In the most recent Convivium I mentioned that I had been thinking about Saints (what their characteristics were, how they arrive at that status and achieve recognition, how they influence those who come into contact with them, etc.) just before John posed the question about our face-to-face meetings with people who had been especially influential. I went back to my notes to find how the subject came up, and found that I had been reading Dorothy Wickenden's New Yorker article "Late Harvest" (Feb 28 2022) about Wendell Berry, which brings him up to date and led me to characterize the essence of Berry's magnetism as a sort of secular sainthood. I've been unpacking that notion ever since, and have covered a lot of territory in the succeeding fortnight.

Wendell Berry's iconoclastic writing about farms and agriculture is something I've been following for a long time, probably beginning with articles in CoEvolution Quarterly (Spring 1977, Spring 1978), and Berry's 1977 The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, and I also knew that Berry and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) had been friends. I needed some term that would contain the personal significance of those three, and 'saint' came to mind. Not the religious sort, something much more secular, spiritual dimension optional...
My own connections to that trio are several, and have only come together in the last two years.
  • I read Merton's Seven Storey Mountain when I was about 14, and didn't really get it—but then what background does somebody of 14 have for autobiography? I retrieved the book on Kindle and am finding it quite interesting this time around. And a few years ago I learned that Merton was a photographer Beholding Paradise: The Photographs of Thomas Merton
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard I discovered in 1965 or so, probably via Minor White's Aperture. A few years ago I got the Steidl photobook Ralph Eugene Meatyard and so have a much better grounding in his work.
  • as noted, I've been following Wendell Berry's take on farming/living ever since CoEvolution Quarterly ran a chunk of The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture in Spring 1977.
  • Guy Davenport knew all 3 of them, and has a very nice essay on Meatyard in The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays.

I also happened to be reading Lewis Thomas The Fragile Species (1992), following a pointer by Maria Popova.

...our marvelous, still-immature, dangerous selves, brainy enough to menace all nature unless distracted by music... (4)
My notes to myself say "This man is surely a saint."

So what about this secular sainthood? Here's what I've excavated so far: each personal Saint contributes something marvelous, deeply moving, iconic, seminal... to one's understanding of the world. Writing down, copying out, linking to or otherwise notating passages so that they can be retrieved from the mycelium (in Wende's fortuitous analogy to the vast webwork of associative threads) <== those are all acts of veneration, as are the hypertexts and collations I [may eventually] construct from the fount of gathered gems of expression. Commonplace books are a traditional medium for such rescues, and playlists and mixtapes execute the same function of making it possible to save, locate, and then distribute one's thoughts and insights to like-minded others. And similarly with images, like my ever-expanding gallery of photographic inspirations ... in which one may lose/find oneself in contemplation of message and meaning, in the ongoing reverberations of having seen, of being influenced, seized for a moment in apprehension of broadened vision... and subsequent viewing or reading can renew that moment, echo the original epiphany that found personal meaning in words or image or sound (or, presumably, smell and taste, c.f. Proust's madeleine) ... I have a lifelong pattern of enthusiasm for writers/photographers/musicians who seem to be speaking directly to me, to be informing me against my will, to be somehow encapsulating the VITAL that I'm primed to recognize and then to follow up at some length, and to weave into the mycelium (or, as I've often identified the construction, the Macramé).

So I recognize literary saints, musical saints, photographic saints, artistic saints, library saints, academic saints—people to whom one might point as paragons of qualities and messages that inspire, that can be breathed in, that have the power to transform one's understanding/capability.

Those thoughts sent me on a library hunt for material I might have that bear upon "sainthood/saintliness" and I thought to wonder if William James would have anything useful to say. Google pointed me to Chapters 14-15 of Varieties of Religious Experience (On the Value of Saintliness), in which I spent a pleasant hour. As I began, I wondered if I could factor out or pare away the churchy god-stuff and get to the secular core I'm espousing. Here are some gemlike passages:

The word "religion," as ordinarily used, is equivocal. A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers. When these groups get strong enough to "organize" themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own. The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and to contaminate the originally innocent thing; so that when we hear the word "religion" nowadays, we think inevitably of some "church" or other; and to some persons the word "church" suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition that in a wholesale undiscerning way they glory in saying that they are "down" on religion altogether. Even we who belong to churches do not exempt other churches than our own from the general condemnation.


The plain fact is that men's minds are built, as has been often said, in water-tight compartments. Religious after a fashion, they yet have many other things in them beside their religion, and unholy entanglements and associations inevitably obtain. The basenesses so commonly charged to religion's account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion's wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion's wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system. The ecclesiastical spirit in general is the sum of these two spirits of dominion; and I beseech you never to confound the phenomena of mere tribal or corporate psychology which it presents with those manifestations of the purely interior life which are the exclusive object of our study. The baiting of Jews, the hunting of Albigenses and Waldenses, the stoning of Quakers and ducking of Methodists, the murdering of Mormons and the massacring of Armenians, express much rather that aboriginal human neophobia, that pugnacity of which we all share the vestiges, and that inborn hatred of the alien and of eccentric and non-conforming men as aliens, than they express the positive piety of the various perpetrators. Piety is the mask, the inner force is tribal instinct. You believe as little as I do, in spite of the Christian unction with which the German emperor addressed his troops upon their way to China, that the conduct which he suggested, and in which other Christian armies went beyond them, had anything whatever to do with the interior religious life of those concerned in the performance.


Embosomed in this monotony, the zealot for purity feels clean and free once more. The minuteness of uniformity maintained in certain sectarian communities, whether monastic or not, is something almost inconceivable to a man of the world. Costume, phraseology, hours, and habits are absolutely stereotyped, and there is no doubt that some persons are so made as to find in this stability an incomparable kind of mental rest.


Single attributes of saintliness may, it is true, be temperamental endowments, found in non-religious individuals. But the whole group of them forms a combination which, as such, is religious, for it seems to flow from the sense of the divine as from its psychological centre. Whoever possesses strongly this sense comes naturally to think that the smallest details of this world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order. The thought of this order yields him a superior denomination of happiness, and a steadfastness of soul with which no other can compare. In social relations his serviceability is exemplary; he abounds in impulses to help. His help is inward as well as outward, for his sympathy reaches souls as well as bodies, and kindles unsuspected faculties therein. Instead of placing happiness where common men place it, in comfort, he places it in a higher kind of inner excitement, which converts discomforts into sources of cheer and annuls unhappiness. So he turns his back upon no duty, however thankless; and when we are in need of assistance, we can count upon the saint lending his hand with more certainty than we can count upon any other person. Finally, his humble-mindedness and his ascetic tendencies save him from the petty personal pretensions which so obstruct our ordinary social intercourse, and his purity gives us in him a clean man for a companion. Felicity, purity, charity, patience, self-severity—these are splendid excellencies, and the saint of all men shows them in the completest possible measure.


Dislike of the saintly nature seems to be a negative result of the biologically useful instinct of welcoming leadership, and glorifying the chief of the tribe. The chief is the potential, if not the actual tyrant, the masterful, overpowering man of prey. We confess our inferiority and grovel before him. We quail under his glance, and are at the same time proud of owning so dangerous a lord. Such instinctive and submissive hero-worship must have been indispensable in primeval tribal life. In the endless wars of those times, leaders were absolutely needed for the tribe's survival. If there were any tribes who owned no leaders, they can have left no issue to narrate their doom. The leaders always had good consciences, for conscience in them coalesced with will, and those who looked on their face were as much smitten with wonder at their freedom from inner restraint as with awe at the energy of their outward performances.

Compared with these beaked and taloned graspers of the world, saints are herbivorous animals, tame and harmless barn-yard poultry. There are saints whose beard you may, if you ever care to, pull with impunity. Such a man excites no thrills of wonder veiled in terror; his conscience is full of scruples and returns; he stuns us neither by his inward freedom nor his outward power; and unless he found within us an altogether different faculty of admiration to appeal to, we should pass him by with contempt.

Reading William James made it clear to me that it's their effect on me that qualifies my Saints for the aura of Sainthood: my response is an admiration for their clarity, and for their getting it just right. They are exemplary, but I'm not imbuing them with those Christian-saintly excesses of Devotion, Purity, Tenderness, Charity, for which I can't find secular analogs. And it's not their personal characteristics or spiritual accomplishments that I'm looking at so much as celebrating end-user respect and recognizing the exemplary when I see it.

So who am I fingering as Saints for their eloquence and their perspicacity? There are lots of them, and if I just start in one corner of the library I'd list Maria Popova, Ursula Le Guin, Stewart Brand, Richard Powers, Walker Evans, James Agee, Colin Woodard, Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Berthoff, Tom Lehrer, Edward Gorey, William Blake, Caspar Henderson... and that's just the very beginning, drawing on a couple of shelves. The point really is that I keep discovering new ones, and realizing interlinkages among, and finding new facets, and it seems to happen every day. My Brisées et bricolage page has caught quite a few instances of pregnant text over the years.

An encounter with a Saint is a sort of darshan, 'glimpse, viewing'... beholding of a revered person, sacred object... reciprocal, the viewer receiving a blessing by being seen. I wonder if meeting one's Saints in the flesh is even a good idea. One might discover that their example at a distance is preferable to gritty/grimy realities they might bring in their wake. Those gone, gone beyond are [relatively] safe, and their peccadillos may be largely irrelevant, to do with their now-ended meat-lives.

One's own personal Saints share a feature/characteristic with people who are one's friends: neither friendship nor Sainthood is necessarily transitive, though it might be—others may not see the same essential charm.

Sainthood is where you find it, and can serve at some stages of life but need not serve for all. Biography is often a help—see Popova on Rachel Carson, for example, and Solnit's Orwell's Roses gives us lots of reasons to admire and even revere Eric Blair, but he said of himself

..."the odious little snob", as George Orwell described the young Eric Blair. (NYRB 24ii22)