By E. Glenn Hinson
Many Protestants may be shocked to hear me say that what the world needs most is saints. We've done away with the calendar of saints, relics, prayers for or to the saints, and special designations of some persons as saints. We've used a lot of ink pointing out that Paul referred to all Christians as saints and, in general, pooh-poohing the whole idea of model Christians after whom we should pattern our lives.
As I swim upstream here, I don't want you to think I am proposing a return to the cult of saints and all the paraphernalia of piety that generated great abuse in the Middle Ages. To the contrary, I want to emphasize living saints, persons who can make a difference in the world we live in today in the way an Anna, a Perpetua, an Augustine, a Bernard of Clairvaux, a Francis of Assisi, a Julian of Norwich, a Teresa of Avila, a Martin Luther, a John Bunyan, a John Woolman, a Florence Nightingale, or a Martin Luther King, Jr., made in theirs.
We live in an age when many doubt whether individuals matter. A prominent theory of history proposes, in fact, that human beings have little or no control over what happens in this world; they simply float like chips in a stream, whisked wherever the current flows.
Saints deny this theory. They say that ordinary lives, your life and my life, do matter. They say that ordinary lives, like Anna's spent in humble and faithful obedience, can make a difference not only in small areas of life but in life's larger arena as well.
To make my point, I must first explain what a saint is. Externally you may not see anything unusual about a saint. Endowed with humility born of a deeper inner assurance that comes naturally for one who walks with God, a saint may appear very ordinary. I don't think I've ever known or read of a saint who knew she or he was one. “I knew nothing; I was nothing,” one saint said about herself. “For this reason God picked me out” (Catherine Laboure).1
Saints also are not infallible and inerrant. Their failures may surprise some and cause them to be dropped from the list of saints like hot potatoes. A lot of people today, for instance, want to strike Martin Luther King, Jr.'s name from the list of saints because of an expose of certain slips he made in his years as a civil rights leader. Many Catholics, likewise, would halt Thomas Merton's canonization because he fell in love with a nurse and had a few meetings arranged by friends a year or so before he died. He also wrote her some love letters. I would remind in both instances that saints are human, as human as you and I, and that we ought not to expect perfection in this life. Indeed, another of the saints' observations may be right on target when he says, “Often, actually very often, God allows [God's] greatest servants, those who are far advanced in grace, to make the most humiliating mistakes. This humbles them in their own eyes and in the eyes of their fellow [human beings]” (Louis-Maria Grignion de Montfort).2
If saints are ordinary and flawed human beings, what then distinguishes them from others? Douglas Steere has ascribed six characteristics to saints.
First, saints are centered. They possess inwardly a quality of sanctity and holiness as a result of irradiation by God's grace and attention to God's presence. They are people who, like Dag Hammarskjöld, late secretary-general of the United Nations, have said Yes to Something or Someone.3 They are people who have discovered the Real and ever after must answer to what is Real. As Francis de Sales admitted, self-love never dies in any of us, but saints keep on praying, “Yes, God, Yes, and always Yes.”4 Another saint has summed up this calling: “Make sure that you let God's grace work in your souls by accepting whatever [God] gives you, and giving [God] whatever [God] takes from you. True holiness consists in doing God's will with a smile.”5
In consequence of this primary answerability, secondly, saints seek not to be safe but to be faithful. They know the meaning of the psalmist's words, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26).6 Reporters often have asked Mother Teresa how her Sisters of Charity of Calcutta can keep on with their work of offering comfort to the dying when they scarcely ever save a life. She has answered, “God did not call me to be successful. God called me to be faithful.”
Saints, thirdly, are people with stick-to-itiveness, people who don't give up easily, people who manage somehow. So Anna in Luke 2:36-38. Her husband died seven years after they married. She remained a widow and had reached the age of eighty-four. As Luke presented it, “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37).
Saints, fourthly, have a sense of joy in the midst of life's trials. “The Christian saint is full of joy,” Tertullian, a third century church theologian, declared.7 Those who have thought that sanctity lay in a dour expression, sackcloth and ashes, and repression of feeling haven't known many saints. Those doleful Puritans of New England made a big mistake here. Teresa of Avila prayed that she might be delivered from vinegary Christians. Saints know what Paul was talking about when he urged the Philippians to rejoice with him, his imprisonment and harassment by others notwithstanding (Phil. 1:18; 4:4-7).
Saints, fifthly, are “kindlers and purifiers of dreams.” Saints are visionaries, people sometimes thought to be a bit loony by their contemporaries. When Christ finally captured him, Francis of Assisi gave up his affluent life, married Lady Poverty, and began doing all sorts of strange things—repairing churches, begging to care for the poor, kissing lepers, acting like a Jesus freak. Saints are daring. They don't just dream dreams, they try to act them out. They make themselves fools for Christ's sake. “Out of gratitude and love for Him,” Ignatius of Loyola remarked, “we should desire to be reckoned fools and glory in wearing His clothing.”8 “To be a saint,” Jean Vianney said, “one must be beside oneself. One must lose one's head.”9
Finally, saints are prayerful. Steadfast communion with God is the key to sanctity. Above all, Douglas Steere sums up, sainthood is “a life of attention to and abandonment to the besieging love of God.”10
Can such persons make a difference in today's world? Many will be skeptical. “Saints might affect the lives of some who come in contact with them, but they will not make a difference in society, in the world,” they will say.
We will all see some logic in this perspective. Saints are not first of all social reformers. They do not have a motto such as the one we, at a seminary where I previously taught, plastered on posters a few years ago: “We're out to change the world.” Saints are not professors putting to society a convincing set of arguments. Rather, as Douglas Steere has said, they put before people “a life and an embarrassing invitation which they must decide to accept or reject.” 11
Most of us will know some saints who have impacted our individual lives. I'm not talking about extraordinary saints, either past or present. I 'm speaking, rather, about ordinary saints—parents, teachers, pastors, friends—who have put before us lives that we can emulate and that subtly shape our own.
My uncle, O. C. Marsh, was one of these. You never heard his name, I'm sure. He never held public office. He served somewhat reluctantly as a deacon of a Baptist church. To my knowledge, his name appeared in a newspaper only when he died.
But he was a saint, an unassuming but authentic saint. From him I learned for the first time as a four year old what grace is. My family was fishing at Brush Creek, which ran alongside his farm near Cuba, Missouri. Minnows had nipped all the worm off my hook long before, but I stood patiently holding the pole. Uncle Osse noticed. Soon he sidled over, reached out, lifted up the line, and, without letting me see what he was doing, slipped a small perch onto the hook. You can't calculate the joy of that first catch or my first touch of grace.
From him I learned what compassion is. When my parents divorced after a stormy marriage, my aunt and uncle took my older brother to rear. A couple of years later, they took in my two cousins when their mother had to enter a sanitarium for tuberculosis.
From him I learned to distinguish between wisdom and knowledge. He had only an eighth grade education, but he was one of the wisest persons I've ever known. He knew what mattered: faith and hope and love and compassion and peace. He took life calmly, with equanimity, in a way that taught me to believe things will work out somehow by God's grace.
From him I learned what humility is. My uncle was not shy, but he never put himself forward for anything. In honor he preferred the other person to himself, and he “aw-shucked” his way out of any honors or plaudits. As for vocation, he was content to be a farmer and a barber. Many is the time and many are the ways he communicated that no one should be too proud to do even the most menial task.
From him I learned what faith and faithfulness mean. When I went to Washington University in St. Louis, I lived with my aunt and uncle, who had moved there from Cuba by that time. I had not developed a habit of regular church attendance. My aunt and uncle never badgered me about going to church, but their quiet faithfulness left me no alternative. Then, when my uncle contracted cancer some years ago, I watched as he went into the valley of the shadow of death, listening to the voice of the Shepherd, “Fear not, I am with you!”
I bear in my life the marks of an ordinary saint named O. C. Marsh. From him I learned much about grace, compassion, wisdom, humility, faith, and faithfulness.
You will have your own story to tell, but I also want to ask whether saints make a difference for the life of the world. Does it matter that they put a life and an embarrassing invitation to their age and culture that the latter must accept or reject?
Not every saint turned the world upside down, but some have impacted their own age and society in ways that still tell on our lives today.
Francis of Assisi was such a saint, a simple saint, an ordinary saint, who put before his age a life and an embarrassing invitation, and that age responded. From Francis it caught a vision of peace and justice that ushered in a kinder and gentler Europe.
Born into an affluent family, son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis displayed in his early years none of the signs of a saint. He took advantage of all the privileges and pleasures his family's wealth could supply. When Assisi mounted a campaign against the neighboring city of Perugia, he dutifully enlisted and joined the fray. Here, however, occurred one of those life events that precipitated a radical change, the beginning of a step toward sainthood.
Francis was captured even before he got to Perugia. He spent nearly a year in prison before his father finally ransomed him. He returned home a different person. Where before he had been a party boy—giving parties, going to parties, being the life of the party—now he spent time in solitude. Over a period of about five years, he discovered his vocation, to follow Christ without equivocation, whatever the cost.
He began small, repairing the little church called Portiuncula. He then started begging on behalf of the thousands of homeless at Assisi's gates. As his concern for their plight mounted, he stole some cloth from his father's shop, sold it, and handed the proceeds to a priest for care of the poor. The priest refused it, knowing it did not come from Francis's father, Peter Bernardone, and handed it back, but Francis hurled it down on a church window seat and hurried away.
Little by little, Francis learned the cost of following Christ. His father thought he was lunatic and locked him in a closet for two weeks, until his mother had pity on him and let him out. When Assisi mounted another campaign against another city, Francis was again outfitted with all the trappings of war. But as he stood in the battle line, he saw a poor knight in tatters, dismounted, and gave horse, armor, and all to him and went off into the fields. Then and there began a peace movement that spelled the end of the senseless crusades.
Francis sent his followers out with a peace slogan. In 1212, children set out across Europe in the Children's Crusade, most of them dying along the way. Another group of them was taken by unscrupulous merchants and sold into slavery in Egypt. Francis set out for the Holy Land in 1215 to achieve by love and persuasion what all the might of Christendom could not achieve. When he finally reached Egypt in 1219, he almost persuaded the Sultan to become a Christian. His travels, however, cost him dearly. He returned nearly blind and in declining health. While he was gone, his little band of followers was taken over by others so that he became a humble lay brother in an organization he didn't intend to found. He died at age forty-four.
His was a brief life. Yet this simple saint so etched himself on his generation that it could never be the same again. Later generations remembered him in wonderful stories—preaching to birds that then stood on their tails, made the sign of the cross, and flew away in perfect cruciform formation, or taming the fierce wolf of Gubbio.
A peace movement began with one inconspicuous life answerable to God. One life mattered. An ordinary life changed history.
Our age needs saints more than it needs brilliant scientific discoveries, advanced technologies, canny politicians, scintillating preachers, awesome athletes, and so many other things people count crucial today. Our age needs people who can put before us lives and an embarrassing invitation we must accept or reject.
Are there any around, I mean, any either of the ordinary or extraordinary variety? I think there are some. There was Douglas Steere, the leading Quaker of the last half of the twentieth century. He spent his life being a channel of God's presence to others and played a remarkable role in international social ministry. After World War II he secured assistance for war-torn Finland, which in 1990 merited him Finland's highest honor—knighthood in the Order of the White Rose.
I believe there are ordinary saints everywhere, some more ordinary than others. Maybe I should say there are saints being born everywhere. I mean there are those who seek to live from the center and who want to put before others that life and that embarrassing invitation they must accept or reject. There are those whose lives have been changed by grace, who seek not to be safe but to be faithful, who get along in adversity, who are dream-filled, who long to dare and are daring, and who are prayerful. Like all saints, none of us has arrived yet, but we have set out on the road nonetheless. That is what the world needs most.
We are saints a-borning by your grace, O God.
Without your help we will not become what we long to be.
This day we pray that you will go on changing us by grace.
Generate in us a still stronger desire not to be successful but to be faithful.
Create in us still greater strength to keep on despite discouragement.
Fill us with dreams that can renew us and others in an age of pessimism and despair.
Heighten our longing to dare and be daring.
Stir within us the deep desire to commune ever more fully with you.
Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
“Kindlers and Purifiers of Dreams” by E. Glenn Hinson. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 1996), Vol. 11, No. 3. Copyright © 1996 The Upper Room.
1 Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 130.
2 Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints, p. 131.
3 See Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings. Trans, by Leif Sjöberg and W. H. Auden (London: Faber & Faber, 1964).
4 Douglas Steere, “Spiritual Renewal in Our Time,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review (November 1961), p. 47.
5 Mother Teresa, A Gift for God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 37.
6 All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
7 Steere, “Spiritual Renewal in Our Time,” p. 51.
8 Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints, p. 181.
9 Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints, p. 182.
10 Steere, “Spiritual Renewal in Our Time,” p. 51.
11 Douglas Steere, On Beginning from Within (New York: Harper & Bros., 1943), p. 17.