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How to become a saint: A short guide

November 29, 2012

Intro and disclaimer

The blog post A short guide for non-believers was well-received, which encourages me to publish another short guide for those blog readers, who want to become saints.

In analogy to a comprehensive series of self help books I could have titled the blog post “How to become a Saint for Dummies,” but first I don’t consider my readers to be dummies and second this is not a self help book (or a self help essay), this blog post is a collection of ideas and proposals and I don’t claim it to be anything more than that.

I chose the title “a short guide,” because I will try to keep it as short as possible. A long guide would probably exceed the attention span of the blog visitors and writing a long guide could also exceed the life expectancy of the author.

I’m not sure still if this will be a parody or a serious examination and debate. As a generalist I know a little bit of everything but not enough to deliver real outstanding works in a special field — writing an entertaining, biting, acidic parody unfortunately is beyond my pay grade.

Disclaimer: Religious persons should skip this blog post.

Godless saints

It has to be clear from the start, that this guide will be about the secular version of sainthood, which means that aspiring saints don’t have to focus on god (or on gods) and also don’t have to follow the will of god (or gods) as it is expressed by religious traditions and myths or written down in holy scriptures.

Religious beliefs may in fact even be a hinderance for secular saints, as they often result in a distorted view of reality and consequently make an accurate analysis of existing problems and an appropriate choice of necessary remedies impossible.

This guide has nothing to do with religion and it has nothing in common with Jack Bernhard’s “How to Become a Saint: A Beginner’s Guide” which provides guidance for anyone who seeks to come closer to Jesus Christ by embarking upon the long road to sainthood. While a “back to basics” commonsense spirituality may be helpful in this time of growing confusion and while exchanging the term “god” against the term “nature” will make some of the religious postulates usable also for secular saints, religious beliefs overall are a dangerous distraction, are misguiding rather than guiding.

Most religions define saints as persons who demonstrate a life of almost perfect virtue. With a healthy dose of chariness this definition can also be used (to some extent) for secular saints — but what does “perfect virtue” mean?

Synonyms of virtue are integrity, honor, goodness, generosity, kindness, morality, righteousness, all words which sound good, inspiring, uplifting but still don’t provide the clearness of a logical definition.

To make it short (as this is a short guide) here a prefabricated definition: Living a life of perfect virtue means in this context (and most probably also in every other context) to live in perfect concordance with the established value system (ethical system).

Which implies than everybody who embarks on the arduous and maybe even painful journey towards sainthood first has to have a clear idea about and a profound understanding of her or his value system.

(Value system and ethical system here mean the same thing, rules derived from values are ethical rules, the whole compound is the “ethical framework.”)

After a solid understanding of the personal value system is achieved the indispensable next step is to apply the value system to ones own lifestyle, which will often mean a reorganization, redirection, the abandoning of familiar habits, oddities, quirks, idiosyncrasies. Many people will be uneasy about this and voice objections, arguing that their oddities and idiosyncrasies are essential parts of their personality.

Don’t worry, you will never get rid of all your quirks and abandoning the more extreme ones will only make you a more amiable and charming person!

Why should one become a saint?

Well, look around, listen to the news, research the internet. Do you like what you see, hear, and read?

Wars are raging, 200,000 or more died in Iraq, 40,000 in Libya, 30,000 until now in Syria. People are enduring violence and are dying in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Congo, Mali, and many other places.

Global military expenditure is about two trillion US$ per year (according to SIPRI). The USA military budget is 711 billion US$, though additional military spending outside the Department of Defense (the war department) add up to a total of about one trillion Dollar.

There are an estimated 8.000 active nuclear warheads waiting to be deployed at any time.

90 percent of the large fish in the oceans are gone, dead zones increase and have now reached the size of Great Britain. The oceans are in distress by acidification (with pH levels as low as 7.7), by warming waters, by the devastating effects of oil spills (Ixtoc, Gulf War Kuwait, Deepwater Horizon). Between 30 and 36 percent of important marine environments — such as sea grasses, mangroves and coral reefs —  have been destroyed.

Forests around the world are dying from insects, fungus, and drought. Two billion of the world’s six billion hectares of forests have been destroyed since the start of the industrial revolution. Many of the newly planted forests are monocultures, predisposed to epidemics and with greatly reduced biodiversity.

1.4 billion people live below the international poverty line (earning less than 1.25 US$ per day), one billion are undernourished. Three billion are living in unsanitary conditions without access to clean water. One billion of them have no access to safe drinking water. One billion children (every second child on this planet) live in poverty.

(This is not the parody part of the blog post)

To sum it up: there is prevalent human violence, relentless destruction of nature, unimaginable suffering and pain, and nothing is changing for the better. If this is real, if this is true, if the evidence is sound, if disaster is knocking on the door and armageddon becomes a possibility, we have to get serious, get personally involved, and profoundly redirect our lives.

Rationalizing lethargy versus preaching

Quite a few people will not like to profoundly change their lives. Even if they are aware of the looming catastrophes, serious change will be too much asked for and they will instead seek refuge in denial, they will ignore the writing on the wall, shrug and move on, or sit back and retreat to the position, that suffering and pain are a fact of life, unavoidable and inescapable. Life is suffering (the Four Noble Truth of Buddhism) and it was always like this.

Life is suffering, life is a struggle, as it was always a struggle.The world is not perfect and never will be perfect. The Garden of Eden is a religious myth and paradise on earth will never be achieved.

But why not try to alleviate, to ease the suffering and the pain? Why not live this imperfect and bothersome life as good as we can, why not enjoy it and make the best out of it? Why not help each other and teach each other to enjoy life and make the best out of it?

Did I play too much Al Green CDs (Love and Happiness)? Does the last paragraph sound like the conclusion of a Christmas sermon or the climax of the speech that the chairwoman of the local charity gave at Thanksgiving? Be warned, I can reach even deeper into the drawer of popular trivialities and proclaim:

One has to walk the walk before talking the talk.

You have to change yourself before you can change the world.

Silly or just plain true? I leave it to the reader to decide, but the essential point that I would like to convey in all seriousness is, that we humans take our cues from fellow humans. We imitate, mimic, parrot them, we learn from our parents and teachers, we follow our role models. This is made possible by so called “mirror neurons” in our brain and it is not a very special human trait, we share the ability to imitate and learn from our peers with many higher developed animals.

Mirror neurons are also involved in the feelings of empathy, compassion, love — any thorough analysis of human behavior shows that imitation and empathy are closely related. Imitation allows us to learn necessary social rules, empathy makes us treat our fellow beings kindly, both abilities are necessary to live together in communities, both are absolutely necessary for the functioning of societies.

The value system

As this is a short guide I can only include an abbreviated discussion of a possible value system, and the argumentation has to be compressed in a few key phrases:

Considering the pain and suffering of living creatures (omnipresent, prevalent, mostly inflicted by violence, by the proliferation of weapons, by raging wars), and considering the environmental destruction (caused by greed, hubris, stupidity, overpopulation) it makes sense to embrace a value system based on the goals of diminishing the pain and suffering of living creatures and of preventing further environmental destruction.

While the mentioned goals may be easy to accept, the methods to reach them and accordingly also the exact definition of the value system and the ethical rules are disputable.

The proposed value system btw. only makes sense for persons who are able to feel empathy (love, affection, compassion, friendship), but persons who are unable to feel empathy, who are unable to love, care, sympathize, commiserate are in any case not likely to strive for sainthood.

Preventing environmental destruction

This is easy because aspiring saints just have to lead a modest life, thereby using the smallest possible amount of resources. A modest lifestyle does not necessarily mean a life of chastity or hardship, the prospective saints should lead a happy and fulfilled life and they have to be healthy and strong — sainthood can be a very demanding job.

I have to correct the last paragraph instantly because living a modest, simple life can be quite challenging in this time of interconnectivity, specialization, sophisticated infrastructure and regional or even global support systems. Many advanced technologies and many tools that we use now can be beneficial and are reducing energy and resource consumption, it is up to the user to find out which are beneficial and which are a waste of time and resources.

Some new technologies, tools, machines, gadgets are a distraction, are numbing, are mental pacifiers.

The internet is all of this and more, yet a saint who lives a simple life without internet connection will not reach very far and will be restricted in teaching her or his wisdom to disciples. One can of course depend on the snowball effect and gather a group of dedicated followers who then spread the word to the people of the world. But to do that the followers will have to visit far away countries and they will need transportation means beyond walking and bicycle riding — in such cases they could safe much energy by teleconferencing, writing emails or blog posts, and publishing books.

The internet is also helpful to bypass the “firewall” of mainstream media, which shields us from unsettling and disturbing news, dissenting opinions, and profit threatening consumer information.

For example: The production process of many clever tools and appliances will need more energy than these tools and appliances will ever recoup and the time savings will never compensate the working time needed to pay for them (provided that you are not a top earner).

Many products may be completely unnecessary, some may be unreliable or break easily (your smartphone), others may be even unhealthy. Information about possible downsides will not be available via mainstream media because the people who want to sell the stuff will suppress negative reviews.

A (tiny) case study concerning unnecessary products: Healthy food is after fresh air and clean water a main factor to sustain our wellbeing, and it seems a reasonable approach to have a well equipped kitchen with all the necessary tools and appliances to cook the food properly.

Here a long yet still incomplete list of what the retailers offer:

Cooktops, ovens, ranges, hoods and venting systems, fridges and freezers, dishwashers, microwave ovens, disposers and compactors, blenders and mixers, juicers, toasters, coffee machines and coffee bean grinders, popcorn makers, waffle makers, vacuum sealers, electric knifes, electric potato peelers and salad spinners, electric food slicers, choppers, ice cube makers, electric kettles, food dehydrators, slow cookers, electric salt and pepper mills.

Are these products all necessary? And if not, who buys them?

Reorganizing and re-engineering, reducing waste

Aspiring saints who’s value system obliges them to live a modest life will stay away from expensive, unnecessary, energy and resource wasting items, they also will constantly reorganize and re-engineer their lives and give up all obsolete, dispensable, redundant, nonessential, useless, prodigal, lavish practizes, habits, routines.

They will analyze their daily and weekly procedures and try either to optimize the workflows and material flows, design new routines from scratch, or abandon unnecessary ones. A full-scale recreation of processes will in most cases yield better results than the iterative optimization.

An intuitive understanding of thermodynamics and classical mechanics is indispensable, but one doesn’t have to study engineering, common sense and a “down to earth” approach will include this intuitive understanding.

A few examples:

Electric food slicers, electric knifes, electric potato peelers can be avoided by using a normal knife properly. Our early ancestors artfully split stones and made knifes or hammers out of the splinters. They could make fire without matches and lighters, they could make baskets from straw and weave cloth from hemp, cotton, and other plants. We cannot do that anymore (at least most of us cannot do that) but using a knife, a saw, a hammer, pincers, a shovel, and similar tools should be still possible for anybody who is not severely disabled.

Juicers and toaster are unnecessary. Why not plug the fruits and eat them as they are? What is bad about the bread from the bakery? If you want it more crispy, slice it and dry it in the sun.

Coffee machines and bean grinders can be avoided because coffee can be avoided. Coffee is unhealthy and should be replaced by herbal tee. An astonishing variety of plant leaves are usable for tee: Camomile, lemon balm, sage, peppermint, marigold, thyme, stinging nettles, hawthorn, burdock, cowslip, rosemary. All these plants can be grown in the garden. One can also go with a bag into the forest and collect leaves and needles there.

A dishwasher can be avoided by soaking dishes and bowls for about half an hour and then scrub and rub off food residues with steel wool pads. Fat is removed with a dish towel. Dish towels are cheap, they can be made out of old discarded clothes. After removing all residues the dishes and bowls can be rinsed and air dried.

A cloth dryer can be avoided by hanging up the laundry in the garden or on the loft. If the air is too polluted to hang out the washing one should move away to an unpolluted place (this may not be an attractive option but many aspiring saints at one point will have to choose between their career and the objective of living an ideal, admirable, exemplary life). Cloth should not be washed just because of a few dirty spots. Two sets of cloth, one for public appearances and another one for home and garden, will greatly reduce laundry and also make it possible to utilize shabby and worn out cloth.

Air conditioning can be avoided by retreating to cold rooms (usually in the basement), by closing windows and curtains in the daytime and wide opening the windows during the colder hours of the night, by planting shade trees, by choosing proper cloth, by stopping CO2 emissions and reducing global warming (just joking).

Air travel can be avoided by writing emails and by teleconferencing, by making a bicycle ride to the nearest patch of pristine nature instead of a vacation to a far away holiday destination, by using high speed railways (if there are none, this would be another good reason to move away).

The bare necessities of life

Irish bishop Lawrence O’Toole, who was canonized in 1225, said on his deathbed after someone asked him if he had a will: “God knows, I have not a penny under the sun to leave to anyone.”

Francis of Assisi, one of the most respected and revered religious figures in Christianity, was canonized in 1228. He founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of St. Clare. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant but renounced his patrimony after a spiritual crisis and lived from there on a life of poverty. Poverty was so central to his understanding of the world that in his last written work, the Testament, he stated that absolute personal and corporate poverty was the essential lifestyle for the members of his order.

Francis of Assisi called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and even preached to the birds and allegedly persuaded a wolf to stop attacking locals as they agreed to feed the wolf. In his “Canticle of the Creatures” (“Praises of Creatures”), he mentioned “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” the wind and water, and “Sister Death.”

This blog post is not meant for religious persons and religious beliefs, as stated before, can be misguiding rather than guiding, but the wisdom of the ages, embedded in religious mythology and tradition, should not be disregarded.

To make it short (as this is a short guide), the basic biological necessities are breathing, drinking, eating, sex (optional), being warm, dry, safe, healthy. The bare necessities of life therefore are fresh air, clean water, shelter (including heating in cold times and cold places), cloth, having a mate (optional), having friends.

Despite exceeding the definition of “bare necessities,” a few tools and appliances for household and garden work are ok even in a modest life, but everything else is a mere luxury and avoidable.

Looking at myself

The road to sainthood is long and winding and I myself, despite writing this guide, have not come very far until now, I’m not even sure if I have indeed started the journey. 

When I look around in my own household, I could give away most of the things. Thousands of CDs and books (I never counted them), computers, printers, scanners, plenty of music instruments and audio equipment. No, I don’t own a Steinway, also not a Boesendorfer, but not having a Steinway, Fazioli, or Boesendorfer at home is not necessarily proof of a humble lifestyle.

Then there is the new car in the garage, which I hardly use, because I drive always with the bicycle.

It would be a waste to throw all the stuff away and giving it to charity will not necessarily mean, that the items will be properly used and maintained. I have heard harrowing stories about mismanagement, negligence, and fraud in charitable organizations.

The best thing to do now is use up all the stuff one by one and utilize the items in the most sensible way for helping friends and participating in community projects. Shame on me, and I have to repeat it: SHAME ON ME! But at least I stopped buying stuff two years ago.

Sainthood is a very demanding job and saint apprentices need to stay healthy and therefore better avoid polluted air, water, food. No industrial food, only the smallest amount of sugar, fat, sodium. A vegan diet would be fine, but not everybody will be able to achieve it. Humans have different digestion systems and different metabolisms, so everybody has to find out the best diet by her/himself.

Meat and dairy products cause so much more environmental harm than plant based food that they should be avoided or at least minimized, regardless of individual preferences. Meat has also an ethical implication, because the animals which are raised for food consumption suffer.

I don’t buy the argument, that carrots may suffer too. Many plants have sophisticated chemical signaling which often comes near the chemical signaling in our brain. Plants can feel well and prosper or get sick and wither, as every gardener will be able to confirm, but their consciousness is in all likelihood far less complex than the consciousness of humans and higher developed animals.

Anyway, the “carrots suffer too” argument doesn’t cut it because the food animals raised for a human carnivore kill ten times more plants than a human herbivore consumes.

There is no doubt, that we harm or kill other living things with every step that we take. We compete for essential resources with other creatures, we have to defend ourselves, in special circumstances we have to kill. We compete with other creatures for food and territory, we have to adjust habitats to our needs, even the most humble lifestyle, even providing just the bare necessities of life will cause environmental destruction.

A modest lifestyle makes sense despite this acknowledgment. We will still cause damage but we will not wreck the planet.

Don’t kill

This is the main rule in most value systems and a prominent law in most religions — at least in theory.

One could of course come to the conclusion that committing suicide is the best way to avoid causing further environmental harm, which is correct but will not achieve to change the ways of fellow humans. Even celebrity suicides or spectacular self-immolations are unlikely to have lasting positive effects on the popular mind.

Self-immolations can raise public awareness and incite popular uprisings, but they are not a signal of empathy and joy, they don’t show a peaceful solution, they don’t increase tolerance and understanding, they only increase aggression. They are not brave and noble actions, they never will achieve sainthood.

If “don’t kill” is an essential part of the value system, “don’t kill yourself” as a logical derivative is part of it too.

As I wrote at the start, considering the pain and suffering of living creatures inflicted by violence, by the proliferation of weapons, by raging wars, it makes sense to embrace a value system based on the goals of diminishing pain and suffering. Saints accordingly should not be violent, should not use weapons, and should not wage wars (not even just wars or preventive wars).

Yet there is one serious problem in this approach:

The problem is the prevalence of weapons in the hand of psychopathic killers, as they are: Terrorists, mercenaries, soldiers, militiamen, policemen, hunters, and other likeminded persons.

There are tons of weapons around, and factories all over the world produce constantly more and more. As I already wrote earlier: Two billion US$ are spent each year for the military, 711 million alone by the USA.

In human history there were always stable and peaceful societies, there were matriarchal societies, there were societies who were harmoniously integrated into nature and who could have been sustained indefinitely. But the hordes of barbarian tribes (the Huns, Genghis Khan/Kublai Khan), the conquistadors of Spain and Portugal, rampaging armies and military expeditions of colonial powers overrun them and destroyed them.

What can one do when one stands in from of a gun barrel? What can one do against a monstrous, well armed enemy? What can one do against bombs and hellfire missiles, against an occupying army, against preventive wars and just wars, against well armed religious fanatics directed into the country to destroy the social fabric and make the place ripe for neocolonial exploitation?

Run and hide? Sabotage and obstruct? Play the most intelligent strategic game to outmaneuver the armed psychopaths? Search for new technologies to disable wagons (microbes like the diesel bugs, nano-particles and gases, electromagnetic beams of various wavelength)?

Charisma, kindness, a pure and loving heart, dedication, endurance, fearlessness alone will not do it. The charisma of the most saintly and blessed person will not be visible on the screen of a drone operator, the psychopathic killers wielding AK-47 assault rifles and RPGs will also not be impressed, they are on a completely different wavelength.

Self defense is not a sacrilege, fighting for her or his life will not diminish sainthood, yet it will not help much, when a saintly person take up arms in self defense to face the agents of evil. Without solid combat training this would be a foolish and futile action. One doesn’t have to study “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu to realize, that facing a superior enemy head on will seldom work out.

When you have a menacing gigantic monster in your back, you will look for holes and caves, where you can hide, you will look for sticks and stones that you can throw in the monsters way to bring it to fall, you will look for gaps in the armor of the monster, where you can insert your tiny little spear, you will look for a bog, a mire, where you could lure the monster to sink and drown there or for a jungle, a maze, where it could get entangled in creepers and shrubbery.

You will run for your life or crouch in your hideout, waiting for your tiny chance. You never will fight the monster head-on, this would be suicide. Mao knew that, Ho Chi Minh knew that.

Maybe you don’t fight and avoid the menacing gigantic monster altogether? But that is difficult when the monster destroys all your food and goes on to burn the forests and to poison the rivers and lakes with its fiery breath. You will have to think very hard and find creative solutions!

Lets face it, saints who really want to make an impact and safe us from annihilation need not only live a life of almost perfect virtue, they also need to be clever, inventive, resourceful, and ingenious.

This is indeed a very demanding job profile, but the rewards are adequate because the women or men who are able to solve the dilemma and the conundrum of human aggression and destructiveness will be the most respected and revered saints ever and they will be a guiding light for all generations that follow us.

 

Endnotes

Here a few notions that I couldn’t insert into the main body of the post because it would have interrupted the text flow too severely:

Quite a few names came to my mind, when I thought about the canonization of secular saints:

Rachel Corrie, Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Brian Willson, Tawakkol Karman, Eve Tetaz and Cindy Sheehan, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Howard Zinn, Buffy Sainte-Marie, John Lennon, Rigoberta Menchú, Rutilio Grande and Óscar Romero, Sophie and Hans Scholl, Mordechai Vanunu, Wangari Maathai, Chico Mendez, Dorothy Stang, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo, Vandana Shiva, Sunita Narain, Talima Nasrin, Ernest Callenbach, Rachel Carson.

There are so many more. Good to have all these blessed souls as guiding lights in the personal quest to live a harmonious and sustainable life and in the global campaign against violence and senseless destruction.

Even the most frugal, thrifty, austere saint will have to make a living to buy food and cloth, pay the rent, pay the fees for communal services, buy some paraphernalia of daily life. Looking for work will be a challenge because 1. Jobs are rare and hard to find, 2. Jobs that are beneficial for all of mankind and not only for the shareholders of the company are even harder to find.

Being a cog in the wheel keeps the wheel turning, working for a weapons manufacturer or any corporation, that belongs to the MIC (Military-Industrial Complex) is out of the question, working for Big Oil, Big Pharma, for agribusiness, for a financial institution (banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, other crime cartels), for the chemical industry, for multinational corporations of any kind is also no positive contribution and no help for solving the existential problems of humanity.

What is left?

Co-ops, where every worker is also an owner, subsistence farming and gardening, healthcare and social work, the teaching profession, academic research, NGOs.

To find a NGO that is not funded by Soros, the CIA, other Western government agencies, or a corporation, will be difficult. Many NGOs are front organizations for special interest groups.

The worst: Avaaz, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, NDI (National Democratic Institute), Freedom House, International Republican Institute, GOLOS, Moscow Helsinki Group, OSI (Open Society Institute), WWF.

I just found out that this text is very similar to the blog post You want to save the world? and readers who are interested in the vented issues will find additional material there. Some numbers may be outdated but everything in “Plan Z” is still valid.

A note about the disabling of weapons: Syrian experts were able to booby-trap ammunition supplies of the FSA, mainly rifle and machine-gun cartridges, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars by exchanging the propellant with high explosives. The doctored projectiles were placed on the black market and resulted in stalling and permanent damage of the guns or in injuries of FSA terrorists, when the weapons exploded in their hands. This practice is not effective anymore because the FSA is now directly armed by Turkey, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE with first class material from the respective stockpiles and is not depending on the black market.

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