A number of years ago I began a simple research project inspired by a basically straightforward question that turned out to have a diabolically insensate answer. I wanted to find out how a person becomes a priest. I wanted to know this because my father had tried unsuccessfully to become an Episcopal priest and in the process of trying to wrap my head around that, I discovered that I couldn’t, mostly because I didn’t know if I was a practicing atheist, agnostic, Jew, or just practicing ignoring the whole subject. And once it occurred to me that I might be ignoring religion and its attendant matters, I couldn’t ignore it. I really did want to know if suffering had a greater end, whether goodness was intention or action, and which was more powerful: forgiveness or the inability to forgive.
Speaking in abstractions for work should have been heady enough for any young woman. But I wanted to get really confused and so I embarked on a deep investigation of Episcopal Church polity on the question of spiritual calling. It turns out that a vast thicket of specific ideas about calling spits you back out into a landscape of abstractions. And the whole mess starts to seem interesting yet entirely random. And perhaps for a certain kind of mind (like mine) that confusion is a comforting place to end up.
That project completed, I went to work at a fashion magazine, fact checking items like the retail price of Glam-o-bama mascara, which soon deadened what had been invigorating spiritual confusion. I left that job and a couple of hiccups later came back to literary pursuits—where in a manner of speaking I had started.
I should state here—for the record—that in my experience religion and literature have little in common. Their respective grey matter is of entirely different colors. Nonetheless we were inspired to create an issue of TLR about religion, and because we live in the kingdom of literature, narrative rules, and the lives of the saints—their struggles, outlying status, conviction, conflict, specialized knowledge, and redemption—offer great narrative.
I had forgotten, I guess, about the thickets. Forgotten, that is, until I somewhat capriciously decided to fact check the beautiful essay we have in this issue about the first Australian saint, Mary MacKillop, by Judy Rowley. We don’t typically fact check personal essays. But I was seized by that familiar old curiosity. And, after my intern spent the better part of a day trying to get confirmation from the Catholic Church about “how you get to be a saint,” I greedily took over and soon found myself absorbed in a long, wonderfully far ranging, and complex telephone conversation with a professor in Spirituality from Fordham University. He suggested several avenues of research—including getting a hold of the official Vatican dossier of Mary MacKillop’s petition for canonization, housed (of course) in Rome, or, contacting the Canon Tribunal in New York City, or simply tracking the shifting theology around what constitutes a miracle. Because, he said, “The whole idea of verifiable miracles has broadened,” to include things like living in the spirit of Christ.
Miracles in the information age, it seems, are difficult to confirm. And so when it comes to saintliness, like the most consuming human impulses—spirituality or love or suffering—facts are entirely irrelevant.