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What Does “Really a Saint” Mean, Anyway?

In a recent article, Kimberly Johnson called into question the sainthood of Satya Sai Baba, who, having lately passed away (or as we say at my church, “died,”) was the subject of numerous tributes in her Facebook newsfeed.

These tributes, she said, were really bugging her.

Personally, I have no opinion about Sai Baba. Yes, I too have seen the YouTube videos accusing him of pedophilia and legerdemain, and if true, those accusations are certainly disturbing. But as they remain unproven, I will leave them out of the reckoning. I am, at any rate, put off by any man or woman of God who rides around in luxury sports cars. But it isn’t really Ms. Johnson’s opinion of Sai Baba per se that interests me, but rather the underlying assumption of her article—that sainthood is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Ms. Johnson explains that she was not “drawn” to Sai Baba, that she didn’t “like the look” of him. And I agree with her that that sounds a little woo-woo—more than a little, in fact.  Not a few spiritual masters have been noted for an unprepossessing exterior.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.[i]

Ms. Johnson taxes Sai Baba with refusing to “perform” his siddhis, or “manifesting powers,” in a “scientific environment,” but frankly, if I’d been him, I wouldn’t have either. “I’m not your monkey,” I might have said. And even Jesus “could do no miracle” in His hometown of Nazareth “because of their lack of faith.”[ii] Miracles are not for convincing the faithless, but for edifying the faithful.

Obviously, pedophilia is not to be tolerated, but supposing Sai Baba had some other, less heinous “weakness in the area of power-sex or money,” how are we to know whether his is a case of self-serving hypocrisy, or merely of the spirit being willing, and the flesh weak? We cannot know another person’s heart.

Of course, there are indeed false prophets in the world, and there have been for a very long time.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them…A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.[iii]

The case of Sai Baba—who “has started schools, opened hospitals and provided thousands with jobs”–is tricky in this respect. When a person’s work has borne as much good fruit in the world as Sai Baba’s is said to have done, deciding which kind of tree he is seems to have less to do with private shortcomings and more with public beneficence. Plenty of religious charlatans have come and gone without leaving hospitals on multiple continents. And whether his good works were truly done in a spirit of nishkama karma, or with an eye on the next Jaguar, only God knows–and will judge.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only they who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’[iv]

Sometimes, it even seems that God prefers flawed servants.  The Apostle Paul, after relating his visionary experiences to the Christians at Corinth, went on to describe what he called a “thorn in the flesh”–presumably some persistent temptation, possibly of a sexual nature–that kept him from getting above himself.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.[v]

You see, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself, because I am enrolled in a training program in group spiritual direction and retreat leading, which means that I am finally taking positive steps toward the spiritual teaching and leadership role into which people have been casting me for years. I am always the one called upon to ask the blessing at large family gatherings, agnostics have broken down and asked me to pray for them, and people often assume, for reasons I do not understand, that I am a clergyman. (I’m not.) And every time someone treats me like some kind of highly “spiritual” being, I want to say, No, no, you don’t understand: I swear at tentative old lady drivers, I am inwardly contemptuous toward all sorts of people, I cannot drive past a college campus without checking out the hot college girls who are, by the way, young enough to be my daughters. I am not the person you think I am!

Mercifully, I am neither a pedophile nor a reputed saint. But it took me a long period of soul-searching before I finally decided that the call I felt to pursue this ministry was a true vocation rather than a mere hankering. Sometimes I’m still not sure.

It was the Principles of my Order– the Third Order of St. Francis–that finally persuaded me to stop hiding among the baggage[vi] and do this thing.

The faults that we see in others are the subject of prayer rather than of criticism. We take care to cast out the beam from our own eye before offering to remove the speck from another’s. We are ready to accept the lowest place when asked, and to volunteer to take it. Nevertheless, when asked to undertake work of which we feel unworthy or incapable, we do not shrink from it on the grounds of humility, but confidently attempt it through the power that is made perfect in weakness. (emphasis added)

In the language of Protestant Christianity, anyone who dies to self–or who at least understands the necessity of doing so and firmly intends it–is a saint, warts and all. Isn’t that what Sri Krishna meant when He said, “Though a man be soiled with the sins of a lifetime, let him but love me, rightly resolved, in utter devotion: I see no sinner, that man is holy”?[vii] I sure hope so, anyway.

So in the absence of incontrovertible proof that a person’s intentions are bad and his hidden conduct blamable, I’d just as soon judge the tree by its fruits, if I judge at all.


[i] Isaiah 53:2b

[ii] See Mark 6:5, Matthew 13:58

[iii] Matthew 7:15-16a,18

[iv] Matthew 7:20-23

[v] 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

[vi] See I Samuel 10:22

[vii] Bhagavad Gita 9:30

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Love Apr 30, 2011 9:41pm

Hi Scott, I love your post especially since you are a neutral party not defending or accusing anyone. There is a great quote that says the highest form of teaching is by example. The words don't matter, who you are being is what speaks volumes and your gentle nature in your post and comments says it all. Only those that are at peace can create peace in the world. Glad to see a peacemaker among us. Kindest regards.

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Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs.