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.”


Originally I just wanted to write a post on the uncanny valley, a phenomenon first described by Masahiro Mori (former robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) in an essay for Japanese magazine Energy (vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970) – READ THE ARTICLE ON THE UNCANNY VALLEY BY MASAHIRO MORI IN ENGLISH BY CLICKING HERE (OR PDF VERSION HERE). But as you will notice, dear reader, it made me think about some other stuff as well 🙂 …

Mori predicted that we would respond with a heightened sense of affinity to robots that act or look like humans until a certain threshold of similarity is reached. Apparently, when it becomes too difficult to make a direct and clear distinction between humans and robots, humanoid robots become uncanny and we experience an eerie sensation. In the words of Mori, we indeed come to an uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley 2

Mori ended his article by raising a few questions: “Why were we equipped with this eerie sensation? Is it essential for human beings? I have not yet considered these questions deeply, but I have no doubt it is an integral part of our instinct for self-preservation.”

The Uncanny Valley 1

Mori also provides a preliminary answer to these questions in a footnote:

“The sense of eeriness is probably a form of instinct that protects us from proximal, rather than distal, sources of danger. Proximal sources of danger are corpses, members of different species, and other entities we can closely approach. Distal sources of danger include windstorms and floods.”

This is all very interesting from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It helps in providing an answer to Mori’s questions.

René Girard considers man’s increased mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as a source of empathy as well as enmity, as a force responsible for order as well as disorder. For instance, children tend to take older people as their example. By imitating elders (and others in general) young people not only learn how to live in a certain culture, but they also learn what to desire. Others also function as models for desires and ambitions.

initiation ritual Xhosa manhood circumcisionOf course, when the gap between an imitator and a model is big enough, there won’t be any problem between them. The relationship between a mentor and a pupil will then be one of admiration from the part of the pupil. However, when an imitator’s skills increase he might become a threat to the position of his model. As he has learned to desire the same objects as his model, his model might become an obstacle to his ambitions. Adolescents indeed often show a tendency to no longer respect a former hierarchy. They tend to become rivals to adults whose authority they no longer automatically accept. They as well as the adults thus experience an identity crisis. In other words, the gap between youngsters and adults threatens to disappear and this potentially destabilizes human communities. Following Mori’s terminology we can call this gap where the distinction between young and old seems to disappear an uncanny valley. Girard observes that, in order to avoid a crisis resulting from this kind of intra-group rivalry, cultures have developed initiation rituals. These rituals often allow for types of violence against “new adults” in a controlled, structured way (for instance in a certain time frame) in order to give them “a proper place” and to avoid destructive rivalries and violence. It is no coincidence that student sororities and fraternities to this day make use of initiation ceremonies. Like many rituals in many cultures they paradoxically create an order by “organized disorder”. Sometimes these rituals are very violent, however, with girls being gang raped – to name but one of the terrors. That’s why some students are committed to end “frat-related violence”.end frat related violence

So to answer Mori’s questions already from the point of view of Girard’s mimetic theory: we have learned, in the course of our evolution as human species, to fear the disappearance of differences because we have learned to associate it with destructive types of rivalry and violence. That’s why, as Mori observes, “corpses, members of different species and other entities we can closely approach” (and identify with) are experienced as “sources of danger”. Youngsters can take the place of adults, robots of humans… and rotting corpses (similar to but not quite the same as living human beings) can generate diseases and death where once there was life. Indeed violence itself is like a disease, contagious.

Apart from the potential rivalry between and among youngsters and adults there’s another type of rivalry that has been experienced as a fundamental threat to the survival and stability of human communities: the rivalry between men to obtain “the best females” of a group. No wonder then that sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, has been perceived as a potential destructive force across different cultures. Because of its association with rivalry and violence, sexuality could easily become a taboo. On the other hand however, sexuality is also needed to guarantee a community’s survival. As is the case with adolescence, sexuality became a ritualized cultural phenomenon in human life (from courtship dances to temple prostitution to marriage). Rituals in general allow for a transgression of that which is taboo in everyday life.

Female Genital MutilationTraditionally, a collection of taboos and rituals in a particular culture is justified by referring to a sacred realm (with supernatural deities, ghosts or magic forces). Mimetic theory explains how violence became associated with “invisible persons” through the scapegoat mechanism (READ MORE ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION BY CLICKING HERE). Hence everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become associated with “invisible persons” or “gods” as well. Sadly the sacralization of sexuality often meant that women became scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for a potential crisis in the life of their respective communities. Women had (or have) to prevent men from desiring them, thereby preventing rivalries between men. In some cultures they had (or have) to wear a veil in public, in others they were (or are) circumcized. The reasons to this day given for female genital mutilation indeed hardly conceal the underlying sexism – taken from the European Campaign to end FGM: “FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.” Extramarital sex is considered taboo in this context since it could stir rivalry between men, destabilize family life and hence destabilize community life as a whole. Female sexuality, taboo because it is perceived as a potential violent force, thus is highly ritualized: female circumcision is a form of sacrificial violence to prevent destructive violence (perceived as “the wrath of the gods”) from happening.

stand against FGMIn short, human history shows that women all over the world, in different times and in different cultures, have been perceived as “dangerous life-bringers”. They are feared and adored at the same time (read more on this by clicking here – post on TEMPTRESSES). Important and well-known myths from all over the world have transmitted the perception of women as potential troublemakers. I’d like to dedicate the second part of this post to a presentation of three versions of this perception of women. The message concerning Pandora, Eve and “uncircumcized women” should be clear. These women are considered to bring about “the uncanny valley”, the loss of differences that marks the breakdown of the normal social order. Indeed, chaos and disorder in communities is often perceived as a curse brought about by “bewitched women”. However, if the situation of women is read as a particular form of the scapegoat mechanism, the (whether or not ritualized) violence against women can be considered a curse or a “burden” women have to bear unjustly. Although the Bible is not without sexist tendencies, René Girard and others have argued that Judeo-Christian Scripture eventually reveals the truth of the scapegoating impulse behind our cultural institutions. In other words, according to Girard our ability to consider certain texts and habits as, for instance, “sexist” is a consequence of a knowledge gradually given to us through the biblical writings. But that’s another story… Let’s take a closer look at the women who are blamed for “the evils mankind has to endure…”


Prometheus, Thief of Fire and God Challenger in Greek Mythology

The Myth

Pandora (Jane Ray)After Zeus hid fire from humans, Prometheus stole it from the gods to give it back to mankind. Prometheus did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banned to a rock in the Caucasus. Chained, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who ate out his liver. It is said that his liver regenerated each night because of his immortality. Prometheus was eventually freed from his eternal punishment by the hero Heracles. At the same time, Zeus had also punished mankind with Pandora, the first woman. She became the wife of Epimetheus who could not resist her, although his brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept her gift. Pandora unleashed all the evils in the world by opening a box that should have remained closed. The Greek epic poet Hesiod (between 750-650 BC) writes of Pandora: “From her is the race of women and female kind, of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Eve, Thief of Forbidden Fruit and God Challenger in Hebrew Mythology

The Myth

The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Michelangelo)After God had forbidden man to eat from the tree of knowledge, the woman who was eventually named Eve nevertheless took some of its fruit and also gave some of it to Adam, the first man. Eve did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banished from the Garden of Eden, to earth, together with Adam. Eve is considered to have cursed mankind with death, suffering and all kinds of evils and troubles. Genesis 3:16-19: “The Lord God said to the woman, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam God said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”

The Thief of Women’s Clitoris and Preserver of Sacred Order in African Ritual

The Myth

Bruce Parry visited the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. Women of this tribe are circumcised. One of the women who circumcises the girls told Parry the story that justifies this type of ritualistic violence concerning female sexuality:

“Circumcision is our culture. If we stop our culture, we will all die. If a woman with a clitoris gives birth, she, her child, everyone will die. Her clitoris will come up to her head. It’ll come out of her nose, and back into her head. It’ll kill her, she’ll die. Her father will die, her mother will die. That’s why we cannot stop circumcising girls.”

Bruce Parry:

“I’m told if she doesn’t get circumcised, she won’t get married, and she’ll be cast out from the tribe.”



  • There is a hierarchy in society, establishing order by making clear distinctions.
  • This hierarchy is to be respected; we shouldn’t compare ourselves to higher ups or compete with them. In other words, mimetic rivalry is taboo in everyday life. We should respect distinctions and differences. No hubris!
  • If a person does not respect a society’s prohibitions and customs, he or she is cast out from society as he or she is considered to potentially bring a crisis (or chaos) to life. A new order is established by sacrificing an outcast (found at the margins of society – high or low) ritualistically, again and again in an unescapable cycle of events. More generally speaking, rituals allow for so-called “good” controlled violence in order to avoid “bad” uncontrollable violence from happening.
  • Women are to be suspected as potential troublemakers, maybe even warmongers. The above mentioned stories claim in a sexist way: a crisis is never far away when women are around!
  • Order in society, established by maintaining certain taboos and (sacrificial) rituals, is considered sacred, as a divine commandment.