A few weeks ago Pope Frances canonized two pontifical predecessors, Paul XXIII and John-Paul II. In my last post on Saints, I looked at the fairly chronic aversion to saints and yet explored the warm biblical use of the term and concept of saints. Ok, so what now? How then might saints function in the Christian life? How can we recover the promise of saints without abusing or discarding them?
The most basic response is to recognize who we are. Here’s the truth: you and I, we are saints – St. Jeremy and St. Jane, St. Theresa and St. Todd. More often than not, that’s hard to believe about the cranky senior, the mother who makes her children the target of her temperamental anger, the middle-aged man who creates discomfort among young women with his breast-high gaze or the sullen teenager. Yet by naming you and me as saints, the Bible provides a lens through which we can being to see one another more clearly. Recovering the status of saints trains us to see in others more of God than of the sin that smudges our lives and trips us up.
But what about the larger company of saints: all those Christians who have gone before? Is there a place and a role for them in the Christian life? Indeed, saints can function in a way that is analogous to good theology. We value and appreciate the health demonstrated in clear, sharp thinking about God, which, in turn, helps us to respond in love to God. Sharp theological understanding is vital to the life of faith.
Equally indispensable are the courageous examples of gospel lives that the saints provide. As one character notes in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “What is Christ’s word without an example?” North America has a cultural pantheon of celebrities and politicians who give polished performances in how to live badly (remember now, I live in the city of Toronto). In this “bad as you want to be world” of Charlie Sheens and Rob Fords, we could use a few saints to show us how to be as holy, gracious, and human as Christ calls us to be.
Saints, then, are witnesses to the truth. They call our attention to the gospel in the ordinary conditions of human living. They are, as author Kathleen Norris notes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.” (The Cloister Walk). They offer fresh demonstrations of the holiness and grace of God in the everyday moments of our lives.
Very often, however, the life of a saint is rather unsettling, which may explain some of our wariness about them. Saints of the past have been misunderstood because, to be honest, they are a rather curious crowd (think, for example, of the pillar of peculiarity, Simeon of Stylites, who sat perched on a pole for 30-odd years).
Saints are very much like the characters in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, who suggested that for people to hear the truth, she had to create exaggerated characters. Similarly, G.K. Chesterton once noted that “a Saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.” Take Therese of Liseaux, for example. In our success-oriented age of “bigger is better,” Therese’s obscure and apparently insignificant life teaches us of the beauty in simplicity and smallness. Or what about Francis of Assisi, who demonstrates a life of abundance not in material wealth but in the sheer goodness and bounty of creation? Saints from ages past provide a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace. They offer a sharp prick of Kingdom reality to our understanding of the gospel.
We need the saints. They are gifts from God to the church, teaching us how a holy life works, showing us the exuberance of a gospel life. The wonderful biblical truth is that God has placed us in a long and large historical community of believers, the “communion of the saints.” It is a bloodline of sorts, a family tree filled with a fantastic collection of wild and wooly characters, all animated by grace.
So while the Roman Catholic Church officially declares of John and John Paul II to be what the gospel proclaimed they already were in this life – saints – why not locate a few saints whose lives freshly demonstrate the gospel in beautiful ways. Take a moment to inventory some of those people whose lives are the gospel brought to life – who is on your list of saints? Thank God for their lives and let them challenge you to more grace-filled living.
But better yet, go to your church, reminding yourself of what the gospel declares of these people and yourself, and enjoy the company of the saints right around you.