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Volume 45, No. 1
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The Theatre of Sanctity
How does the holy poverty of saints compare to the real thing? By examining questions like this one, Professor Kenneth Wolf is trying to understand what he calls The Theatre of Sanctity.

Essay by Brian Doyle / Photo by John Lucas

Once there was a man named John Bernardone. His nickname was Francesco. His dad was rich and his mom was devout. As a kid he was violent, spoiled, vain and musical. At age 19 he joined the army. Five years later God started talking to him from a painting in a church, and pretty soon John Bernadone was wandering around barefoot and talking nonstop about the desperate need for general repentance, and then a lawyer friend of his joined him, and then 10 other men riveted and thrilled by Francesco’s electric character and ideas joined up, and so began the Franciscans, a Catholic order of priests and brothers and nuns now 800 years old. So too began the vast colorful legend of Saint Francis of Assisi, the best-known and best-loved of Christian saints—Francis who spoke the language of birds and wolves, who considered the sun and moon his brother and sister, who walked smiling through Christian and Muslim armies to chat about holiness with the enemy, who insisted people should pray in their own languages, who sprinkled ashes on his food to maintain humility, who on his deathbed spoke to his weeping donkey…

But hagiography is also a box, a pigeonhole, a kind of prison, and the sweet cloak of legend always obscures the salt and shout of reality. Francesco’s intense embrace of “lady poverty,” as he said; was that as much public theatre as it was personal epiphany? Is there a telling difference between the deliberate assumption of poverty by rich men and women ostentatiously divesting themselves of the trappings of wealth, and the exhausting, starving, desperate real poverty of those sentenced to it by birth or circumstance? Did Francis and saints like him—saints like Elizabeth of Hungary, a princess who gave away the comforts of the castle and founded two hospitals—actually draw attention and money and energy away from the drive for social justice that Christianity has always claimed as its central mission, by making deliberate poverty so famous a road to holiness?

Awkward questions, and around them skim the dark birds of religious politics, religions as corporations, the darker ambitions of saints generally painted with brushes of only one color—but there is a cheerful, thoughtful, patient, articulate history professor and dean at Pomona College who has now spent 20 years asking these very questions. “It’s the theatre of sanctity that fascinates me,” says Kenneth Baxter Wolf. “Theology is anthropology, really. What people believe and who they venerate is who they are, how they act, why they act. So my first scholarly specialty, the subject on which I wrote my dissertation 20 years ago—the martyrs of 9th-century Cordoba, 50 Catholics under Islamic rule who essentially committed suicide to protest the drain on their religious and cultural identity—led me to the symbolism of saints, their role as public spectacles, story magnets, showmen, performers, even as marketers for their faiths. Of course this led me to Francis, and I grew absorbed by public display of holiness in the early 13th century—especially the way he used the pursuit of ‘perfect poverty’ to win the riches of heaven, and, in the process, the undying admiration of his community.”

This path led Wolf to an equal fascination with Elizabeth of Hungary, Francis’ younger contemporary, “who had less control over her spiritual image, in large part because she was a woman. Married at age 14, mother of three children and a widow by the age of 19, dead at age 24, she would never enjoy the high levels of spiritual self-determination that Francis did. But, inspired by Francis, she too made a point of dramatizing her artificial poverty. Even the alms, shelter and medical care that she administered to the poor in the hospitals that she founded in Eisenach and Marburg was in the end more about her and her very public quest for divine, and public, attention than it was for the recipients of her largesse. You see what I mean when I use the words ‘the theatre of sanctity’—with poverty playing the lead role…”

The theatre of sanctity—instantly a Catholic listener thinks of the most famous modern Catholic figures, and how they brilliantly bent acclaim and attention to their purposes, how they were genius performers and publicists…Mother Teresa’s blunt mastery with reporters and photographers, agog at the tiny nun pitted against the sea of poverty in Calcutta; the extraordinary actor Pope John Paul II, who held the rapt attention of millions in outdoor Masses, the first pope ever to bow in prayer at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the first pope ever to kneel and apologize for the sins of his church; the stern Dorothy Day, well aware of the power of her spare room and spare clothes and spare prose in promoting her Catholic Worker movement; the cheerful elf Pope John XXIII, so deft at wielding humor to reform his ancient dusty religious organization…

As Wolf says, politely, he is intrigued by saints not for religious reasons—he is, genealogically speaking, a lapsed Lutheran, which may be a phrase never written before—but for everything else about saints, little of which is popular in scholarly circles, let alone the public arena. The economic benefit of deliberately seeking poverty, say—didn’t Francis’s colorful and very well publicized acts of denial and self-abnegation draw attention, and benefactors, and recruits, and fans, and eventually hagiographers to his cause? Francis certainly didn’t sacrifice privilege when he gave up his wealth; his sacrifice afforded him more privilege and influence. Understanding this—how the community of Francis’ time elevated its esteem for him based on his acts—says a great deal about communal values, which are the bailiwick, of course, of thoughtful and articulate history professors like the one musing this morning in Alexander Hall.

“If you think of saints as human beings deemed heroic by their communities, you find another way to understand those communities, all these centuries later, to see them in interesting and perhaps revelatory ways,” says Wolf. “Francis is a wonderful example. What stories are told of Francis after his death? How are the stories of his life and work packaged for consumption by future generations of Catholics? Why is his feverish pursuit of poverty the touchstone of his story? To look at that in an honest way is not to insult his memory or legacy, as some critics thought when my book appeared [The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered, 2003] but a way to look at how people grappled with belief, with religion, with how to live a holy life while participating in the very real world around them.”

The theatre of sanctity—“especially poverty as conscious sacrifice, political statement, rhetorical device, public gesture, creation of self, psychological process…those are some of the things I’d like to write about in the years to come,” he continues, “sacrifice as divestment from this world and investment in the next one. Not just focused on Francis or Elizabeth, but on sacrifice as a leitmotif in the history of sanctity as a whole, from sacrifices as dramatic as martyrdom to sacrifices as routine as tithing. Think of the fascinating ideas to explore! Wouldn’t that lead inevitably to asking if a religious economy based on sacrifice naturally favors the haves over the have-nots? Wouldn’t that lead to piercing questions about the ability and willingness of Christianity to really be the agent of social change it claims to be?”

Chances are, however, that Wolf won’t get to that soon, because he remains especially interested in the “theatre of sanctity on the Christian-Islamic interface,” as he says carefully—a matter of rising concern in this bruised and blessed world once again, many centuries after the martyrs of Cordoba. “The media is filled with accounts of terrorist activity and of equally violent responses to it,” he says, “in ways that make me think that the suicides of Christians in ninth-century Spain and the suicides of Muslims in 21st-century Iraq are more alike than they are different,” with all the attendant questions thereof—how much terrorist activity is actually intensely religious, and how much political? How much is investment, as it were, in the profitability of chaos? How much is religion used to cloak other agendas?

Theology as anthropology…that same Catholic listener above, who saw three friends murdered by Osama bin Laden on September 11 in New York City, sits in the dapple of Claremont’s morning light and wonders if it would be easier to find and jail the murderer if the world saw not a self-proclaimed jihadi but a power-starved thug hiding behind the curtain of religion. The Yemeni man who calls himself boastfully the Lion Sheik wants, more than anything, to foment war between the Islamic East and the Christian West; would that war, brooding on the horizon, be more easily dissolved like a fog if we were more attentive to Bin Laden’s theatrical use of religion? Could Ken Wolf’s polite insistence that much that is seemingly sacred is manipulation and illusion be a key to a world where your children and mind don’t shiver at the word terrorism, but only study it in history books?

The morning in Alexander Hall draws to a close, Ken Wolf’s many duties as professor and dean and colleague and counselor begin to press, and I ask him one last question, one that has niggled the back of my brain since I met him: How did he arrive at Pomona in 1985 with a thorough but narrow scholarly expertise, and find himself, in 2008, exploring far bigger ideas like theatre of sanctity, and the economics of religion, and political rhetoric and religion, and the marketing of religion through time, and…

Answer: the Pomona-ness of Pomona, as it were. “Look at it this way,” says Wolf, cheerfully. “If I was at a large university, I’d be one of a number of medieval scholars, each working a subfield, and in all likelihood I would have remained an Early Medieval Spain Person, never branching out into terra incognita, always afraid of stepping on someone’s scholarly toes. But at Pomona I am not hemmed in at all. I am medieval history at Pomona, sort of—in fact I am the only medieval historian in Claremont. So that whole thousand-year era of history is mine, and intellectually I am an unswaddled child, reaching for everything at once.

“At Pomona you are allowed, you are encouraged, to follow your sense of wonder. You can pursue what fascinates you. You can chase things that make you grow, things that push you toward discovery. It’s the same energy that informs the student experience here. It’s no accident that we have a large number and array of study abroad programs for students, for example— that seems quintessentially Pomona to me, because being pushed to enter another culture is both intimidating and refreshing. I know the feeling myself as a scholar jumping from Spain to Italy to Germany to Morocco and back to Spain—to enter another culture, especially one with another language, is to be a child again, only this time with the self-awareness that you don’t have as a child. It’s happened to me, for example, with Spain—I’ve become sort of an armchair anthropologist of Spanish culture, and I find myself circling back there time and time again no matter what I am professionally absorbed by at the time. But this winter I’ll make my first trip to Quito, where my daughter, a student at Pitzer, is spending her semester abroad, so who knows what I’ll find in Ecuador, and what sort of scholarly trajectory that will set me on…”

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