Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Perfect Role Models



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Ten days ago, I wrote something of a commentary/reflection on the sordid saga of Tiger Woods, who has clearly "fallen from grace" in a rather spectacular fashion. (I am rather amused at the panic setting in for the advertising industry and the "agony" in those circles of what to do with Tiger Woods as a promotional figure in the near future). Since then, the endless parade of "multiple mistresses" has only added to the sordidness of this domestic drama gone public, and has maintained the feeding frenzy of the media. The world of tabloid journalism and "tell-all" TV interviews that are treated as serious 'investigative reporting" have been thrust upon us. Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" has taken on a new life! I can assure you that I am not obsessing over this unedifying contemporary morality play in a moralizing manner. No real necessity to do so, because only the most morally obtuse person would not get the point! But this very public display of a picture-perfect career - and marriage - gone awry, serves to raise some other broader issues that I believe we can explore to good effect - especially as Orthodox Christians. So I am returning again to the subject of "role models" or "heroes" in today's world, a subject that framed my earlier reflection.

I repeat that we have an intuitive need to seek role models. And I believe that this is most true of impressionable younger children, teen-agers, and young adults. I would further add that we need these role models. They inspire us all to do our best in a wide variety of human endeavors. This is the basis of the "hero" from ancient times to the present. These figures transcended the boundaries of the limitations that mere mortals are subjected to. We are always attracted to living images of success, quality performance, creativeness, fierce commitment, and the celebrity and acknowledgment that goes along with such positive characteristics. We all admire such figures - male or female - and many people choose a particular person or perhaps a select few for closer admiration and even emulation: "I want to be like that one day." I believe, however, that there is often a confusion between "celebrity" and the positive "role models" briefly outlined here. Nowadays we know of people who are "famous for being famous" - Paris Hilton, anyone? - and if, on the whole, we can make that distinction, many younger people struggle with that, as celebrity status itself seems to be a powerful goal regardless of any moral or ethical dimension attached to it - American idol, "dancing with the stars," and reality TV all come to mind. On closer examination, a good deal of this comes up as frivolous and empty. But the search goes on.

In all of this discussion, it would be discouraging to think that "we" - children, teen-agers, young adults, and the rest of us - do not look to the saints of the Church as the perfect role models and heroes that we continue to crave. We are surrounded by the saints as if by a "cloud of witnesses." I am not saying this for any pious effect. I believe that it is of the utmost importance in our spiritual growth as Christians not be blind to this presence in our midst. There are a few things that I am certain of: the saints of the Church will not let us down or disappoint us; they do not have "secret" "double" or "hidden" lives that will cause scandal once they are discovered; and they actually care about us - in fact they love us - and not just about their careers and bank accounts. Yesterday, we commemorated St. Herman of Alaska (+1837). He is a living challenge to the "values" of our secular and self-absorbed society. Actually, he is a radical alternative to the multitude of role models that we draw from the surrounding culture. And the degree to which we are attracted - or indifferent - to St. Herman will reveal a good deal of our own "worldview" and commitment to the Gospel. No one has expressed this better than Fr. Thomas Hopko from a chapter on St. Herman in his book The Winter Pascha:

By American standards, St. Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure. He made no name for himself. He was not in the public eye. He wielded no power. He owned no property. He had few possessions, if any at all. He had no worldly prestige. He played no role in human affairs. He partook of no carnal pleasures. He made no money. He died in obscurity among outcast people. Yet today, more than a hundred years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored my millions of people whom he is still trying to teach to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness which has been brought to the world by the King who was born in a cavern and killed on a cross. The example of this man is crucial to the celebration of Christmas - especially in America. (p. 47-48)


Thus, if we pray and sing about the virtues of the saints when we come to church, doesn't that mean that those are the very virtues that we are pursuing in our daily lives? Do we want our children to grow up emulating and practicing the virtues of the saints; or is our concern more with their future status and success? It is amazing, and I would add distressing, just how thoroughly we know the lives of today's celebrities, and remain quite ignorant of the lives of some of the greatest saints of the Church, including the very saint we may be named after. It seems that we are not willing to go beyond kissing their icons when they are in display inside the church - and that is only if the service commemorating them is on a Sunday. But we would "die" from excitement to be in the presence of a big celebrity!

The saints are not just about miracles and stories of wondrous deeds that make us shake our heads (in disbelief?). They are not just about extraordinary fasting exploits, hours in endless prayer, or the giving away of their last garment to a poor person - though those are remarkable accomplishments. The saints are the men, women and children who manifest Christ to the world, who live Christ-like lives that actualize the presence of the Lord among us. Their lives are about dedication, profound commitment, hard work, overcoming adversity, remaining faithful in situations of distress and danger, overcoming egoism, and putting God and neighbor above all else. They embody what we wish to embody as Christians. Beginning with "faith, hope, and love." They encourage us by their examples. And they pray for us before the throne of God that we too can walk in the "newness of life" made possible by the life in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These are men and women who were not born saints, but who became holy persons by their faith and who manifested many of the virtues and practices just mentioned as the fruit and "reward" of that faith.

Of course, we do not see the saints of the Church with the same directness and palpability as the contemporary role models alive, adored and aggrandized before our very eyes. We acknowledge that we "see" the saints through the eyes of faith. This can have the effect of making them seem distant and abstract. As not sharing the same world as we do. This is all true, and clearly this is a challenge. Reading The Lives of the Saints is one way of bridging that perceived gap. Yet, what we truly need are "living saints" to be the role models and heroes that we pursue in our lives. The clergy, parents, godparents, Church School teachers, and the simple faithful of the Church must always be vigilant about their place in presenting at least modest role models for the upcoming generation. We cannot compete with celebrity status, but we can embody those simple virtues that hopefully go deeper than what is passing today as worthy of our attention and, at times, misguided adoration.

Tiger Woods has a wife and two children. I hope that his indefinite withdrawal from the world of professional golf will prove to be fruitful in his desire to salvage and then restore his battered and besieged marriage. As often happens, his family's sad case raises other issues that can be explored without getting too lost in the murkiness of sex, money and fame. I believe that his current demise does raise the whole issue of the role model in today's culture - and perhaps a meaningful reassessment of how we approach and understand that issue. Especially in the light of our lives in the Church.

Fr. Steven

1 comment:

  1. What was so "picture-perfect" about his marriage? "Bizarre" would be a better description.

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