The Naked Saint


Naked Sadhus, Kolkata (from wikimedia commons)

In his introduction to Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which he also edited, Gustave Thibon makes the following statement: “The hero wears armour; the saint is naked.”  As someone who has written much about the “hero’s quest,” this statement gave me pause.  It made me realize that while heroes get most of the press, it is the saints who do the hard work of becoming naked–or giving up everything, including an identity as a hero, in order to see the One.  The would-be saint is on a quest not unlike that of the hero, but does not stop when s/he has completed the mission.  S/he continues on to give up the mission, and the heroic identity along with it.  No parades, no medals, just never-ending bliss.

It points up the distinction between Achilles and Odysseus–the former is all about kleos and wanting eternal fame, which means taking up arms and killing as many of the “enemy” as he can.  Odysseus fits that description also, to an extent, but I would argue he becomes a saint during his return to Ithaka, where he gradually sheds his hero status and becomes naked.  Of course in the very last “book,” he has just killed a member of one of the suitors’ family, and it requires Zeus and Athena to come in and dictate forgiveness (or “creative mercy“) rather than to perpetuate the cycle of vengeance.

But while the narrative stops there, we have been given enough information to know what happens next: as decreed by Zeus, Ithaka will become peaceful again, with Odysseus as its rightful king.¹  As predicted by Teiresias², he will go on a journey inland, carrying an oar, and will be told by someone he meets that it is a winnowing fan.  As instructed, he will plant it in the ground, and it will symbolize two things: The seafarer is dead–he will never again wander and be tossed about on the salt sea of ignorance. And the harvest is complete–he will no longer need to use his discrimination, because everywhere he looks, he sees the One.³

For this reason also, he will no longer need armor.  Armor provides protection only on the physical level, for the body, and Odysseus will have transcended that.  In my interpretation of his journey, he has also transcended his senses and his turning thoughts, and so is ready to take the next step in the quest for the One.  All his trials and temptations are behind him now.  He will be given, as Teiresias says, “a sign that will not get lost in your thinking,” but it will not be an ordeal, just information.

We are all of us being given such signs (sema) all the time, but they do get lost in our thinking.  We take them personally; we have opinions about them, we like or dislike them.  They just provide food for our ongoing inner monologue.  Like Odysseus, we need to learn to see them as just information, free of anything personal.  When we can do that, and also give up our existing thoughts, we too can become saints.

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¹And Zeus gatherer of clouds answered, “My child, why should you ask me? Was it not by your own plan [noos] [480] that noble Odysseus came home and took his revenge upon the suitors? Do whatever you like, but I will tell you what I think will be the most reasonable arrangement. Now that Odysseus is revenged, let them swear to a solemn covenant, in virtue of which he shall continue to rule, while we cause the others to forgive and forget the massacre of their sons and brothers. [485] Let them then all become friends as heretofore, and let peace and plenty reign.” This was what Athena was already eager to bring about, so down she darted from off the topmost summits of Olympus.  Odyssey 24:479-486

²….you must go on a journey then, taking with you a well-made oar, 122 until you come to a place where men do not know what the sea is 123 and do not even eat any food that is mixed with sea salt, 124 nor do they know anything about ships, which are painted purple on each side, [125] and well-made oars that are like wings for ships. 126 And I will tell you a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. 127 Whenever someone on the road encounters you 128 and says that it must be a winnowing shovel that you have on your radiant shoulder, 129 at that point you must stick into the ground the well-made oar [130] and sacrifice beautiful sacrifices to Lord Poseidon 131 a ram, a bull, and a boar that mounts sows. 132 And then go home and offer sacred hecatombs 133 to the immortal gods who possess the vast expanses of the skies. 134 Sacrifice to them in proper order, one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, [135] a gentle death, that is how it will come, and this death will kill you 136 as you lose your strength in a prosperous old age. And the people all around [your corpse] 137 will be blessed [olbioi]. All the things I say are unmistakably true.’  Odyssey 11:121-138

³D. A. Beardsley, The Journey Back to Where You Are: Homer’s Odyssey as Spiritual Quest, Ideograph Media, 2015

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