A couple of years ago I finally got around to reading The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.
I enjoyed it immensely, paying special attention to the chapter on conversion. I heavily underlined the pages on “The Value of Saintliness.”
But no passage delighted me more than this one, from the chapter entitled “Religion and Neurology”:
“There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric. I speak now not of ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather. But such individuals are geniuses in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous irritability… Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas…and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological.” [italics mine]
I don’t want to blow my own horn, but that is pretty much a pitch-perfect description of yours truly.
And also of many of the people I admire.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, wasn’t irritable, but she suffered from scruples, nervous excitability, and, when young at least, morbid sensitivity.
Father Damien, the priest who gave his life to the lepers of Molokai, was apparently quite rough around the edges.
Brother André Bessette, who was recently canonized as a saint, could be crabby, too: author Henri-Paul Bergeron, CSC notes, “At times he was somewhat irascible, and more than one visitor was disconcerted by his seeming rudeness.” (A woman in a low-cut dress once came to him complaining of chest pains; he replied, “Well, it’s not because your collar is too tight.”)
Hey, tending the door of a church through 40 Canadian winters would make anyone testy; as well, people streamed to him from dawn to dusk wanting solace, help, prayers, healing cures.
Dorothy Day could also be cantankerous. “She had struggled hard for years,” wrote Robert Coles in Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, “to achieve a certain selflessness, until she had come to realize that the very struggle was a contradiction. All she could do, finally, was try to be true to her decent, honorable side, knowing there was another side.”
So give us religious geniuses a break!
10 Replies to “THE RELIGIOUS GENIUS AT MY TABLE”
🙂 So true!
Just like Phyllis McGinley's poem about St. Jerome —
God’s angry man, His crotchety scholar
Was Saint Jerome,
The great name-caller
Who cared not a dime
For the laws of Libel
And in his spare time
Translated the Bible.
Quick to disparage
All joys but learning
Jerome thought marriage
Better than burning;
But didn’t like woman’s
Didn’t like Romans,
Didn’t like Greeks,
For their Pagan ways,
Yet doted on Cicero all of his days.
A born reformer, cross and gifted,
He scolded mankind
Sterner than Swift did;
Worked to save
The world from the heathen;
Fled to a cave
For peace to breathe in,
For miles around
He filled the air with
Fury and sound.
In a mighty prose
For Almighty ends,
He thrust at his foes,
Quarreled with his friends,
And served his Master,
Though with complaint.
He wasn’t a plaster sort of a saint.
But he swelled men’s minds
With a Christian leaven.
It takes all kinds
To make a heaven.
nice Heather: YOU ARE A VERY EXCELLENT WRITER! I hope that's a significant compliment. I mean it to be.
Too far away to give you food, too broke to
give you money, but I love your writing.
It's so honest.
From one of your "overly" sensitive readers.:)
Oh believe me, I will take all compliments, of any size, as well as all support, encouragement, fellow-feeling, and good wishes, with thanks and praise! And the St. Jerome poem is right on–"It takes all kinds/To make a heaven." Thank the Lord there is space for curmudgeons, ranters, railers and all other types in Our Father's Mansion…
Good stuff. I have just realized recently that part of humility is accepting all my parts and understanding that each and every one plays a role. I have spent a long time, for example, trying to be a "calmer" sort of person, but I have come to accept that I was given a passionate nature by a God who knows better than me and that there are amazing GOOD things about that passionate nature.
I will have to read that James.
OK, Here is another quote. This is from a short little book by Father Jacques Phillippe titled, Searching for a Maintaining Peace. He has been compared to the other French priest (I can't remember his name and I don't feel like looking it up, sorry) who wrote Abandonment to Divine Providence.
Anyway, here it is:
Here, then is what we mean by goodwill. It is not perfection, nor sainthood achieved, because it could well coexist with hesitations, imperfections and even faults. But it is the way, because it is just this habitual disposition of heart (whose foundation is found in the virtues of faith, hope, and love), which permits the grace of God to carry us, little by little, toward perfection.
This goodwill, this habitual determination to always say "yes' to God, in the great things as in the small is a sine qua non for interior peace.
Thanks for the post. You are such a fabulous writer!!
Jean-Pierre de Caussade is the Abandonment to Divine Providence guy. And thank you so much for this beautiful Fr. Jacques Phllippe quote, Erin…I have copied it down and I'm sure will use it a post one of these days…
I just read that very same book on Brother Andre a few months ago around the time of his canonization. I had the books for years, think I found it in the entry of a church somewhere for free or a donation. the price on the book says $1.00. Sometimes I get really good book deals. Last summer I found Alec Guinness' autobiography "Blessings In Disguise" in a rummage sale box at an ice cream social. It was a quarter and my sister bought it for me. Loved it. In terms of compliments. Today I had Mass at Catholic radio station and mentioned you by name and a bit of Parched. If you read this message in time you can go look up Relevant Radio on the internet and listen to the Mass tonight. That might be at 6:00 your time because I think it's broadcast in my area at 8 or 8:30. I hesitate to tell you out of fear of having misunderstood or misappropriated your writing. Hopefully I just got someone else interested.
I didn't see this till this morning, but thank you! The only way my writing could be misunderstood or misappropriated would be to miss that it is all about the journey to, the wonder, the mystery, the sublime Godhead of Christ…I'm honored that you mentioned me and Parched!
I really needed to read this today! What a blessing! Thank you so much!