Saints: Flawed Heroes
Happy Halloween (Saints’ Eve) and Happy Feast of All Saints! What pops into your mind when you hear the word saint? Do you think of someone pale and sickly, serious (if not downright grim), clothed in religious garb and living in caves or on clouds? Actually the saints had their feet on the ground. They were not all angels, although angels are included in the term “saints.” Saints were just as human as us. We are to imitate them, but how can we imitate someone we can’t identify with? In the course of time, stories about saints’ lives became exaggerated as the authors tried to emphasize the saints’ holiness. (This happens with other heroes too, like George Washington whose legend of chopping down the cherry tree serves to illustrate his truthfulness.)
This idealized biography is known as hagiography. One example is the story of St. Christina the Astonishing. Supposedly she died at age 22 and during her funeral, she left her coffin and flew to the church rafters. When the priest had her come down, she explained that she was trying to escape the smell of human beings! Christina lived to do many more astonishing things. During the Protestant Reformation, Jean Bolland, S.J., began a society (the Bollandists) to clean up the fanciful stories and present more accurate (and believable) documents.
You, your relatives, friends, and coworkers have emotions, problems, talents, idiosyncrasies, and faults. The saints were no different. Kierkegaard observed, “God creates out of nothing—but God does far more. God makes Saints out of sinners.” The saints weren’t perfect. St. Therese struggled with pride, and Jerome had a hot temper that led him to write poison pen letters to St. Augustine. Two apostles argued about who would be first in the kingdom. And of course we have the great sinners like Paul, Augustine, and Mary Magdalen (although some say she is a victim of slander of mistaken identity). In any case, as a verse says, “It is one thing to live with the saints in glory. To live with them on earth is another story.”
Yes, the saints had tilted halos, but by the grace of God they overcame tainted human nature. A saint is someone who never stopped trying, who doggedly persevered. Saints were not made of stone. They had human hearts; they loved and were loved just as we are. When St. Francis Xavier was a missionary in China, he missed his Jesuit companions so much that he cut out their signatures from their letter and pinned them inside his habit!
Saints had a sense of humor. St. Philip Neri stated, “A servant of God ought always to be happy.” Pope Francis has echoed that thought. Once a young lady asked St. Francis de Sales whether or not it was a sin to use rouge. Francis replied, “Well, some theologians claim it is all right; others disagree.” The woman persisted, “But what should I do—use rouge or not?” “Why not follow the middle course?” Francis answered, “Rouge only one cheek.” Then there is the recently canonized Pope Saint John XXIII. When asked how many people worked at the Vatican, he replied, “About half.”
When we celebrate the saints, we celebrate not the fact that they were good priests, parents, kings, or gospel writers. We celebrate that these men and women have done what we are all called to do—love God and others with all our heart. The saints show us that it is possible, and they inspire us to do the same.
• Do you know someone you would call a living? Why do you regard him or her as holy?
• Who is your favorite Saint? Why?
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