Poor Mother Theresa. By rights she should be a saint by now, but sainthood requires the candidate to have performed two “miracles” (acts defying “the laws of nature”) that can be verified by The Catholic Church. The Church has confirmed only one such miracle for Mother Theresa, so she’s officially entered heaven but is not yet a saint.
This state of affairs inspired me to start my own sainthood program. My credibility must be at least as good as that of the Catholic Church. I’m not attracted to children, I support the distribution of condoms to prevent AIDS, and I think women are just as likely as men to be able to manage a congregation and talk to God.
This article marks the official beginning my sainthood program. Of course, like the Catholic Church, I’m open to objections to my nominees. Please feel free to play devil’s advocate.
For me, a saint is someone who discards self-preservation instincts and gives their resources freely and lovingly to others, often to the point of injuring themselves. My new nominee for sainthood is someone you’ve probably never heard of— the late writer and professor Deborah Digges.
Her memoir The Stardust Lounge speaks of her struggles to raise her gifted but disturbed adolescent son Stephen. By the time he was 13, Stephen was well entrenched in the world of crime, gangs, and drugs. He was destructive and violent at home. His standard phone greeting to his mother was “Fuck you.”
When “tough love” failed and Stephen had driven away Deborah’s second husband (not his biological father), Deborah decided to apply unconditional love instead of tough love. She attempted to enter Stephen’s world instead of trying to force him to conform to hers.
Deborah began shadowing Stephen on his late-night forays and inviting his gang members and their families to her house. She found an unconventional therapist, Eduardo Bustamante, who provided a male role model and helped Stephen to understand boundaries. She also initiated her own version of pet therapy, filling the family home with a variety of abandoned pets.
During this period Deborah was afraid to allow her friends in to her home. She wrote to Frank Loew, dean of a veterinary school (who later became her husband):
“I’m glad you’ll be coming to dinner…you should be forewarned… this is a wild household…”
The house interior was wrecked due to Stephen’s violent outbursts. Cats leapt in and out of windows (the screens having been removed for this purpose) and moths covered the walls. There were frequent calls from the police. To top it all off, the easy pet access had allowed a skunk to makes its way into the kitchen, and the scent lingered for months.
In reading Stardust Lounge, it struck me that the there were two turning points in Stephen’s recovery, both involving situations in which he decided to place others’ needs above his own.
The first was when he begged his mother to adopt an epileptic dog. She agreed on the condition that he manage the difficult medication regimen,which he did with devotion. The second was when he asked his mother to allow his friend Trevor, who was one step away from jail, to move in to the family home. Although this caused some rough times, Trevor eventually became sober, then got his GED and a job. He remained a devoted “brother” to Stephen.
Gradually, as he gained empathy for others and a degree of self-control, Stephen Digges’ brilliance and his talent for writing and photography emerged. Today he is a noted photojournalist, and many revealing examples of his work grace The Stardust Lounge. Without his mother’s selfless love Stephen would likely have failed to overcome his violence and addiction.
On April 10, 2009, having successfully ushered Stephen into adulthood and outlived her third husband (Frank Loew died of cancer in 2003), Deborah Digges committed suicide at age 59 by jumping off a stadium bleacher at The University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Does this disqualify her for sainthood? I think not. There’s little written about her mental health, but she probably suffered from depression. My sense is by that day in April 2009, Deborah was simply empty, having given everything to those she loved and having (fortunately) shared her life’s journey with us through her acclaimed writing.
So, what are your thoughts on sainthood?
1. Does Deborah Digges qualify?
2. Do you think miracles are required in order to entitle sainthood?
3. Would suicide disqualify a candidate?