Sinatra and the saints
November has ended, the Season of the Saints, the month wherein we remember those extraordinary men and women who have lived holy lives. It is a sad farewell, like parting ways with good friends, if only temporarily.
Most Catholics have favorite saints, those whose stories resonate with us. The Irish honor St. Patrick, attributing to him an impossible array of miracles as he performed his ministry across Ireland. Italian-American households, like the one I grew up in, venerate St. Anthony, beloved not only for his ability to help us find lost objects but also because of his tender disposition, pictured as he so often is cradling the infant Christ. We mortals call on saints for assistance in our everyday lives. Mothers call on Mary, Mother of God, in dealing with the challenges of raising children, from colicky babies to wayward teenagers. Homeowners with hopes of selling their houses practice the ritual of burying a statue of St. Joseph, patron saint of the household, in their yards to ensure success. Seafarers look to St. Nicholas for protection, scholars look to St. Thomas Aquinas for encouragement, while musicians seek out St. Cecilia and poets St. Columba for inspiration.
There is, in fact, a saint for every occasion, thanks be to God. It is easy to see why Catholics value the saints so highly: they put a human face on the divine. Their lives and their works move and inspire us. They serve as models for what we might be capable of in our own little lives.
Given our deep need for saints, the more we have the merrier. This certainly seems to be the attitude of our recent popes, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, who have canonized record numbers of saints during their tenures. In the spirit of this generous trend toward saint-making, it seems appropriate to propose a new category of saints—human beings who have given us the gift of art, in its many forms, and brought beauty into our lives.
The genesis of this concept—like so many good ideas— occurred to me during Mass. A few years back, I found myself in a pew at Fordham University Church on All Saints Day. The celebrant was none other than the great Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles. (One of the beauties of teaching at a Jesuit university is fine liturgy.) As Cardinal Dulles approached the lectern to deliver his homily, I quietly wondered what he might have to say about the saints—so much has already been said, over the centuries, a new perspective is hard to come by. But Cardinal Dulles did not disappoint. “Saints are the most excellent of voices,” he proclaimed, “the most brilliant of stars.” And I thought to myself, “My God. He’s talking about Frank Sinatra.”
This is not so strange a leap as it might seem. Sinatra is, of course, “The Voice”—the voice that provided the soundtrack for a generation of men and women coming of age in America, discovering the world, discovering themselves, falling in love, falling out of love, teaching them the joys and the sorrows of being human through music that made these hard lessons easier to bear. And Sinatra is nothing if not a ‘star,’ still shining brightly in the firmament across the nights and days, years and decades. The man may be dead, but his music is very much alive, playing in restaurants and shops, on CD players and iPods, on Siriusly Sinatra radio 24/7.
As with all Mass-inspired epiphanies, one thing leads to another, and this is especially true for poets. My Sinatra Moment led to a poem, titled (what else?) “St. Sinatra,” and the poem, in turn, led to other poems, all of them generated by a single premise: that the pursuit of Beauty is as likely a qualification for sainthood as the practice of Goodness. Each poem offered homage to practitioners of Beauty— painters, composers, musicians and poets—and honored the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, Fra Angelico, Antonio Saliere, Johnny Cash and, of course, Frank Sinatra. The saints came unbidden, gathered in my poet’s notebook, and eventually became a collection—a literary communion of saints— Saint Sinatra & Other Poems, launched three years after that fateful All Saints Day.
I like to think the popes would approve of Frank and his goodly company. In his “Letter to Artists” (1999), John Paul II himself articulates the foundation upon which my renegade Lives of the Saints has been built: “Beauty is the vocation bestowed on the artist by the Creator.” The pursuit of beauty is not a choice—it is a duty, enjoined upon the poet, the singers, the painters of the world. The artist’s way of being is a holy enterprise, and she carries out her vocation with God’s blessing.
In addition, John Paul asserts that Beauty is “the visible form of the Good, just as the Good is the metaphysical condition of Beauty.” Beauty is, in fact, the incarnation of goodness and God in the world. Beauty arrests our attention, takes us out of ourselves, and stretches our capacity for wonder. St. Augustine states as much, confesses his passion for Beauty, an embodiment of the hidden God he seeks: “Late have I loved you/ Beauty so old and so new/Late have I loved you.” Beauty, then, is not merely a quality that makes human life enjoyable—it is tied up with our love of the Good and is a necessity of the soul.
The pope’s words confirm the implicit assumptions of the Saint Sinatra project, even as they provide an imprimatur for my own restless pursuit of Beauty. Of course, the test case is the figure of Sinatra himself. A deeply flawed human being, whose misadventures are well known to his fans and critics alike—arrogant and boorish, unfaithful and unkind, sometimes a drunk and once near-suicide—Sinatra’s life presents no model of moral rectitude. But that was not Frank’s purpose. His God-given gift was that voice—the voice that a century after his birth still expresses our longings and loneliness, our joys and our sorrows, our fears and our hopes, our pasts and tomorrows.
As Sinatra’s 100th birthday approaches, Dec. 12—a feast day he shares with Our Lady of Guadeloupe—perhaps we might listen to the music he made, allow it to move our hearts and lift our spirits, and pause to consider his role as our brother, our friend, our confidant, our fellow pilgrim along the journey. If there’s room for Frank in the Communion of Saints, there’s room for all of us.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a poet, professor and associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. Twitter: @AODonnellAngela.