Readers should need no introduction to The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. Infected with a madness focused on the bygone era of knight errantry, Don Quixote leaves home to enact a new golden age of chivalry. As Don Quixote says to his loyal squire: “Friend Sancho, I would have you know that I was born, by the will of heaven, in this iron age of ours, to revive in it an age of gold, or golden age as it is often called. I am the man for whom dangers, great exploits, valiant deeds are reserved” (1.20). Of course, this new knight errant succeeds only, for the most part, in making a fool of himself and unwittingly terrorizing innocent people across the countryside.
In some ways Don Quixote is a fit image for the struggle against the modern world. The old golden age of Catholic culture has passed away and new age of iron (or worse) has come in its place. To look back on the great deeds of our ancestors should inspire us to action, even if the odds seem hopeless. To most around us, such action would be as foolish as attacking windmills or flocks of sheep. Yet, the fight itself is noble enough to risk the shame and humiliation of defeat.
That said, Don Quixote can also reveal an Achilles heel in the modern Catholic revolutionary. Don Quixote became delusional from reading too many chivalric books; books meant to entertain the reader with unrealistic accounts of the valor of their heroes, more fantastical accounts than ones meant to edify and imitate. In response, his parish priest burnt his books in hopes of removing the source of his madness.
Looking back to the time of my own conversion, I recognize a similar influence in many works of hagiography. The lives of the saints can be presented in such an unbalanced way that one gets the idea that one day the Lord moved their hearts and the next they were turning the world upside down. This is not to deny the power of the Lord’s call in their lives, but what many narratives of the saints leave out is the process by which their weakness is overcome and transformed by grace. These accounts leave out the real humanity of the saints, including their flaws and shortcomings in the midst of their holiness. (Fr. Augustine Thompson’s Francis: A New Biography is a great counterpoint to this tendency.)
What kind of damage can this misunderstanding of saints wreak? For one, it can lead to a false assumption that one becomes holy overnight. I remember reading St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila as a teenager and in my immaturity seeking to place myself within their account of the heights of holiness. I have heard from many others who made the same mistake. Then when one encounters the continuation of sin, failure, and weakness, there is a tendency to become discouraged. “Well, I guess I’m not a saint after all; I will have to settle for less.”
Secondly, there can be a tendency to judge one’s relationship with God in light of action and accomplishment. The life of the saints can be misread in light of Quixote’s chivalric novels; the Saints being the champions of God who work wonder after wonder in fantastical fashion. This, by no means, is to deny the miracles of the saints, but rather to show that many accounts of the saints do not focus on their real greatness, found in the interior life. Youthful readers can get drawn into thinking that the life of a saint is one fantasy, more akin to King Arthur’s roundtable than the daily, hard routine of fidelity to God. (Dom Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate is a helpful witness here.)
Another work of fiction comes to mind as an antidote to Don Quixote. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory presents the ministry and death of the whiskey priest, who, despite his sins, is a much better model for the reality of one’s struggle toward saintliness. I said despite his sins, but it might be more accurate to say, because of his sins. The whiskey priest began his ministry in comfort, enjoying a life of ease and respect, in which being a priest came naturally and superficially. It is a fitting image of where most of us begin our journey, taking our faith for granted and falling into easy and comfortable routines.
Persecution then came to the province of Tabasco, Mexico (the setting of the novel), and the priest risks his life to continue his ministry. Though this sounds heroic, the whiskey priest admits that he stayed out of pride, relishing the fact that he would be the only priest to maintain the sacraments in the area. What he finds is that his heroism is too much for himself. His idealism crumbled in the realization that he was no saint. And yet, he persisted, continuing to serve in his own broken way. He remained a somewhat selfish, drunkard, but he also increased in his compassion and understanding for others and himself.
In the end, the whiskey priest gives up his newly found freedom and reenters the land of persecution in order to minister to a dying man. Though he knows that he will be captured, he is unwilling to shirk his most profound duty: to save souls. He did not live a life of heroic virtue, but he did continue his struggle to remain faithful in the midst of his brokenness. His acceptance of both his brokenness and that of others was an important step toward a last act of heroism in which he gave his life. His martyrdom of love revealed that fruit of the gradual process of purification which he received at the hands of his own endurance through his sins and weakness.
The whiskey priest’s own reflection the morning of his death provides the simple insight he gained:
He caught sight of his own shadow on the cell wall; it had a look of surprise and grotesque unimportance. What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless…. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage…. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint (Part 3, ch. 4).
Here we find the last thoughts of a broken priest, about to go off to martyrdom, unprepared, though keenly unaware of his own neediness before God. He is not the hero, leading to a triumph, but himself the object of God’s mercy.
Though by no means perfect, this pseudo-hagiography may serve as a better model for young idealists wanting to be saints. In our own “iron age,” as Don Quixote put it, we have to face up to the brokenness that we bring into the life of faith. This brokenness does not magically disappear. Rather, it is something that must be suffered and only gradually (usually at least) transformed. We also have to acknowledge the limits of our setting. Sweating it out, trampling through the swamps, suffering with malaria, like the whiskey priest, presents a fitting image for the adventure of a future saint within our culture. We will not be able to single handedly bring about a new golden age, but to labor and suffer in the midst of a lesser one.
In conclusion, we can see an unrealistic hagiography can place the center on one’s self: “Saint X changed the world and the Church and I want to do that too!” Holy zeal may be helpful in initial motivation, but it will need more depth to continue. There must be maturity and especially humility for the growth of saintliness. In that sense, maybe Don Quixote is not the worst of models: as the neophyte rushes off in pursuit of great deeds, he will experience the humiliation that attends such quixotic ventures! This humiliation may be the beginning of imitating the saints: moving from Don Quixote to the Whiskey Priest!