I have been both astonished and moved by the tremendous outpouring of emotion over the death of Steve Jobs, at age 56. Mr. Jobs, as is known by anyone whose fingers ever touched a computer or held an iPhone, was a dazzlingly talented innovator who, as President Obama noted, will likely rank among the greatest of American inventors.
Still, there have been many other gifted public figures—political leaders, business tycoons, philanthropists, researchers, scientists, writers, entertainers and inventors of other sorts—whose deaths did not touch such a chord. Obituaries of Mr. Jobs have appeared in almost every newspaper, magazine and (of course) website; television news programs devoted hours to covering his legacy; Facebook was promptly filled with impromptu photos, collages and tributes; nearly everyone on Twitter had something to say; and the Apple store in New York City is taking on the look of a shrine.
Some of these reactions may have to do with Mr. Jobs’ appeal to an age demographic that has grown up entirely in the digital age, an era that the Apple innovator helped to usher in. And some of the sadness is no doubt prompted by the age at which he died: 56 is still young, even to the young.
But this is only part of the story. As someone who has written on the saints, I found that the coverage of his death, and the way his life is being retold, seemed oddly familiar. Why did people's reactions—photos of candles posted on Facebook pages; cartoons with Mr. Jobs speaking to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates; flowers laid before Apple stores--remind me of what happens following the death of a saint? Why did the coverage in most venues seem, for want of a better word, worshipful? A few reasons suggest themselves, and a few intersections between the life of Mr. Jobs and the lives of the saints seem apparent. And no, before we continue: I'm not suggesting that he was a saint. But consider...
1.) He was a visionary. Anyone who could create, almost singlehandedly, the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, possessed what we commonly call great “vision.” But of course this is the precise language used for the gifts of the mystics. In the Christian tradition, people like St. Bernadette Soubirous, the 19th-century young woman who saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the town of Lourdes, are called “visionaries.” Often, admirers of the visionary are drawn not only to the vision itself (in one case, a glimpse of the divine; in the other, the promise of instant communication); we are also drawn to the person himself or herself, who offers the possibility that mortals can “see” in new ways. Christian mystics are granted visions of--depending on the saint--Jesus, God the Father or Mary: rare entrees into a world most of us cannot “access.” They are revered for this privilege, marking them as one of the elect. The one who sees calls to our desire to see more.
2.) He was the object of a cult. By this I don’t mean the common definition of a “cult” (a group of crazies surrounding an even crazier leader). Rather, the “cult” that surrounds the saint (and that is the term used) is simply a group of admirers who follow carefully the saint’s teachings, study his or life and meditate on his or her writings. After Mr. Jobs’s death, I asked a friend who works for a large website to explain the seemingly outsized reactions, and he pointed to the devoted consumers who followed Apple’s latest rollouts, religiously, as it were. This kind of “cult” is not too far from the lives of the saints, in which their every utterance and act is eagerly anticipated. During their lifetimes, cults grew up around figures like Padre Pio, the 20th-century stigmatic from Italy, as well as more recent holy persons like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Something in us responds to the charismatic figure; something in us wants to “follow” that person’s words, thoughts or, in the case of Mr. Jobs, his creations.
3.) He was unique. The radical personality who bucks the system is a key feature of the lives of the saints, and is often deeply attractive to us, perhaps because it underlines the value of our individuality. One of the most widely quoted of Mr. Jobs comments was an encouragement to reject “dogma.” “Think Different,” was Apple’s famous motto.
Ironically, many of the great Christian saints clung to dogma, which is not quite as restrictive as Mr. Jobs might have suspected. Dogma, or a codified system of belief, can be not only liberating but an engine of individuality. Mother Teresa, for example, (now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta) left her old religious order and way of life to found a new one, the Missionaries of Charity, which served the “poorest of the poor” in Calcutta. But first she had to win over her former religious superior, her bishop and the Vatican. At first those in authority resisted, but she won them over by, in effect, inviting them to “think different.” The most recently canonized American saint, Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, faced opposition from her local bishop (who threatened ejecting her from her own religious order) before she was able to attain autonomy in 19th-century Indiana. In their uniqueness, often won at a high price in the face of the “status quo,” the saints remind us of the inherent human dignity of the individual. As the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner said, the saint shows us what it means to be a Christian in this particular way. Or in this different way.
4.) He was human. Apparently, Steve Jobs was not the easiest person to work with. Nor was he always kind. The New York Times noted his asperity when dealing with Apple’s competitor, Microsoft, “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste,” he said. “They have absolutely no taste. And I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don't think of original ideas, and they don't bring much culture into their products." Sometimes the saint is loved not simply for his closeness to God but for his patent humanity. The saint has a temper, flies off the handle, loses his or her cool in pursuit of a great ideal. St. Jerome, the first translator of the Bible into Latin, was famously irascible, once writing that one of his detractors "walked like a tortoise." To take another example, St. Peter is beloved not only because he was a great apostle, but for his many flaws: denying Jesus three times before the crucifixion, among them. Holiness makes its home in humanity. That insight says, “They’re not perfect. Maybe I could aspire to this level of achievement.”
5.) He gave us something we didn’t know we needed. Saints offered their followers something new: an innovative way to follow God in a particular place and time. Some saints show their admirers new ways to pray, or new modes to serve the poor or, more broadly, new ways to live out the Gospel. The founders of the great religious orders all did this in one way or another. They met a need that they were able to identify with more clarity than those around them. Mr. Jobs, clearly, offered what consumers needed: Apple’s revenues show that. And he did so, apparently, with no market research. The customer, he said, does not know what he needs. Likewise, no one in the 14th century knew that the Catholic church needed a group of men and women entirely devoted to poverty, until St. Francis of Assisi stepped onto the world stage.
6.) He was mysterious. Like many of the saints, Steve Jobs showed a youthful precocity that would not only serve him well in later life but marked him as a remarkable individual at an early age. The lives of the saints are filled with legendary stories of youthful promise: St. Nicholas of Myra, in the fourth century, is said to have stood up in the baptismal font while still an infant—and, in some retellings, preached a homily! Such stories create an air of mystery surrounding the person.
Later, Mr. Jobs kept the public at bay, offering only rare glimpses of his private life, particularly in later years. This made his rare public appearances—for example, during the launch of a new Apple products—more exciting. Many of the saints, though human, seem removed from us. Their life of prayer, their inner life, always remains something of a mystery.
7.) He was, in his own way, a spiritual man. In the end, Mr. Jobs’ appeal may be closer to that of the saints than we might think. “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me ... Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me,” he said. That quote could have come from many of the lives of the saints. And in his Stanford University commencement speech in 2005, he spoke explicitly on a topic that even some religious leaders avoid today: death. “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.” Here is one clear intersection between the saint and Mr. Jobs: he spoke about spiritual matters.
By no means—to quote St. Paul--am I suggesting that Steve Jobs was a saint. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, as they say, but a few who worked with him have spoken of his less-than-saintly actions. Yet for those scratch their heads at the online tributes, the lives of the saints can help explain the powerful appeal of this creative genius. Likewise, the grief over Mr. Jobs’s passing may explain to those more familiar with iPhones than icons something about the appeal of the saints.
James Martin, SJ