What makes a saint a saint?

Christian spirituality, and the Catholic spirituality in particular, very much focuses on the power of examples.

feral children amala-and-kamalaAs modern psychology shows, humans get access to their particular cultural environments through mimetic processes (i.e. processes of imitation). Perhaps the importance of imitation as the heart of the human (psycho)social identity formation becomes paradoxically visible with the observation of children who lack the example of other human beings while growing up. Feral children often imitate animals instead, with all due consequences.

It is no coincidence that an authentic spirituality, in line with what makes humans “human”, is based on the question “Who am I?” understood as “Whom should I follow / imitate?” Indeed, we receive our identity from others who either free us to ourselves or enslave us to an alienating social status we learn to uphold. We never build our identity “from scratch”. We are relational beings, our being is essentially relational, and all kinds of relationships are prior to our sense of self or “I”.

Thomas à KempisThe great spiritual figures and mystics of the Christian traditions have always believed that we come to ourselves by imitating Christ (see De Imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis – 1380-1471). This does not mean literally imitating some kind of idol (that is a perversion of spirituality) but imitating the life and love present in the figure of Christ. So what this actually means is: stepping into the realm of a love that allows us to be honest about and true to ourselves so that we become capable of lovingly accepting others as well.

Thus saints in the Catholic tradition are not saints because they are unrealistic examples of so-called ideal, perfect people. That would make them idols, crushing all too pious minds under guilt, shame and resentment. On the contrary, saints are saints because they found the audacity to be “painfully honest” about themselves and no longer hid their imperfections, flaws and “sins” from themselves and others.

“Hello, I’m Ignatius, alcoholic”

Saints are people who follow the advice of Jesus in the Gospel of John (8:32), “Know the truth and the truth will set you free…” Free to love. An alcoholic, for instance, who enters the loving realm of an AA meeting and is finally enabled to admit to himself that he is an alcoholic, indeed enters the first step on a journey that will enable him to find himself again. This in turn will enable him to approach others from what he has to give rather than approach others from his particular “needs”.

6219.inddThe conversion experience of Saint Ignatius Loyola (click for more) can be understood in these terms. He converted to “God”, which was a conversion to “himself” at the same time. This does not mean that Ignatius became “God”, but that he found the realm of a love that allowed him to accept himself. Ignatius turned away from the prideful social status he wanted to uphold. The love for a chivalric image and his romantic dreams had prevented him, like some mad “Don Quixote”, from loving others, whom he merely used as “means” to confirm his self-image (either as “enemies” or as “friends”). But at some point in his life, at a moment of a deep identity crisis, Ignatius started to discern between the forces that alienated him from himself and others on the one hand, and the love that allowed him to connect to himself and others on the other. He started to give up the game of “auto- and hetero-aggression” and found true self-respect and respect for others.

The spiritual exercise of Greg, former Porn Star

Greg, the most decorated male porn star of all time, follows in the footsteps of saints like Ignatius who entered the realm of “the life and love present in the Christ figure (among others)”. First of all, Greg became aware of the status he wanted to uphold, as a rich and famous adult film actor, and how this was destroying him. He ended up in an endless vicious circle:

“I had to go to work, to do the porn, so that I could buy the drugs, to bury the pain of doing the porn. So I’d go to work, and do the porn, so I could buy the drugs, to bury the pain. And around and around it went.”

Second, Greg realized what harm this kind of auto-aggression was doing to his ability to love other people:

“What porn did to me, is it changed the way I thought, and felt about women. I began to look at them even more so as a sexual object. I lost the ability to have a loving and caring relationship. I thought I was still able. I was fooled.”

Finally, however, Greg was able to turn away, to convert (Latin: “convertere”), and he transformed his life into a testimony and an example to inspire others:

“I left the set [of a shoot], drove a couple blocks, pulled over, and started crying. Since that day, I’ve never gone back. I changed my life, I began my life. You see, if I can change my heart, anybody can.”

René Girard’s mimetic theory is heir to a long and widespread Christian tradition of meditating on imitation, more specifically on the imitation of Christ. This tradition is such an essential part of the Christian ‘DNA’, that Christians throughout the ages have dwelled upon it. Not surprisingly then, the wisdom of a famous Medieval Catholic monk – Thomas à Kempis – coincides with the insights of a contemporary Christian rock star – Bono. I found it interesting to organize a meeting between the two. So, here you have it: some excerpts from De Imitatione Christi next to a video fragment of an interview with Bono.

Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471) is famous for his spiritual guide De Imitatione Christi – ‘(On) The Imitation of Christ’. These are its first words:

Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris dicit Dominus. Hæc sunt verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur, si volumus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum, sit in vita Jesu meditari.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput I, 1).


“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ indeed asks us to imitate him, thereby reorienting our mimetic abilities. Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, tried to follow this call from an early age and always looked for authentic ways to develop his life as a Christian. He tried to follow in the early church’s footsteps:

In school I met some people who knew the Scriptures. It was quite a moment there when people got very interested in the early church and the possibilities of imitating the early church.

Because of certain mimetic tendencies, our ears often remain deaf to these possibilities. All too soon we imitate those who judge us, and we become judgmental ourselves. Answering Christ’s call to ‘follow’ him has to do with finding out the truth about our’selves’ and with the ability to love our neighbour. The evangelical paradox is this: in obeying Christ we don’t lose ourselves but instead we actually find who we are – we become free! Christ represents the realm of grace and forgiveness, where we don’t have to hide our weaknesses and iniquities. This realm is an antidote for the temptation to present ourselves in such a way that we don’t run the risk of being judged. We are often tempted to enslave ourselves to an admirable image (Latin: imago) or to imitate an illusory idol. Bono puts it this way:

The key that great art has in common with Christianity is: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I’ve held on to that very tightly. That’s how I start my day as a writer. I (can) start on a lie… and a lie can be being the person that you’d like to be, rather than the person you are…

If we don’t experience ‘the space of grace’, we will indeed easily lie about our own shortcomings and place the blame on something or someone else – and thus create scapegoats. We are so used to being judged that we judge others in our defense, and so multiply the evil we are trying to avoid. To imitate Christ means to imitate the One who is merciful and by doing so, in turn, free others in becoming and accepting themselves. The dynamic thus created is a dynamic of love which eventually hopes to save the world from the ‘bad’ imitation of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence. Bono also talks about this interruption of ‘the laws of karma’ (i.e. the laws of harmony, balance as well as revenge) by the creative, unexpected and ‘unbalancing’ dynamic of grace and forgiveness:

I’m pretty sure that the Universe operates by the laws of Karma essentially. All physical laws do. What you put out comes back against you. Then enters the story of Grace, which really is the story of Christ, which turned this view of the Universe upside down. And it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s very, very hard for human beings to grasp Grace. We can actually grasp atonement, revenge, fairness… all of this we can grasp. But we don’t grasp Grace very well. I’m much more interested in Grace because I’m really depending on it.

In order to become loving persons – which is the ultimate goal of the biblical enterprise – we first need to accept ourselves as we are. That’s why Thomas à Kempis advises us to temporarily withdraw from a world where we are tempted to keep up appearances by gossip and rumors. From time to time, we need to retreat from ‘the company of men’ in order to distinguish ‘the call of the One who creates us’

… so we might truly become ‘imitators of Christ’:

Quære aptum tempus vacandi tibi, de beneficiis Dei frequenter cogita. Relinque curiosa, tales potius perlege materias, quæ compunctionem magis præstent quam occupationem. Si te subtraxeris a superfluis locutionibus et curiosis circuitionibus nec non a novitatibus et remoribus audiendis, invenies tempus sufficiens et aptum bonis meditationibus insistendis. Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant.

Dixit quidam: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. Hoc sæpius experimur, quando diu confabulamur. Facilius est enim tacere quam in verbo non excedere. Facilius est domi latere quam foris se posse sufficienter custodire. Qui igitur intendit ad interiora et spiritualia pervenire, oportet eum cum Jesu a turba declinare.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput XX, 1-2a).


Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. Read such matters as bring sorrow to the heart rather than occupation to the mind. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. 

“As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

The video fragment of an interview with Bono on ‘faith, hope and love’


For more cross-references between U2 and mimetic theory I highly recommend a book, in German, by Austrian Brigitte Dorner: U2 ist ihre Religion, Bono ihr Gott. Zur theologischen Relevanz der Rock- und Popmusik am Beispiel von U2. For more information, click here.