Yesterday was Halloween, a favorite holiday for those of us who resonate more with spooks than saints. In fact, the only saints that many of us can recognize are the New Orleans’ Saints, who with a record of 6-0 seem to be flaunting their holy powers.
I recall too many Halloweens as a day of hyperactivity followed by a week of horror. In particular, today – the day after Halloween (All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day) was often the beginning of a week where my children became uncommonly secretive about what was sneaked away under their beds or hidden in the dark crevices of their closets. After climbing the walls for a day, they closed the week with fierce stomach indigestion, or worse…. While Halloween was a delightful way of gladdening the darkening days of autumn, All Saints’ Day was a downer.
Originally, Halloween was a Celtic ceremony from pre-Christian times. The festival, called Souwen, somehow got combined with the festival of All Hallows’ Day; it then became the eve of All Hallows’, thence Hallowe’en. Unfortunately, according to tradition, Halloween was the night when the souls of the dead were released to wander abroad to scare the wits out of the rest of us before finally returning to heaven or hell the next day. I say this is unfortunate because, much as I enjoy Halloween, the combination of spooks on All Hallows’ Eve and saints on All Hallows’ Day has encouraged many of us to think of both saints and spooks as other-worldly beings. In the process, we have degraded the essence of the Christian faith.
Think of the word hallow as in “hallowed be thy name.” It means, literally, to “make holy.” More generally it means to honor and respect. There was much clamoring for saints, especially in medieval times, because having bones and relics from a disciple or well-known miracle worker translated into money with which to serve the poor and build cathedrals. Sainthood was a valuable commodity – so much so, that there weren’t enough days in the year to designate one day for each person deemed worthy of sainthood. So, All Saints’ Day was designed to honor those saints who couldn’t have their own day.
So what do you think of when you hear the word “saints”? I see three possibilities: the simplistic, the standard, and the enlightened.
In the simplistic view, saints are special people who lived in history, did miracles, and only Roman Catholics and Orthodox take them seriously. In fact, some Catholics pray to saints to intercede on their behalf before God – a notion rather distasteful to Protestants who believe that God is gracious enough to listen to us directly. In this view, saints are: 1) superhuman; 2) dead; 3) probably poppycock. This is a satisfying explanation, for we Protestants get to feel superior to those still-in-the-dark-ages Catholics. In our smugness, we dismiss Catholics and saints simultaneously. And, because saints, spooks, goblins, ghosts, and their ilk all represent the outer-worldly, we discount their importance.
The second possibility – the standard view – is an improvement. In the Bible, “saints” simply means “the faithful.” I found 63 references to saints in the New Testament, most of which referred to people very normal and very much alive. Paul routinely addresses the loyal members of the church as saints, as does Luke in Acts and John in Revelation. So also do Protestant churches proclaim their understanding of the term. For example, the Book of Common Prayer defines the “communion of saints” in the Nicene Creed as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”
Sounds good, except for one problem: despite the epistles and despite the church’s teachings, most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints. I’ll bet that each of us has said, at least once, “I’m no saint, but…” So the standard view is that the saints are: 1) a whole lot better than us, but not necessarily superhuman; 2) mostly but not always dead; 3) not poppycock … but not quite normal either.
There’s a third possibility – what I’ll call the enlightened view – in which we see the saints as living realities in our lives – as personal role models, if you will. In this model, the saints are: 1) very much alive, even if their bodies are no longer part of this earth; 2) fully human; 3) the vision that transforms the gospel from historical artifact to living truth.
To explain how I began with the simplistic “poppycock” view and ended with the living truth version is the story of my faith journey. I realized that a new understanding of how saints operate in our lives is also a new understanding of how God operates in our lives. For me, enlightenment came in an offbeat way. About fifteen years ago, I went with a friend to a metaphysical chapel where I learned many things from the medium who was there. He told me, first, that the reason I don’t like tight things around my neck is because, in an earlier life, I was a Crusader who was beheaded by the Saracens. (It is true that I generally wear open collars, but I thought it was for more feminine reasons…)
Then he told me that I would rather be too hot than too cold because, in another of my past lives, I was one of the Russian submariners who disappeared under the Arctic circle. Now, this could be, but I vaguely recall that the incident happened when I was a teenager, so I found it a problematic to reconcile the fact that I was alive then and alive now, but that I was two different people… The science of cloning has not progressed quite that far, I thought…
Then he told me that Joan of Arc was my patron saint. It seems that everyone has a patron saint, but most people get the gentle ones like St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. My patron saint was a marauding military heroine, martyr, and (probably) a madwoman. Aarghhh – this is not good… But it didn’t matter because I didn’t take him seriously.
And yet, and yet … my fascination with Joan was such that I couldn’t get her out of my mind. And clearly, I wasn’t alone. The first efforts to have Joan canonized began after her mother’s death in 1458, but the church waited until 1903 to begin the formal process, and she was not officially sainted until 1920. Despite almost 600 years of contentiousness surrounding her canonization, she is one of a handful of truly important women – way up there with the mother of Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Cleopatra, Rosa Parks, and … not many others. Her influence was such – even among non-believers – that the greatest artists (and a good many of lesser quality, including some recently Hollywood directors) saw fit to study her.
Mark Twain, the notorious skeptic who panned God in his Letters from the Earth, noted that she was the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of a nation’s military forces at the age of seventeen. Joan enthralled Twain, who penned a historical novel about her from the viewpoint of her squire. In closing the novel, the imaginary page wrote that he could finally “recognize her at last for what she was – the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One [Christ].” She may have been a madwoman, but she was the most noble madwoman ever to grace this earth.
Then I learned that there were not one, but two, Saint Felicity’s in the early church. Horrifically mauled by wild animals, both of them were among the few mothers who were martyred. The faith and influence of the first St. Felicity, a widow, was so compelling that she not only marched herself to death, but was joined by all seven of her grown sons. The martyrdom of the second Felicity, a slave, was overshadowed by the accompanying death of her owner Perpetua.
So what does it mean to have the same name as these two early martyrs and be under the shadow of the ever-formidable Joan? On the one hand, not much. The fact that two women suffered brutal deaths nearly two thousand years ago had no bearing on the fact that my parents chose a wonderful name for me. (Being non-believers, they did not know about the saints.) Neither am I made of the same “stuff” as St. Joan: I have no desire to die a martyr’s death, and I lack both the faith and the courage to live a martyr’s life. So while there many be no divine influence at work here, I freely admit that I stand in awe at the faith and fearlessness shown by these three women.
But even with all that historical baggage, the saints – even those who share my name – seem so distant. Was it easier to be a saint in Roman times, or during the Middle Ages? It seems so hard to be a saint now… Do I really need to search back in time to find appropriate role models?
Not at all! I once learned about a committee of lay and ordained ministers who were asked to recommend twentieth-century saints to be honored in ten heretofore-empty niches of Westminster Abbey. The obvious names came to mind: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero. But, here’s the kicker: the committee reported that they identified more saints and martyrs in the 20th century than in all of the previous 19 centuries combined. They considered the religious persecutions in Africa, Asia, in Germany under Hitler, in the Soviet Union under the Communists, and they could not find another century – no, not the 2nd and 3rd centuries under Rome, and not even the bloody 16th century of the Reformation – in which so many Christians died for their faith.
This made me sit up and take notice. Those millions upon millions of martyrs may not been canonized through the formal process of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were recognized as saints nonetheless.
It also made me want to learn more. I found a charming book of saints, prophets, and martyrs called All Saints. It is intended to be read as daily reflections with one saint for each day. What is intriguing about this book is that author Robert Ellsberg struggled with the same questions that plague us – what is it that makes a “saint” a saint? Can only Roman Catholics be saints? Can only Christians be saints?
I loved what the author gave as his criteria for sainthood, namely “to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” As a result, not all of Ellsberg’s saints were Christian – he includes Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet Amos, Galileo, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish nation, and Anne Frank, among others. Of the more modern surprises, he also includes Cesar Chavez, Flannery O’Connor, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame), Albert Schweizer, and probably a hundred people I had never heard of before in my life. They may or may not have died for their faith, but they lived for God.
Reading further, I noticed two very interesting facts. First, fully 122 of them – or one-third – lived during the last 100 years. Second, there’s no saint for February 29. Mr. Ellsberg leapt over Leap Day. This got me to wondering, “Whom would I include?”
Certainly, I would add Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and probably even Jimmy Carter, but – thankfully – they are still alive, so perhaps that’s why they are not yet included. So I’m inclined to add Eleanor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom dedicated their lives to the cause of peace and justice.
And there are several people that I know absolutely that I would include. Last month, I met Shrawan Nepali and Bonnie Ellison, the founder and manager of Ama Ghar Children’s Home, and Kent and Shovha Rogers and Rajendra Budhathoki and Nadine Rogers, the two sets of parents who manage New Life Children’s Home. All of them have given up much personal comfort in order to provide a loving home and a quality life for the orphans in their care. My colleagues and I came away humbled and inspired by their wisdom, courage, and love.
Another two would be my grandparents. Although he died before I was born, my mother’s father was reportedly one of the people who pushed the Episcopal church away from the country clubs and into the slums. As a result, he was hated. His job as a seminary dean was always in peril and he was officially investigated as a Communist by the Federal government. But nothing stopped him from doing what he thought was God’s will.
Thankfully, I remember my father’s mother very well. Although she has been dead for forty years, I can still hear her explaining why she took a stance on an issue that was likely to lose her some good friends. Her explanation was simple: “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
Years ago, Jesse Jackson made a statement that went something like this: “Never underestimate the importance of grandparents. Spend a lot of time with them. Get to know their stories, their dreams, their hurts, their passions. For it is through our grandparents that we learn our history. And it is by learning our history that we are able to shape our future.” The same is true of saints, who are there to tell us about our religious history, just as grandparents can teach us about our family history.
Saints are not spooks, devils, ghosts, or angels. When we lump them in with imaginary Halloween-type creatures, we are doing them, and ourselves, a huge disserve. Most saints aren’t even heroes, in the common understanding of that term. They are typically tormented by insecurities, doubts, fears, heartaches – all of the anxieties that we also face. But their love of God and of God’s children is like a beacon that carries them through. The lives are a testament, fully as powerful as the Bible itself.
So let us enjoy the spooks for a day and celebrate the saints for the rest of the year!