The Saint is a short story written by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In that story, a man named Margarito Duarte always carries around with him a small coffin with a dead body that never decomposes. It is the body of his daughter who died at the age of seven because of a fever. He had to disinter the body because a dam that was going to be constructed required the acquisition of the parish cemetery. All the parishioners disinterred the tombs of their beloved so that the bones could be buried in a new cemetery. Margarito found the bones of his wife who had died giving birth to their daughter. But when he opened the tomb of his daughter he was in for a shock. his daughter’s body had remained intact eleven years after the burial. His daughter looked alive with her eyes open and sparkling. Margarito, who had not studied beyond the primary school, believed what the villagers said: “the incorruptibility of the body was an unequivocal sign of sainthood.” Even the local bishop agreed.
Margarito takes the coffin to Rome. He makes a supplication to the Pope to declare his daughter a saint. He waits for an answer from the Vatican. The Vatican is no less than God especially in answering supplications, especially those concerning sainthood. Popes come and go. In fact, Margarito waits 22 years and four Popes from Pius XII onward come and go. Margarito still waits. After 22 years of waiting, Margarito says, “I’ve waited so long it can’t be much longer now.” And Marquez concludes the story with the words, “he (Margarito) had spent twenty-two years fighting for the legitimate cause of his own canonization.”
Margarito is the real saint, according to Marquez. He is a saint because of his single-minded devotion to perceived sanctity as well as his faith and hope. What else is religion? What else is saintliness?
These were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read about many godmen in the last few weeks. Some of the best articles about contemporary godmen and other vampires can be found in the recent issue of the Frontline. One can always visit godmen’s ashrams and find out more ‘truths’ personally.
What makes Marquez think of Margarito as a saint?
I think of Sisyphus as a saint. Sisyphus is a Greek mythological character. He spent his entire life pushing a rock uphill in order to challenge the gods who had punished him with that task of pushing the rock. He knew that he would never succeed. The gods would always push the rock downhill just as he reached the summit of the hill. Yet Sisyphus climbed down the hill without despair and the spirit of daring in order to pick up his rock once again. That daring with its single-minded devotion as well as the faith in himself (minus any hope, though) makes Sisyphus a saint for me. Conventional religions will have problems with Sisyphus’ faith in himself rather than the gods as well as his lack of hope.
Let us take an example from a very conventional religion, Catholicism. Simeon Stylite (390-459). He is canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. What did he do in his life? He lived on top of a pillar whose height he kept on increasing as years went by. Single-minded devotion to God. He hated women. He hated even men! This is what the famous historian, Edward Gibbon writes about the saint:
In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meager skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.
What do the sages hope to achieve in their solitary hermitages in the Himalayas? Single-minded devotion.
Single-minded devotion is saintliness. That is just what Marquez was trying to convey through the story.
But devotion to what? Not to sex or wealth or political/manipulative power.
Devotion to some absurdity.
Life is absurd, asserted the philosophers of the Absurd like Albert Camus. Can you fight it with single-minded devotion like Sisyphus?
PS. I’ll be totally away from blogging for a week as I’m an acolyte of single-minded devotion. I’ll be away on a certain duty which will hopefully refresh me as much as the rock refreshed Sisyphus.