There are three different ways to become a saint, each indicating something different about the individual involved. If the purpose of reading saints’ lives is to be inspired to live well and become a better person, some of these paths are more applicable to a modern context (at least in America) than others.
First, there are “saints due to suffering.” Martyrs fall in the first category, those people who pay the ultimate price for adhering to their beliefs in the face of threat. Generally speaking, I thought of this as requiring the faith to be the cause of the threat, as in the case where a pagan conqueror obliges a monotheist to pray to his idols or die, and the believer chooses death. Thinking at the level of virtues, this demonstrates courage, but also a form of ego: the martyr believes that his/her statements and example are so important that it is worth dying to avoid even the form of deviation from proper practice. There are countless examples of such behavior in Judaism, but there are also counterexamples (viz. the Conversos in Spain during the Inquisition). At the personal level, I can admire the fortitude of the public martyr, but at the community level, I also feel that those who preserve the tradition (albeit in secret and at risk) have done more to contribute to the community/religion than the one who allows him/herself and their family to be killed. There are other examples, though, in Sigrid Undset’s Saga of Saints, where someone was killed simply for doing something good. Saint Hallvard, in her retelling, was trying to help a pregnant woman accused of theft escape when he was shot full of arrows. His action was clearly selfless, but not particularly Christian. If we are in the unfortunate position of being threatened or abused, one can hope that our suffering will serve some higher purpose of example, and be honored in the future, but in a 21st-century America, the likelihood of needing to emulate these examples is (mercifully) low.
Next, there are saints for “significant acts”. Those who perform miracles during their lifetimes, or, as in the case of Saint Olaf, spread Christianity. Per Undset, however, Olaf was primarily motivated by the desire to conquer Norway for himself, with converting defeated enemies essentially an afterthought. This feels like the least admirable to me: if one is granted supernatural powers to achieve a divine end, it is the divine purpose, not the human instrument that is important, and, to paraphrase Bruce Lee, honoring those saints is focusing on the finger pointing at the moon, not the heavenly glory.
Lastly, there might be what we think of as “character” saints. These are the people whose example we all have the opportunity to follow, though few do, living a life of quiet humility and charity. Each individual act of generosity may be relatively small, and of the sort that many (if not most) of us perform, but the steady accumulation of consistent good deeds, even when life is busy, when we have competing obligations or desires, and without a sense of particular self-importance is admirable.
We see all three types represented in secular obituaries as well: there are people whose deaths take on additional significance because of their context, even if the individuals didn’t do anything particularly heroic. Personally, I feel particularly saddened by the loss of victims of school shootings, terrorist attacks, or the opioid epidemic, because they fit into a broader context of our society’s struggles. Even if the individual’s life would not likely have been particularly noteworthy, they become a reminder of the possibility of improvement and greatness in all of us, which is abrogated by untimely death.
Secondly, perhaps, are the leaders in business, media, and sports, who are turned to for comment on all manner of subjects outside of their area of expertise. I read an article not too long ago quoting Jeff Bezos’ advice for raising successful children. Even if one believes that we should measure our children’s success by their ability to accumulate massive wealth (I don’t), the right people to talk to would be Jeff Bezos’ parents. Other than their inheritance, there’s no reason to think his kids will or won’t be more successful than anyone else’s at this point. Steve Jobs’ death was widely lamented because of his business success, and I saw him described as “empathetic” because of his ability to anticipate people’s design preferences, while by numerous accounts he was often unkind and even cruel to the people around him.
Lastly, are the local obituaries that we might find: where ordinary people do extraordinary things. I worked with a colleague who had donated blood over a hundred times, and my little brother is well on his way to matching that. In some ways, this is the hardest form of sainthood. Grand gestures are relatively easy, even acts of extreme generosity can make us feel important because of their impact. But I’ve found that consistency is harder, in the same way that daily flossing is hard, exercising consistently is hard, and all our boring, unremarkable actions are hard. It’s true humility, and not subject to the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, or overlapping with the hope of honor/fame for doing something dramatic.
That’s not to say that there’s no overlap between large-scale actions and humility. Isabelle of France provided one possible example of both. As the sister of St. Louis, King of France, she had wealth and influence, but she was deeply dedicated to her faith. Isabelle founded a nunnery at Longchamp, but remained a chaste layperson, and lived at the nunnery in the 1200s, gaining its members the title of “soeurs mineures” in 1263. She retained control of her wealth, though she lived modestly, so that she could fund the abbey itself and her charitable acts. She seems to have tried to balance having a substantial impact (starting an order, founding a nunnery) with personal humility (chastity, living in a nunnery). It may be harder to remove oneself from the quest for wealth/power in a capitalist society where influence is linked to accumulation, and there is a pervasive myth that wealth accumulation is an indicator of intelligence or one’s contributions to society. Some portion of Isabelle’s power (and wealth) were nearly inalienable, tied to her family identity, and not her involvement in the court. I hope that my children (and I) will be able to contribute to the world in memorable ways, and will make use of our privileges as effectively and generously as Isabelle, but if I had to choose, I would hope for consistency of character and courage over celebrity.