Mr. Ellsberg is the son of Daniel Ellsberg, who was arrested
for releasing the Pentagon Papers to the American public.
His earliest influences were his parents: his mother, whose
Christian faith introduced him to the Gospel and the saints,
and his father, who introduced him to the model of Gandhi
and the way of nonviolence. He spent five years working
with Dorothy Day
as managing editor of The Catholic Worker
After Ms. Day's death in 1980, Mr. Ellsberg edited a collection
of her writings, which won a Christopher Award. Continuing
in her tradition, he spent 16 days fasting in solitary confinement
in a Colorado jail, protesting the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons
Mr. Ellsberg has traveled throughout Latin America, investigating
the changing role of the church there. In 1987 he became
editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, the publishing arm of Maryknoll,
where he oversaw publication of more than seven hundred
books. All Saints
was published in 1997 and
won both the Christopher Award and the Catholic Book Award.
His next book, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
is entitled The Saints' Guide to Happiness
How would you define saintliness
in terms that apply to the modern man or woman?
I believe that saintliness is a quality of transparency.
Through the holy person we encounter some sense of the goodness
and love of God. In such persons God's goodness and love
have become central, organizing principles of their personality.
This doesn't mean they are "perfect." Saintliness is more
of an orientation than something that is achieved. I like
to talk of walking on the path of holiness
than being holy
. It means that holiness is a goal;
it is expressed over time in the whole journey of a life,
not something that can be quantitatively tracked. ("Now
we are 65% there-not much more to go!")
The question is whether we need to understand saintliness
in new terms today. In the past there was a sense that the
pursuit of saintliness required that we remove ourselves
from ordinary life by entering a monastery or a convent.
That remains a valid vocation for many people. But I think
there is more a sense now that we are all called to holiness
and this can be realized and lived out in every situation
of life. I think we are also more aware of the social dimensions
of holiness. The goal of our lives is not just our own personal
salvation, but how we can make God's love more visible in
a world of suffering, violence and injustice.
What were your criteria for
choosing the saints you included in your book?
Most books about saints simply start with the given saints
and the presumption that because they are canonized they
must have something to say to us. I took a more inductive
approach. I began by asking myself what kinds of holiness
speak to our needs today. And that led me to a very wide
range of men and women throughout history, about half of
them canonized and the rest not. Although we tend to fit
the saints into various pigeonholes-martyrs, bishops, founders
of religious orders, "virgins" (as so many women saints
are termed)-what struck me in looking at the officially
recognized saints is how many of them were really trailblazers
of the spiritual life. So many of their stories show their
efforts to devise a spiritual path that responded to the
particular needs or challenges of their time. Often they
felt that their particular sense of vocation was not reflected
among the available options of their period. So they created
their own way. I think that speaks clearly to our needs
today. Many of us feel that faithfulness today requires
a certain inventiveness. But it was always thus.
As for the "non-canonized" saints, obviously this reflects
to some extent my own personal tastes and interests. But
it is clearly a very eclectic group, including artists and
writers, social activists, scholars, missionaries and witnesses
for peace. Some of these are good candidates for canonization.
But most of them represent something different from the
old stereotypical saint. They are very recognizably our
fellow human beings-flawed like us, stumbling like us-but
encouraging us by their example to be more open, more courageous,
Do you think it is possible
to be saintly within any religious tradition or within no
particular religious tradition?
All religious traditions exist to provide a path to salvation.
Those who walk that path are walking the path of holiness.
But because salvation is understood differently in different
traditions there are undoubtedly different understandings
of holiness. The question that my book addresses-indirectly-is
whether Christians have anything to learn about holiness
from the example of non-Christians. I have no doubt that
we do. Gandhi, a devout Hindu, is not a candidate for canonization.
But there is no question that Christians who study his life
and teachings may understand the witness and teachings of
Jesus in a whole new light. Many of the people who interest
me have deepened and enriched their own spiritual practice
through their encounter with the wisdom of other spiritual
paths. But I have also included figures like Albert Camus,
a professed agnostic, who in his integrity and responsibility-and
his accountability to the big questions-presents a challenge
to all people of faith.
What are the ways you would
encourage all of us, who are modern-day people, to begin
the process of sanctifying our lives?
I am now writing a book to be called The Saints' Guide
. I am trying to make the point that the
aspiration to holiness is not an aspiration to become a
stained glass window or to have people praying to you for
miracles. It is a call to be in touch with the inner depths
of your existence-to be more awake, more fully alive-to
be the person you were created to be. This might involve
giving more time to prayer or contemplation. But that is
not the holy
part of our lives-that is so that we
can be more mindful in our work, in our relationships, and
all the daily routines of life. Those are the real arenas
of holiness. We spend much of our time imagining what we
will do once we have finished all the chores and tasks at
hand. Holiness is largely a matter of waking up to the presence
of God in the present moment, the moment in which we are
How can we begin this process? I think one of the first
things to do is to think of my present situation as the
context of my call to holiness. For instance, I am married
and have three children. My path is not a monastery or a
hermitage, though there are times when that seems very attractive.
How am I called to find God in the midst of the chaos of
children doing their homework, dishes that have to be washed,
floors that have to be swept? Well, for one thing, you realize
that you don't have to be in a special place to find occasions
for enlarging your capacity for patience, humility, forgiveness,
self-sacrifice, generosity. A large family is an ideal place
for this-better than a monastery in some respects. The difference
is that we are not generally trained to perceive this.
What about the female saints?
Do you see any irony in the fact that a woman cannot be
ordained a Catholic priest and yet can be canonized a saint?
The Catholic church has recognized hundreds of women saints,
including four who are termed "Doctors of the Church" (Teresa
of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Edith
Stein ) .
Preeminent among the saints is Jesus' mother, Mary. Still,
women are vastly under-represented in the overall number
of canonized saints. There are many reasons for this. For
one thing, women religious historically lived out their
lives in the relative obscurity of the cloister. They didn't
leave writings or generate biographies that brought their
reputation for holiness to a wide circle. Of course this
was not accidental. Throughout most of history, the church
allowed few options for women that allowed them to demonstrate
their capacity for leadership, teaching, prophetic witness
or public action. The church of the future will fully acknowledge
and honor the gifts of women-including female expressions
of holiness-or it will not survive.
What are some of the qualities
of saintliness you hope to see in our world leaders?
World leaders are not the same as heads of state. Most of
the latter are simply successful politicians, and I don't
find them particularly interesting. But occasionally you
find someone like Nelson Mandela, who exemplifies a kind
of courage and integrity that has been tested by suffering
and endurance and who can rise above his own personal sufferings
to promote a vision of reconciliation. Mikhail Gorbachev
was a failure in terms of his own political system-but he
had the courage to implement reforms that led to the collapse
of the USSR. That took a lot of courage. In the Catholic
church there are examples like John XXIII, a very conservative
pope, but not an autocrat. He had a sense of openness, and
he wasn't afraid of letting the Spirit blow where it would.
Cardinal Bernardin was a great leader in the American church,
but his greatest witness was probably in the very human
way that he showed us how to die with dignity. The Dalai
Lama has no political power. But he represents a kind of
leadership that is rooted exclusively in his own truthfulness
and goodness. Recently Thomas More was named the patron
saint of politicians. He was a man who put loyalty to his
own conscience-that is, his internal code of what is right
and true-before any other loyalty. That is not a common
attitude among "world leaders," but we are better off to
the extent that our leaders, whether in politics or the
church, act on the basis of that loyalty, rather than in
the interests of keeping their jobs, advancing their political
party or maximizing their power. Each of us, world leader
or not, has the capacity to embody such qualities.