On the Saints

Saturday, September 13, 2003



I want to write about the humanity of the saints. Yet, before I do, let me briefly address the concerns of non-Catholic Christians about Catholic devotion to the saints.

Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. (Mark 9:4)

Jesus is the perfect human being, and his life is a perfect example for all of us. If talking to the dead and seeking their prayers is a sin, we would have to accuse Jesus Christ of sin! Jesus is remembered in the gospel traditions speaking with Elijah and Moses while in his humanity, prior to his death and resurrection.

The intercession of the saints and our communion with our ancestors in faith, while not explicitly spelled out in Scripture, is strongly implied. The author of the Book of Revelations describes a heavenly vision of our elders and angels in faith lifting our prayers to God:

Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. (Rev 5:8b)

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censor. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke from the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.(Rev 8:3-4)

The author of the letter to the Hebrews spends all of chapter 11 highlighting several holy people of the Old Testament, and then starts chapter 12 with the following statement:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden of sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us. (Heb 12:1)

The angels and saints dwell in a heavenly reality that is all around, just beyond the realm of our perception. This cloud of wintnesses watches over us.

It is true that 1 Tim 2:5 states the following:

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human.

Catholics do not deny that Jesus is true God and truly human. Christ, alone, is divine by his nature, being, or essence. He assumes a fully human nature in the incarnation event. As such, he is in his humanity by nature what we become through adoption and grace. Christ alone is worthy of the adoration and worship due to God. Christ alone is the ultimate mediator between God and humanity.

Yet, Saint Paul could not be saying that since Christ alone is the ultimate mediator, there can be no other mediation or intercession. Indeed, just a few verses earlier in 1 Timothy he asks for the intercessory prayers on behalf of world leaders and others:

First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior. (1 Tim 2:1-3)

Just as we can ask for prayers from the living - and we should ask for such prayers and offer such prayers as well - we can also request the prayers of our ancestors in faith who have gone before us.

Catholics do not worship saints. Rather, we ask saints to pray and intercede for us, the way we would ask our parents and loved ones to intercede for us. The intercession a saint makes is with the Father through Christ. In other words, the saints worship Jesus as the one ultimate mediator along with us.

Perhaps instead of saying Catholics pray to saints, we should insist that we pray through saints to Christ.

Such a practice was not unknown to the Judaism before the time of Christ. The Second Book of Maccabbees, which Catholics consider inspired Scripture, indicates that the prophet Jeremiah intercedes for the Israelites and Jerusalem (2 Macc 15:11-16). Some of the Jewish people who accepted that there will one day be a general resurrection of the dead believed that the dead already stood in the presence of God interceding for them.

One of the most frequent Pauline metaphors for the Church is "the Body of Christ". True Christianity can never be an individualistic "me and Jesus alone" sort of thing. We cannot say "I'm saved, and to hell with the rest of the world." We need each other, and we're all in this together. Catholics reject "me and Jesus" thinking, and favor "we and Jesus" thinking.

Christ chose to share his ministry with others. He appointed Apostles and others to carry his message to the rest of the world. None of us had a Bible simply drop out of the sky into our hands. Rather, we were brought to Christ and the Bible by other people. Maybe it was a parent, or a friend, or even a televangelist, but we did not come to faith alone. Indeed, we depend on human translators to understand the Bible.

The belief in a communion of saints that includes the living and the dead is an affirmation that it is in communion with others that I come to God in Christ!

Even after God gave the commandment to avoid graven images, the Scriptures indicate that God commanded the creation of molten images of angels (Ex 25:18). The command against idolatry is aimed at images of false gods, and is not a strict prohibition against all religious art. Indeed, by becoming flesh, God has sanctified the body and all physical reality. Religious art expresses this reverence for the physicality of our bodies that will one day rise in glory.

Furthermore, concerning relics and such, Acts 19:12 speaks to healing power from saint Paul being conveyed through cloth that touched him. Saint Augustine tells the story of healing of others upon the discovery of the bodies of two saints in Book IX of his Confessions. The healings occurred after touching the bodies of the martyrs. The witness of Augustine places the practice within the first four centuries of the Church's history, by a source respected by many Protestants.

I ask the prayers not only of canonized saints, but my grandmother who died a few years ago. I especially feel she prays for the family, because it meant so much to her here on earth.

As a Catholic, I was taught as a child that the highest honor we give a saint is not in prayers to the saint, but imitation of the saint's virtue. Catholics study the Bible, but we also study the lives of the saints and our Church history. The saints lived in many various times and places. Through this, we see new and creative ways to apply Biblical and Christian principles in our own lives.

Yet, I sometimes feel that we Catholics do have a tendency to treat the saints in an overly pious way that does a disservice to the saint and what they may have to teach us.

Dorothy Day once said to her friends, "Please don't make a saint out of me when I die." This was more than pious humility. She had a strong desire not have her story white-washed to the point where nobody could possibly imitate her. We show no love for the saints if we cannot love them as the truly were.

Should Dorothy Day ever be canonized (and I pray with her already, and hope Rome will recognize her one day), we should not gloss over that she had an abortion. Think what hope she would give to women who struggle with post-abortion issues!

Let's love our saints with all their warts and sins, as well as with their virtues. After all, only Christ and the Virgin Mary are without sin.

I was once arguing in a threaded web forum with a very conservative Catholic who seemed to claim all humor was tainted with sin. I suggested that Saint Teresa of Avila was known for her sense of humor, and her Jesuit spiritual directors even thought her a bit of a flirt at times. I was literally accused of blasphemy.

The saints are human beings. Saint Peter, our first Pope, was a married man (Mk 1:30, 1 Cor 9:5, 1 Pet 5:13). He was a stubborn man with a bit of a temper. Under trial, he once denied even knowing Christ. He disagreed with Saint Paul, and Saint Paul had it out with the Pope (Gal 2:11).

Given all of this, why do we seem to think a bishop who speaks forcefully and maybe even questions Rome is excommunicating himself automatically?

Speaking of married saints, one of my favorites is Saint Thomas More. Here we have an idealistic dreamer. Indeed, the very idea of "Utopia" comes from him.

In the list of canonized saints, there are so many celibates that I always felt Thomas More was one an ordinary man could relate with on an experiential level. In the end, Thomas More was a prisoner of conscience under King Henry VIII during the Reformation who became a martyr. I know many married men see him as more a model than so many celibate saints.

What is interesting when we stop reading pious "lives of saints" and delve into the actual writings of a saint, we are often shocked by their humanity. The same holds true if we find the writings of someone who knew a saint personally.

I wrote in another essay about how the letters of Saint Jerome suggest that he may have had homosexual tendencies. See Can a Gay Man be a Saint. There is also evidence that Saint Basil the Great may have had homosexual tendencies.

Consider the following quotes from Saint Basil's advice to monks:

It is frequently the case with young men that even when rigorous self-restraint is exercised, the glowing complexion of youth still blossoms forth and becomes a source of desire to those around them. If therefore, anyone is youthful and physically beautiful, let him keep his attractiveness hidden until his appearance reaches a suitable state.

(De Renuntiatione Saeculi 6 as quoted by John Boswell in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century University of Chicago Press (1980), p. 159. Boswell admits some dispute over authorship, but not dating or connection to Basil's monasteries).

In what Boswell takes to be a more certain source, Saint Basil states the following:

Sit in a chair from such youth; in sleep do not allow your clothing to touch his but, rather, have an old man between you. When he is speaking to you or singing opposite you, look down as you respond to him, so that you do not by gazing at his face take the seed of desire from the enemy sower and bring forth harvests of corruption and loss. Do not be found with him either indoors or where no one can see what you do, either for studying the prophecies of Holy Scriptures or for any other purpose, no matter how necessary. (Sermo Asceticus, 323 as quoted by Boswell, p. 160)

I am not arguing for or against homosexual acts here. Indeed, it seems Saint Basil was taking his celibate vows seriously. However, it is clear that Basil was either homosexually inclined, or knew monks who were, and did not wish to drive them out of the community. Thus, saint Basil is an example not only of prayer and chastity, but of compassion for homosexual people.

Perhaps, if he or Jerome or both were gay, God is showing us that gay people can be extraordinarily holy without changing their basic orientation!

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a well known glutton of sorts, and even Jesus was called a drunkard and glutton by his opponents. See Lk 7:34 for reference to Jesus' eating and drinking habits. Aquinas was so rotund that it is said a portion of the dining table had to be cut out for him!

Both liked to talk and tell stories. Both Christ and Aquinas had a sense of humor. I laugh every time I picture the scene where Jesus is telling his opponents to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. It is hilarious how Christ turns their trap into a lesson. See Mt. 22:15-22.

Saint Paul had a somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, and displays a sharp tongue in his writing. In Gal 3:1, he calls the entire community "stupid". In Gal 5:12, Saint Paul says with a bit of sarcasm that he wishes those preaching circumcision to Gentiles would slip with the knife and castrate themselves! In Titus 1:12, Paul states that the only prophet of the island of Crete who ever spoke the truth was the one who said all Cretans are liars!

Speaking of Biblical saints, King David, whom the Bible calls a man after God's own heart, was an adulterer and murderer, even after receiving his anointing! Solomon and David were polygamists. If these guys can be saved, is there not hope for men who struggle with lust?

Speaking of men who struggle with lust, what about Saint Augustine? Granted, it was prior to his full conversion, but he had a long time affair out of wed-lock, and took a young concubine after that! See his Confessions Book IV.25. He even had a child with the first woman.

Then there is Augustine's mother, Saint Monica. In Book IX of his Confessions, Augustine tells the story of her addiction to alcohol, despite her piety. Eventually, through what we would call an intervention, she gave up the drink. Yet, the stumbling occurred long after her baptism and in spite of her otherwise prayerful life. Couldn't every alcoholic benefit from knowing the true story about Monica?

Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine also disagreed passionately with one another. Ironically, in one case, their argument was over whether Peter and Paul really disagreed as I alluded to already in Gal 2:11. Jerome believed it denied tradition to say saints could disagree. Augustine believed it simply denied reality to read some other meaning into the text.

Thus, though their own disagreement and subsequent canonizations, we Catholics can now be certain that there is such a thing as legitimate debate and pluralism in the Church. Augustine was right.

Augustine and Jerome also disagreed about which books belong in the canon of Scripture. At times, Jerome was just plain mean to Augustine, and Augustine took it hardly. Jerome has earned a reputation for his acid pen, and I sometimes think that if one so mean is in heaven, there's hope for all of us!

Augustine is another of my favorite saints. To my fellow progressives, I confess that I don't like his sometimes dualistic Platonism, his negative views on sexuality, and he expresses some of the sexism of his times.

Yet, his theological outlook really shapes all subsequent Western thought. In him, we also have a very personal account of a saint in his Confessions, and all of his writing has passion. From a purely secularist perspective, Augustine wrote the very first autobiography ever!

In later Church history, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure would have disagreements over the role of the intellect in the life of faith. For Aquinas, the intellect leads to faith. For Bonaventure, faith illuminates the intellect.

For those who settle theological issues by saying we now know Aquinas was always right, bear in mind that Aquinas believed that life of the soul begins at quickening, rather than conception. We now know that both scientifically and theologically, he was wrong.

Cyril of Alexandria was also wrong. He made a mistake about the Assumption of Mary. God makes saints even of those in theological error!

Bonaventure was a Fransiscan, and Saint Francis is a saint worthy of reflecting on honestly. I love Saint Francis, even more than Thomas Moore. However, I have to admit that the guy was a "nut case" in some ways. He seemed to have compulsion to take his clothes off in public.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Francis disrobing when he repudiated his father's wealth in front of his bishop. However, The Mirror of Perfection and other early Franciscan sources tell us that Francis often stripped before preaching, or sometimes simply stripped as a form of preaching. Indeed, he even stripped on the day he died! If a modern man did this in the name of Christ, we may want him to see a therapist.

Speaking of therapy, I believe that Saint John of the Cross suffered from manic depression. It seems almost self evident in his writings. I once mentioned my theory to a fellow progressive teaching mythology at the university level. He said his students often made the same observation, but he felt that it took something away from the writings to so easily dismiss it. I countered that I am not trying to dismiss the great mystic.

What I am trying to do is say to people who suffer with clinical depression that there is someone who has walked your path in sanctity ahead of you! Take courage and succor from him in his human suffering and learn how grace can build on our imperfect nature.

While I'm on the subject of Saint John of the Cross, those who get so caught up in pious devotions such as the Rosary that they judge others should read what this saint has to say:

...they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now they take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more interesting. And others you will see adorned with seals carrying the popes blessing and relics and tokens, like children with trinkets. Here I condemn the attachment of the heart, and the affection which they have for such the nature, multitude and curiosity of these things, inasmuch as it is quite contrary to poverty of spirit, which considers only the substance of devotion...(Chapter III of The Dark Night of the Soul paraphrased form E. Allison Peers translation published by Image (1959) p. 45).

Neither John of the Cross nor I are arguing that rosaries and religious objects are in themselves bad. I pray the Rosary myself.

However, the point John of the Cross makes is that we can cheapen our faith by becoming almost superstitious or materialistic about religious articles. Saint John of the Cross is a man of deep prayer, and yet a man who was very humanist in his outlook.

Matthew's Jesus had harsh words for those who honor the tombs of saints or holy ones, but fail to imitate them or recognize the holy one in their midst.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build tombs and memorials of the righteous, and you say, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets' blood." Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out! You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee the judgment of Gehenna? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes; some you will kill and crucify, some you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town... (Mt. 23:29-34)

Solanus Casey smoked cigars. The twentieth century Saint Edit Stein was a feminist for her day, and a Jew (as all the earliest saints were). Mother Teresa of Calcutta is said to have been a bit on the stubborn side. The saints are human beings. Yet, with all their faults and frailties, they are "holy ones".

The word "saint" literally means "holy one". Saint Paul uses the term for the living members of the Church. The concept is similar to the in Bhuddism of enlightened ones. The saints are people who have been touched by God's grace in such a way that their growth in love, mercy, holiness and righteousness became apparent to those around them. They lead others to greater holiness. All of these people, despite their faults, displayed great sanctity and admirable virtues worthy of imitation. Yet, every saint other than the Blessed Mother of God is a sinner.

My intent in writing this essay is not to dismiss the saints, nor to deny their holiness, nor even to suggest that we imitate the sins of the saints. We are to imitate the virtues of the saints, and not their vices. Yet, if we can see a bit of ourselves and our own struggles in the saints, it becomes easier to imagine precisely how we can imitate the saints.

Furthermore, by looking at the full reality of who the saints were, it becomes a little easier to see the saints in our midst. Just as Saint Francis was a bit of a "nut case", maybe the nut case in the cube next to you at work, or in your Bible study, choir, or parish council is a saint. The person I disagree with may be a saint, and that does not mean I am wrong. Maybe the person struggling with homosexuality or womanizing or alcoholism is a saint, or on their way to becoming one. Maybe you and I are saints!

Peace and Blessings!

See my article on our Blessed Mother at the following link: The Immaculate Conception and Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 11:12 PM

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