2016-06-30
What makes a person a saint? And who gets to decide?

Those questions came to mind when I recently read that Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a prime-time TV star of the 1950s, may become a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. The New York Times reported that Cardinal John J. O'Connor has given permission for a friar at St. Felix Friary in Yonkers to begin a study of the life of Bishop Sheen as the first step in the long process of canonization.

I first heard of Bishop Sheen when I came home from Columbia College in the summer of 1954 as a proud intellectual atheist, and my parents insisted I watch this TV priest. Bishop Sheen was outdrawing the era's hottest TV star, the comic Milton Berle, and had even won over my Midwestern Protestant parents, a breed congenitally suspicious of "the papacy." He shook my smug atheism with a sermon on "The Hound of Heaven," the poem about the man who "fled him down the nights and down the days" but is caught by God in the end--as I feared I might be (a fate I would later welcome with open, broken heart).

The idea of nominating individuals for sainthood appeals to me, and I think the rest of us ought to have a say in choosing our own saints.

I have often thought fondly of Bishop Sheen, and he would certainly have my vote for sainthood--if I could vote, but I can't; I'm not even a Roman Catholic. But the idea of nominating individuals for sainthood appeals to me, and I think the rest of us ought to have a say in choosing our own saints.

This very idea has been carried out at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where a stunning mural-in-progress in the church rotunda portrays 74 men and women who have been chosen by a lay committee and clergy from a list of 350 names submitted by church members as candidates for sainthood--"popular saints" or "modern-day saints." "We celebrate those whose lives show God at work," explains a document from the church, in order to foster a broad idea of sainthood, rather than "the commonplace notion of rarified purity."

The saints depicted include people of all faiths, some of whom are as surprising as they are provocative: Ella Fitzgerald, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anne Frank, Cesar Chavez, John Coltrane, and Malcolm X take their place alongside Francis of Assisi, Patrick of Ireland, and Julian of Norwich, who have already garnered a place in the church's saintly pantheon.

One of St. Gregory's modern-day saints is a favorite author of mine, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and his presence in the lineup reminds me of someone I think Merton would nominate for sainthood--and for whom I'd second the motion. I'm thinking of Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author, who influenced so many students during his long and distinguished tenure as professor of English at Columbia University.

In his spiritual classic "The Seven Storey Mountain," Merton credits Van Doren's "sober and sincere intellect, and his manner of dealing with his subject with perfect honesty and objectivity and without evasion," with keeping Merton from falling under the sway of campus communism, which at the time appealed to his youthful idealism and desire to better the lot of the poor. Though Van Doren never spoke directly of politics, his clarity of thought was in sharp contrast to the twists and turns of the communist line, and gave Merton a higher and more critical standard of judgment. Merton, the grateful student, believed that this professor was "no stranger to the order of grace," and I knew what he meant from my own experience. As a raw transfer student from Indiana, I felt lost and out of place in New York and the intellectual hotbed of Columbia. I had been reassured by his Midwestern accent and wry wit in my first class session with him, and when, in his office, I identified myself as a newcomer from Indiana, he smiled and welcomed me with all the warmth and interest with which he would have greeted a distinguished colleague.

I left his office in Hamilton Hall not only feeling welcomed and acknowledged but somehow feeling safe in that alien place, in the intimidating city and sophisticated college. I had the reassuring sense that because such a man was here, no deep-down harm could come to me, no malevolence could invade the grace of his plain goodness. Though I never called on his help, I felt his presence during my whole time at Columbia as a kind of guardian angel.

Allen Ginsberg must have felt the same way. As a young undergraduate, he rushed into the office of the Columbia English Department after having a kind of transcendent experience while reading Blake and shouted, "I've just seen the light!" The other professors, bored or embarrassed, left the room, but Van Doren stayed and asked with genuine interest, "What was it like?" Years later, when I interviewed Allen for my book "New York in the Fifties," he told me, "At Columbia I found nourishment from Van Doren--spiritual nourishment. He had a spiritual gift."

Though he never espoused his own religious beliefs in class, Van Doren taught the Bible in his course on The Narrative Art in a way that made even the most devout student atheists (like myself) see it in a new powerful light. I felt an almost electric charge of revelation when he spoke of Jesus not as "a wispy character floating around Jerusalem in a nightshirt," as he felt Christ was too often presented in Sunday schools, but as "the most ruthless of men." The New Testament suddenly took on color and personal significance in his words.

Many of us, in succeeding generations, surely understood what Merton meant when he wrote of Mark that "Providence was using him as an instrument more directly than he realized." Not only in his way of making the sacred seem serious to scoffing undergraduates but also in his generosity of spirit. He launched and aided careers without thought of recompense or credit. A Columbia football player named Jack Kerouac was so moved by Van Doren's Shakespeare course, he quit the team to devote more time to writing. Van Doren recommended Kerouac's first novel, "The Town and the City," to another former student, the editor Robert Giroux, who published it at Farrar, Strauss.

With his craggy, granite face and large, lively eyes, Van Doren seemed a kind of modern-day knight who proved his theory that the lesson of Don Quixote was that anyone could be a knight--all you had to do was behave like a one and "do the things that knights do." He believed the same principle applied to saints. Merton once ran into Van Doren on the street and told him a friend had said, "All a man needs to be a saint is to want to be one." Van Doren replied, "Of course."

Newsweek called Van Doren a "living legend"; now that he is gone, I propose we call him a saint.


Dan Wakefield's most recent book is 'How Do We Know When It's God?' Check out his website.

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