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NONFICTION

Iconoclasts in God's Image : A PASSION FOR LIFE: Fragments of the Face of God. By Joan Chittister and Robert Lentz (Orbis Books: $30, 132 pp.)

September 29, 1996|Mary Rourke | Mary Rourke writes about religion for the Life & Style section of The Times

Reminding us that we never outgrow our need for role models, author Joan Chittister and artist Robert Lentz searched the coffers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to find new possibilities.

Right up front, Chittister, a Benedictine nun, tells us why it had to be done. "Two things have happened to the modern notion of saint," she writes. "First, saints have become official; second, saints have become bland."

Not by her definition. In "A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God," she and Lentz, perhaps the best-known icon painter of our day, went out of their way to retrieve the iconoclasts from the history of holiness.

Since the 14th century, Chittister complains, these men and women have been seriously outnumbered by safer candidates for sainthood. Once the 14th century Vatican introduced an official process, "canonization," for selecting and approving holy role models, two important categories have been overlooked--those who fell far before rising high, and all those absorbed by holy madness, along with wisdom, justice and passion.

Chittister's list is weighted with these types. She profiles and Lentz portrays a classic temptress, an unwed mother, a 4th century conscientious objector, a 72-year-old widow known as "the most dangerous woman in America," a Jewish philosopher and a Persian poet, to mention a few. We know them by name: Eve, Hagar, Martin of Tours, Mother Jones, Simone Weil and Rumi.

On this unconventional list, Eve is by far the most unlikely choice. An outcast from biblical times, she is blamed for the fall from grace of the whole human race. In Genesis, the story of creation, she tempted husband Adam to eat forbidden fruit, and he did it. This cost them both their life in paradise; it cost all of humanity the same.

Chittister recasts the fallen woman: "Eve failed but she did not give up. Eve made a mistake but she did not give in to despair." Her story contains a valuable lesson, Chittister writes, because "It is because of weakness become indomitable that life must be revered." Lentz's portrait shows Eve as an older and wiser woman holding a sliced pomegranate, the ancient symbol of fertility. Seeds of life spill from it.

Many in this gallery of saints are 20th century men and women. Their presence is surprising only because we do not typically think of them in this context. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Thomas Merton are too new, it seems, to qualify with Joan of Arc or Francis of Assisi, who are also included.

King is portrayed in jail, posing for a mug shot, to remind readers how much time he spent behind bars to protest racial injustice. Meanwhile, Gandhi holds rice kernels. Although he embraced the English in India as a young lawyer, he utterly rejected them as he led the fight for freedom from British rule, refusing to eat English food. Merton, a Cistercian monk who was fascinated by Eastern religion, wears his monk's robes and sits in the lotus position.

Of all those portrayed in this modern gallery of saints, however, it is Dorothy Day who brings out the best of Chittister's own fire. Of this 20th century American journalist who founded the Catholic Worker newspaper, for and about the poor, Chittister writes:

"She was an unwed mother, a disillusioned citizen, a poor woman, a disaffected churchgoer, an unemployed observer of the human race. She had abandoned the church. She had lived in a tenement of which she was ashamed. She had aborted one child and borne another out of wedlock. . . . But for the grace of God, Dorothy Day herself could easily have been the Bag Lady of the World par excellence."

In Day's case, as in so many of Chittister's portraits, she achieved greatness by dramatically turning her life around. She went from disillusioned citizen to social activist, from unemployed observer to peace advocate--someone who led hunger strikes to protest American military involvement in World War II. Day was the former pauper who fed and housed others like her, in the downtown Manhattan shelter she opened for them.

These unorthodox stories interest Chittister because they challenge the rest of us to change ourselves and our world. To motivate readers, she lists a few reasons why we should all attempt to reach such levels of holiness: "This generation is on the road to ozone depletion, global poverty . . . technological explosion, biological cataract, and theological upheaval," she writes. Then she answers the harder question: How do we reach holiness in our own lives?

"This book says that only the image of those who have themselves bridged equally wide fissures [in] the past can give us the sight, the hope, the courage that it will take," she answers. By doing so, she and Lentz suggest, we move sainthood into the real world.

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