessed to help the poor they decided he was mad and locked him up in the asylum. It's true they were Christian and that's exactly what the man said, but he can't have meant it literally. And in the asylum, it being a Christian institution, he was kept in squalor and fed bad food and every day given a good whipping. Thats where the story might have ended, if the preacher hadn't come back 6 months later and happened to ask what had happened to his convert. "we locked Him up" the good citizens told him. He persuaded them to let him out, and the man, having learnt how badly the poor and sick and mad got treated, decided he could do better. So he set up a refuge for the poor and the sick and the mad which he funded through begging. The story goes that as his refuge grew he began to insist that the patients were kept clean, and put into beds, and that men and women and children were all housed separately, and the qualities he now possessed were such that people were inspired to give and also to join him in his work and he began to be known as Juan de Dios. John of God. One winter he saved a young man from drowning, after ten years of this work, and went down with pneumonia. A rich lady saw his illness and whether out of the goodness of her heart, or the desire to secure the death bed of a saint, who knows, took him into her house where a week later he died. There were surely miracles, and enough posthumous followers to put on the pressure for candidacy for sainthood. And then the body was dug up and reburied in a special basilica, losing most of its parts on the way, there being such a demand for relics. And now we can see his portrait encased in a huge and ornate frame made of gold. And his rib, just an inch or so, encased in a huge reliquary of rubies. As if the whole direction of his life of giving, giving, giving, was abruptly put into reverse. So the order founded in his name became obsessed with accumulating. So it could look after the sick all over the world. And his memory cherished in a huge church whose values contradicted everything he believed in and stood for.
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