Last year I was delighted to teach a session of the adult formation dealing with hagiology, the study of the saints and their writings. I had a passing acquaintance with the major saints like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Nicholas and some others, but I had never really dug down deeper. This year I found a quotation from Oscar Wilde that set me thinking, “The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Now there’s a thought.
Saints were ordinary people who lived extraordinary or, at least, memorable, lives. Many had what we would consider to be at least one major character flaw or major sin in their lives yet they weren’t defined by that flaw or sin. Some were preachers and teachers, some theologians, some missionaries and mystics. A few, like Gabriel and Michael were archangels, part of what is called the heavenly host and who played a part in our salvation history by proclamation and sometimes intervention. A number were members or founders of religious orders, others were from the greatest order, the laity. There were those who lived holy and exemplary lives and then there were the martyrs who died either for their faith or for the stances they took to live their faith. They came from all socio-economic strata from peasants and shepherds to kings and queens. They were soldiers, philosophers, anchorites and public servants. Some were canonized, some were not, yet they are remembered especially on November 1st for the witness that they made in the world.
One thing I learned was that saints walk among us but we often don’t recognize them until later. Often they are opposed by the rich and powerful because the saints see the world with different eyes, not necessarily accepting the way things are as the way things are supposed to be. They often have a very prophetic way of looking at the world and seeing things that the prophets saw: poverty, pain, victimization, avarice, exploitation, sickness, abuse of all kinds including that of the use of power, and hopelessness. At some point, someone or a group of someones recognized that these individuals saw a better world and, guided by whatever faith they practiced, they worked to make that better world a reality. Some, like Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edith Stein, were martyred for their attempts to make that possibility a reality and, even though none of them was a perfect human being, they each made an unwitting sacrifice to that cause.
In the Daily Office reading today, the writer, probably using the name “Ezra” as a pseudonym, is seeing a vision of what Paul’s letter to the Hebrews called “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1a) receiving honors from Jesus for their witness on earth. A favorite hymn, “For All the Saints,” gives a similar vision: “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old/ and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold./ Alleluia, alleluia.”* While not all saints were soldiers or martyrs, I think most of us have a vision of each saint, no matter what their calling in life, being welcomed into the presence of Jesus who invests them with the mark of their witness, the crown of gold. I wonder… if I were looking at such a vision, who would I see being crowned that I would least imagine as a saint, canonized or not? Who had a vision and made a significant contribution to making that vision a reality?
We’ve all heard someone refer to another as a saint, whether because they have endured various illnesses in themselves or as caregivers for others, because they are always cheerful and helpful, or because they seem to have their feet firmly planted on a holy path, even if they seldom set foot in a church. There are those who have a concern for those outside the church walls and work seemingly tirelessly to provide shoeboxes of comfort for our military in combat zones, backpacks for underprivileged children in the neighborhood, work in food banks and soup kitchens, or who just seem to know who needs a bit of attention and TLC. Sometimes we notice these saints, sometimes we don’t, and that is our loss.
There are times a big name from the entertainment industry like Bono or even a multi-billionaire like Bill Gates come into the news because of a gift to a charity that will help countless others. We sit and think, “Well, they can afford it! Look how much money they have and they probably just did it for the publicity.” We have made a judgment from our own perspective, but to those whom they help, they most likely are saints as are the countless much lesser-known contributors who make malaria nets, clean water stations, and microloans possible to help others they don’t know to have a better life.
I think this All Saints’ Day I need to look around and see if I can spot an unrecognized saint or two. I quite often forget to do that, even if I am rubbing elbows with them or I come across them in odd places. And then I need to remember the line from another favorite hymn for All Saints, “[F]or the saints of God are just folks like me, and I mean to be one too.”**
That sounds like a goal to work towards not just today but for the rest of my life. I’ll never be a Saint, or even probably a very good saint, but the attempt might help make the world a better place. I think that’s what following the gospel is about.
I may end up being just a bystander at the red carpet to heaven’s gates and not a recipient of a gold crown at a major awards event, but if I have done my best to live out that gospel then that is all I can do. That’s what is expected of me and, indeed, all of us. I have a past but I also have a future. That’s a comfort and a challenge.
* Church Hymnal Corporation, Hymnal 1982, (1985) 287
Cover art from “I sing a song of the saints of God” book on Amazon