The American Saints
by Fernando J. Contreras
This article was originally published on Hades United.
Faith in America, like its buildings and roads, mostly fulfills a practical purpose. The spiritual components of faith also exist, but the relationship between Americans and the supernatural, in comparison to other cultures, is very restrained. For Americans to think that the plane of reality is also populated with spirits is a thing that only happens in horror movies.
In Mexico it’s very common to ask saints and virgins for all kinds of help. Even dead relatives are expected to intercede in hopes that God, who is perfect but apparently can hang back distracted or unconvinced, changes His mind and helps the earthling in need.
Saints, like Liam Neeson, have a very specific set of skills. Saint Cecilia is the patron of musicians because she was a good singer, while Saint Joan of Arc is the patron of France, given that she led the French troops against the English. So if you are a French musician who needs a break in the biz, you can double your chances by praying to both. The English, in turn, are protected by St. George, a mythical crusader who slays dragons (you know, in the time where dragons roamed the Earth), and who also happens to be the patron saint of Portugal, Germany, Aragon, Catalonia, Genoa and Venice. So no matter how you look at it, the French are surrounded.
Here are some other saints and their patronage:
* Saint Adrian: patron saint of arms dealers, guards, soldiers, and butchers. So pray to St. Adrian if you have the desire and the tools to kill others legally, if you want to empower terrorists in underdeveloped countries, or if your goal in life is to sell beef.
* St. Roch: patron saint of dogs. If you want your dog to fetch the ball better, I guess, St. Roch is your go-to guy. I have nothing more to add except for “woof the fuck?”
* St. Monica: patron saint of alcoholics. Having lived in Mexico for a long time, I can tell you she is the saint with the most free time.
* St. Martha: patron saint of waiters and waitresses. If you are seventeen years old, you could pray to her if you desire better tips, but if you’re forty-seven, it’s best to pray to St. Stephen Hawkins and ask him to build you a reset button.
* St. Claire: patron saint of television. Because, if my memory serves me well, in the 1200’s she prevented the Moors from invading the BBC.
None of this makes much sense, but it doesn’t have to, since the act of praying to saints has been sanctioned by the Catholic Church — and what better way to legitimize the absurd than by adding layers of bureaucracy? Why not discuss matters with God directly? Or why discuss them at all if God knows what we’ll do before we do it? In the practical sense, praying for help is an illogical act, but from a psychological standpoint, chatting up a higher power might be the fastest way to find comfort in a difficult situation. That a country like Mexico has hundreds of praying alternatives might be the result of its population feeling powerless. The benevolent act turns into a social disease when relying on saints, virgins and gods becomes the alternative to making harder long-term choices.
In the United States most people do not rely as heavily on the supernatural. When Americans seek for a distraction, and they seek for it often, there are plenty of saints in the menu to choose from. If a saint is a person who is admired because of their virtue, on the pedestals of American life stand actors, singers, celebrities and athletes. Some of these saints do things most of us cannot do, like hit a receiver fifty yards down the field, dunk a basketball, or pitch a ninety-nine mph fastball. Other saints have the ability to assume different personalities in front of a camera. Many others don’t do much but still get paid to be photographed, attend parties, wear clothes, leak pornographic videos of themselves, or flaunt their ignorance.
Admiring these people might seem harmless, but what we cherish speaks of the life we value. It speaks of our desires and of the society we inevitably shape for the future. If we venerate the drama of a touchdown, the mother who neglects her eight children, or the useless Kardashian clan, then we elevate what they stand for, too. And it’s not their fault for trying, since those who get no attention, disappear. It is our fault for giving them our time.
Because the American saints are not givers. They are takers. They demand our attention, our wonder, and in some cases, our jealousy and hate. There’s James Franco, for example, patron saint of artists and multitaskers. He, like God, is everywhere. While he finishes a Ph.D., he also directs a film, stars in ten more, writes a handful of stories, and headlines an art gallery exhibition. In Mexico there’s a saying: “quien abarca mucho poco aprieta.” (grasp all, lose all.) I don’t blame Franco for using his fame to promote other interests beside acting, but he’s not a good visual artist or writer — and this is not a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” statement. I’m telling you: James Franco is doing things that have been done before, and done much better. He recycles other work (the Cindy Sherman stills, for example) and then appropriates it by adding ambiguous sexuality tones. Is he gay? Is he not gay? Why care at all, if by asking questions we give into his game? The fact remains, though, he is inexperienced about literature and the visual arts, yet, everything he does gets featured, covered, reviewed, and sold. Meanwhile, there are better artists (me, for one) who can’t get an agent to look at their work because they are not famous.
Other saints, in no particular order:
* Nicolas Cage: patron saint of squanderers. After Leaving Las Vegas, he turned into an action star (why? Because he’s fast, strong, active….what?), was paid 20 million per movie, and spent his paychecks on dinosaur skulls, a pyramid-shaped tomb, more than thirty fancy cars (including a Lamborghini worth 300 million), the most haunted house in America, a medieval castle, king cobras, saltwater sharks, an island, and more than a $100,000 worth of comics. His approach strikes me as a way to publicly tell the human race, “Fuck all of you and your needs. I’ve been given a gift and look, this is what I do with it”, as he throws wads of one-hundred bills into his indoor sacrificial fire pit. You can say he’s an eccentric, but his life brings me into an existential crisis. He reminds me that if he can spend his money that foolishly, then no God is paying attention.
* Kanye West: patron saint of self-proclamation. When I was in university, I remember telling a professor that I wanted to be an intellectual. He asked me, How will you know if you are one? I didn’t know how to answer, so he told me, You can’t call yourself an intellectual until people appoint you as one. That was a fair answer, but he was wrong. Because if you call yourself a genius enough times, people will believe it. Enter Kanye West. Another reminder that if he’s what people call a genius, then no God is paying attention.
* Chris Martin (Coldplay): patron saint of blandness. Although he’s British, most of his success is American, and his approach to fame is the same used by American artists. The Coldplay brand features weak lyrics that make no sense (so as to not offend anybody,) easy melodies (so as to broaden their market,) and clinical PR campaigns (so as to appear spontaneous and fun.) In the video, “A Sky Full of Stars,” Chris Martin walks down a busy street carrying several instruments that he never plays. All the people following him are young and pretty. There are no disturbances, no accidents. Everybody seems too happy. Then I saw it again and in second 0:51, to the right, one guy pretends to fish something out of his pocket as another one taps his arm and steps in front of him. And it all became clear. The video is made to look unprompted, but the entire thing is staged. And why would Coldplay ever risk losing control of their product?
These saints have turned art into a dispassionate advertising campaign.