Today is All Saints Day in the Catholic Church, so the saint was the topic for the Mid-Day Reflection I offered today at the University of St. Thomas.
I titled the program Don’t Call Me a Saint, a line that comes from Dorothy Day, who is said to have often quipped, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” She explained that when people call someone a saint, it means they are not to be taken seriously.
Since Day had a deep spiritual relationship with many saints, and she also firmly believed we are all called to be saints, what she was really objecting to in her line was (in the words of Robert Ellsberg) “was being put on a pedestal, fitted to some pre-fab conception of holiness that would strip her of her humanity and, at the same time, dismiss the radical challenge of the Gospel.” What she wanted to avoid was the implication that the actions in which she engaged – living in poverty, feeding the hungry, going to jail for the cause of peace – somehow came easily to her and were out of reach of ordinary folks. As Ellsberg said, “She had no patience for that kind of cop-out.”
Kenneth Woodward, former Newsweek religions editor, once defined a saint as“someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like – and of what we are called to be.”
One could say that we have all we need in Jesus to see what we are called to be. And there is some truth to that. Jesus Christ incarnated was fully human and is, of course, the supreme example of human holiness, the ultimate model for our lives. My aim as a Christian disciple is to see as Jesus saw, to love as Jesus loved, to be Christ in the world. And that is important. But for all our proclamation of our belief that Jesus was fully human, it is too easy for people to say (or at least think even if they don’t say it out loud) – yeah, well easy for him – he was God after all. So of course it was easier for him than for me.
And that is where I think the Saints are helpful to us. They serve as examples about whom we can’t say – oh well, he or she was God. No: He or she was human – just like us. These human beings heard Jesus’ call and followed it. Saints provide examples to us, models, they give us strength for own journeys.
We had a great discussion during the session today about the saints that inspire us. I shared some of those who stand front in center in my visualization of the communion of saints and then the participants shared theirs. There were some overlaps, but a lot of different names that came up.
The variety reminds us that the saints help us understand how God works in the lives of individuals. James Martin, in his book My Life with the Saints, writes: “Each saint was holy in his or her unique way, revealing how God celebrates individuality.” And he cites C.L. Lewis, who wrote in Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.” Martin continues: “This gave me enormous consolation, for I realized that none of us are meant to be Therese of Lisieux or Pope John XXIII or Thomas More. We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity.”
Who stands front and center in your visualization of the communion of saints? Which saints inspire you.