A few weeks ago Pope Frances canonized two pontifical predecessors, Paul XXIII and John-Paul II. The whole process of making saints is a fascinating subject that many Christians have long had a strong aversion, almost an allergic reaction, to any notion of saints. That response is rooted in the real allergens of saint abuses. The growth of the “cult of saints” developed with what John Calvin called “a manifold disposition to superstition.” The blurred lines between admiration and adoration, the mythic tales of morality and miracles of the saints have been irritants to a biblically informed heart.
Yet isn’t there something noteworthy about all these saints? Even the original Reformer, Martin Luther, held out some place for the saints, mentioning that “next to Holy Scripture there certainly is no more useful book for Christians than the lives of the saints.” Can we make a case for recovering saints?
The bible seems to support that notion. The term “saints” is a robustly biblical word. In fact, it is one of the most common biblical descriptors for God’s people in general. But what does it really mean? Popularly understood, a saint is a spiritual superhero, someone who has lived an unparalleled life of moral excellence. Pope Innocent IV said that a saint is one who has lived a life of “continuous, uninterrupted virtue.” The Bible, however, seems to point us in more modest directions.
Think of the biblical saints, the characters that populate our stories of faith – boozy Noah; shifty-eyed con artist Jacob; Moses, a man on the lam from the law; Samson, driven more by his sexual appetite than by God’s Spirit; David, the royal peeping tom who tries to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes to cover us his misdeeds. It doesn’t get any better when we look at the New Testament – disciples quibbling of their status; turncoat Peter; skeptical Thomas; and Saul, the persecuting pit-bull who had his first taste of Christian blood at Stephen’s stoning. Sometime later, this Saul – now Paul – writes to the contentious Corinthian church, addressing a community that is at the same time engaged in divisive litigation and illicit sex, a church more often concerned with a spiritual high than with the simple call to help the poor and hungry among them. Yet in these people, whose lives are quite regularly interrupted by vice and moral defect, Paul spies holiness. He names them “saints.”
The biblical vision of sainthood quite obviously differs from conventional wisdom. The biblical truth is that being a saint has more to do with what God is doing than with what we do or fail to do. We can call these biblical character “saints” because, although disfigured by sin, they are animated by a greater grace. A saint is one whose life displays, to varying degrees, the grace of God. A holy life, then, is best conceived of not as a life of virtue but more as a virtuoso displace of God’s grace in a sometimes muddied and muddled life.
While this may disappoint some, it is, in fact, the genius of grace and saints. The importance of saints to us isn’t in unattainable sanctity and often-fudged virtue, but in their real, accessible – and sometimes peculiar – humanity. The beauty of the saints is not that we see moral perfection or heroic devotion to be striven after, but that we see a grace at work that is available to all, even in the midst of the fallenness and foibles of our own lives.
As poet Margaret Avison writes,
must be, on earth
only the worst in course of
being transfigured. (“A Basis” in NOT YET but STILL)
So how then might saints function in the Christian life without a canonization ceremony? How can we recover the promise of saints without abusing or discarding them? Let’s explore that in the next post but for the meantime start viewing others through that lens of “saint.”