When the Saint Comes Marching In

Don't care much for hagiography. Maybe it was those years in Catholic school, being told about the Saints. They were all too good, or if they were bad they converted and then they were good. Sometimes they were martyred just for being Christians and not renouncing their faith (curiously, in history class we were told about Indians who rebelled against the conquistadores and were martyred, in ways not much different from the Saints, for not renouncing their faith, and no one ever made the connection). I had too much life of Saints. So even on a day like today, when the Saint is not only someone I admire, but my kind of Saint, who loved food and sex, with all the public telling of his deeds I instinctively turn a deaf ear.

It's a defense mechanism, I know, for I'm a sucker for transcendence. If the man celebrated and commemorated had just been a great organizer for social justice, I would be less moved. But his quest was holy. He was a minister, but that's not all. He was a Black Southern preacher, but that's not all. Vernacular preaching can be a gorgeous thing, and in the South it is practiced with verve by both whites and blacks. Since the congregations for such preaching are not necessarily schooled, the preaching can afford to be ragged around its grammatical edges. Not from this preacher. The full force of Southern black preaching rhetoric hammered into classical rhetoric. Those speeches, which would be best to think of them as sermons, are fine, very fine. And that makes them even stronger.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea. Besides hagiography I don't much care for anthems. They dispatch young men to kill and die, and when sung long after the conflict is over, they dispatch the brains of young and old to a dangerous zone, where logic is killed and good sense dies. My native country has an excellent national anthem, with melody sampled from Mozart. But when my native countrymen sing it I can see their brain dialed to zero. The exception is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

It's rousing, like a battle hymn should be. It's also beautiful. Poignant: the Savior is from across the sea, He doesn't belong to us. And unlike other anthems that urge us to die for the fatherland, this one urges us to die to make men free. If good songs determined history the Irish would today own the English. No matter. It's a great song about making men free and that's the right side of history, always. That incomplete project of the Battle Hymn got picked up by Martin Luther King, Jr., who chose a nonviolent way of battle, a battle he did not survive. He died to make men free.

So I was driving today listening to public radio as usual, but the hagiography was too much, and for a while I switched to music -- oldies, on a different public station. After a while I went back to the hagiography, with someone telling the life through his famous speeches. I have a dream was there, of course, and soon the narrator reached the end of King's life. I knew what was coming and I knew what it would do to me, but I couldn't change the station. Sure enough, I've been to the mountaintop. The prophetic last speech, straight out of the Old Testament, but with the power of a Greek tragedy. The terrible thing that must happen. The sacrifice of the hero. Spoken, no, sung, in that inimitable voice, rich in black Southern preacher tradition. And ending in the most beautiful of battle hymns.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I broke down. And I stayed broken all the way home.