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Reading the treasury of holy lives in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time was a powerfully moving experience for me. Each biographical portrait filled me with a sense of that particular soul's sacredness and at the same time seemed to offer hope for the possibility of finding that kind of sacredness within myself. I decided to interview the author, Robert Ellsberg, for Seeds. Although I didn't meet him in person, I was able to "meet" him via the Internet. Thanks to the wonders of technology and his generosity, I got to know him through the process of an electronic interview.

 


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Home » Features » An interview with Robert Ellsberg

Walking on the Path of Holiness
by Judyth Woolfe



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 plant.

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 rather 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, more compassionate.

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 to Happiness. 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 actually living.

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.

 




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