Note: Since writing this post I’ve done some additional reading and I now doubt the report (from church historian Eusebius) that Origen castrated himself. My apologies to my brother Origen for passing that story on! 11/1/2014
Frederick Buechner said that God “makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of.” It’s a line I quote often, partly because, as a fool and a sinner myself, I find it consoling. But I also find myself drawn like a magnet toward the most foolish of saints in the history of the church. The stranger they seem, the fonder I am of them.
I’m teaching a church history class, and devoted attention to Origen in a recent lesson. Yes, he was an incredibly prolific biblical scholar, but he was also a bit loony. When his father was arrested and taken away to martydom, the teenage Origen was eager to share in his father’s fate. Legend tells us that his mother kept the boy from running after his father by hiding all of Origen’s clothing, knowing that his extreme sense of Christian modesty would keep him in the house. That may be only legend, but it’s better established that Origen castrated himself in a rather literal application of Matthew 19:12. Even in a church that revered the celibate, self-mutilation was not encouraged, and Origen’s bishop heartily disapproved. (See note above!)
I, too, disapprove of self-mutilation, just to be clear. But I have a tender spot in my heart for the reckless devotion that motivated it, in Origen’s case. It reminds me of St. Francis kissing a leper or publicly divesting himself of his father’s wealth, right down to the clothes on his back (Francis doesn’t seem to have shared Origen’s sense of modesty). Church history is full of such figures, and I can’t pretend to relate to their specific experiences – to Simeon Stylites on his pillar, St. Teresa in her ecstasy, Margery Kempe fainting at the sight of a crucifix, or Peter Maurin living out his cheerful asceticism. But I find in all of them the ardor of true love, and lovers often look foolish to the observer.
Origen is remembered, in part, for being a universalist. Long before Rob Bell scandalized the church anew, Origen believed that love would win, that all creation – all of it – would ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ. As Bruce Shelley writes, Origen turned “a desire into a doctrine”, and went beyond orthodoxy in the process. But in Origen’s writings I hear the voice of a lover who believes the very best about his Beloved, and I am in sympathy. I hear that same lover’s optimism in Wesley’s pursuit of Christian perfection, and in Gladys Aylward’s determination to be a missionary without qualifications or support. True love’s gestures become humiliations if the love is not returned, but the good news for the saints is that not only is the love returned, but we were loved first.
Sunday is All Saints Day, and we will remember the diverse gallery of the faithful, including the “crazy” saints: Anthony in his cave, fighting demons; Thomas Aquinas, driving temptation away with a hot poker; Kevin, hurling himself naked into a nettle patch. We’ll also celebrate the respectable saints, of course. But my prayers will include gratitude for the saints who got carried away, who were a little over the top, who loved beyond wisdom and good judgment. Those of us who have been in love know what that’s like, and we know that our Beloved understands.