Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Roger Williams, Painful Saint

They called Roger Williams a "painful saint" in his happier days in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.   I bet when he heard that he blushed and said, "Aw, fellas, thanks."

For you see, this was a great compliment.

How do you reconstruct a world that has vanished, like that of 17th-century Massachusetts?  Its remnants are a little art (Non-Conformists were never big on art), some relics of their material culture (their pans and their hinges and a few lucky textiles), and thousands and thousands of words.  English words, and we know English.  We figure we can read what they wrote and by that path find our way into their world.

But language is an ebullient thing, a living thing, bursting its bounds and changing course as its speakers choose.  Definitions change.  The slight nuances of meaning that the speakers took for granted have to be teased out of their context by readers in this day.  We will never know how successful at understanding we are, or are not.  The only ones who could tell us are long gone.

But it's not just definitions that change.  Since the world that those words referred to has transformed and transformed again, the things that those words referred to have also changed.  Sure, a horse is still a horse.  But what about a concept like "democracy" in a world that placed no great value on participatory government, and little on individual choice itself?  How do we understand that?  We enshrine individual choice.  We can't get over how awesome it is.  Not being able to choose is "being forced," and "choosing for myself" is equal to finding truth.  (Good luck with understanding all that, future generations.)

The "painful" in "painful saint" does not refer to ouchy-ness.  It is closer to our "taking pains":  to do something well; diligence, attention to detail, keeping to the spirit as well as the letter.

And "saint" is the Protestant understanding of that biblical word:  a sincere, practicing Christian is by definition a saint.  It refers to the inner reality of that person, his soul, which Christ has made perfect even in this life.  The rest of his being, body and mind, is deeply flawed.  So he may make sincere mistakes.  At times he willfully chooses to do wrong.  But the dynamo in each true Christian's core is a perfected soul, and that should be evident in a person's life if it is actually there.

So a "painful saint" is an extra-sincere Christian, one who is extra-diligent in practicing her faith.

Part of the problem with the word "saint" is that in our time it always has a negative connotation on some level if it is used toward a living person.  If we say, "That woman is a saint!" then we mean she must be doing something really good, really worthwhile -- but there is still a lingering meaning that she is doing too much, working too hard, being too understanding -- possibly not being quite real -- possibly showing the rest of us up.

Non-Conformists called fellow believers "saints" the way we say "Christians," and every time I run into that usage in one of their letters or whatever, I recoil inside.  Woo-hoo to you, you're a saint . . . so I am not as far into that world as I could be.

A "painful saint" -- does that seem attractive?  Even now that you know what it means?  Would you want to be trapped on a stranded cruise ship with a painful saint?  A super zealous Christian?  How does a super zealous Christian behave?

What if that Christian was zealous in the Christian values of love and humbleness?  Invisible service, random acts of kindness, Mother Theresa -- that sort of thing?  What if love and kindness marked a painful saint?

Ah, but along with things like strict morality and orthodoxy?  But first, love and kindness?

Roger Williams was a genuine painful saint.  He was a superior character, I think -- an exceptional human being.  His character was shot through with love and kindness, even while he was being doctrinaire and inflexible, even as he let you know how wrong you were.  And if you can't figure how all that fits in one package, you've got it.  You are up against the central dilemma in history, all history.  We probably can't know just how it all fits together.

Oh, we can get a close enough idea, or at least we can put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to us.  People are people, after all; in all centuries, we understand why the lord falls in love with the bar maid.  But sainthood as a matter of course, as a fact in daily life, is another matter.  And for this writer, portraying Williams' painful sainthood is quite a challenge.

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