In the future,” Andy Warhol once said, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Mr. Warhol’s premonition seems to have come true in our popular culture—the world of Snooki, JWoww and Honey Boo Boo. Or has it? And what exactly did Mr. Warhol mean? The historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh tells us that what Warhol was trying to say was that the “hierarchy of subjects worthy to be represented [by artists] will someday be abolished.” That seems like a stretch, even for our increasingly relativistic sensibilities. A world without a hierarchy of values, in art or anywhere else, is inhuman and unlikely.
This issue of America indicates as much. In addition to the review by Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., of a recent exhibition of Mr. Warhol’s work, whose fame is, for better or for worse, in its 48th or 49th year, this issue also explores the lives of the church’s 20th-century martyrs, those whose “fame” is, dogmatically speaking, eternal.
Life this side of heaven is a spatio-temporal mix of St. Augustine’s two cities, an amalgam of the fleeting and the everlasting. A Christian, of course, is supposed to have his or her global positioning system set for the City of God rather than the City of Man. All those billions of tweets, however, can interfere with the satellite signal, so the church gives us some other markers for the journey, some ways of re-calculating the route. In the lives of the saints and martyrs (some famous, some not) we find roadmaps to holiness; we find Christians who set their hearts on the good and the true, the everlasting. As a result, a funny thing happened: these Christians found the faith, hope and charity they needed to make their earthly pilgrimage.
To be honest, as a boy I found the lives of the saints really quite boring. I was making a common mistake. I thought that holiness was just about following the rules. In fact, it’s still tempting to think that. When we hear, for example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we are tempted to think, “Ah, I just need to be poor in spirit and then I’ll be a saint and heaven will be mine.” We might even start out on some kind of self-improvement project, an attempt to make ourselves poor in spirit, the way one might sign up for a class at the local Y. The truth, however, is that we don’t make ourselves saints. In fact, not even the church “makes” saints. Only God makes a person holy, the grace of God within us, transforming us, changing us. That’s not to say that we just sit back and let it happen. We must say yes to God’s invitation to holiness. And if we are to have the strength to say yes, then our eyes must be fixed on the things above, on the One who is above.
The glimpse of the eternal that gave the saints and martyrs the strength to live in their earthly moment was not a glimpse of some eternal law but an encounter with the God of love. In the midst of their great diversity, what all the saints and martyrs have in common is the simple fact that they were in love—with God and with God’s creation. It was this love that gave meaning and direction to their lives. In other words, their lives were more about faithfulness in relationship than obedience to the rules. Rules matter, of course, but discipleship is about a good deal more than mere discipline.
God knows it isn’t easy. It never was. The lives of the saints, however, demonstrate that our yes is possible, even in a broken world. Mr. Warhol may or may not have been right about fame. And as this week’s editorial makes clear, the price of fame in contemporary America is far too high. Ultimately, however, the lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate that holiness, not fame, is what matters most. And that prize, God willing, lasts a lot longer than 15 minutes; indeed, it is eternal.