Friday, November 2, 2012

Rules for Becoming a Saint

This week we celebrated “All Saints Day” in the calendar of the Catholic Church. It’s a special day that in many English-speaking countries was called “All Hallows” day. And the evening before, of course, was called All Hallows Eve. Hence, Halloween emerged. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that ghost and goblins, werewolves and witches, all emerged from a church-wide appreciation of those men and women who have stood out as examples of how we could be if we take God’s presence in our lives seriously. Because the scary, mythic, and mysterious are much more fascinating parts of our stories, even as these attention-grabbing images carry with them notions of security, truth, and transparency. Just because we like scary and strange things doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate the good. It’s just that we usually don’t see the good, the true, or the beautiful unless it’s against a background of the not so good, true, or beautiful.

There is a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore that I used to have in my classroom which relates to this power of contrast: “The dark takes form in the heart of the white and reveals it.” About halfway through the school year, one of the bright, under-performing students would be staring at it, oblivious to whatever was going in class, and suddenly say: “I get it.” Once he did get it, I would invite him to apply the saying to his performance in class, which would be met by a new quizzical look.
Time for chapter two.

Most might think that saints are those who have reached unrealistic heights of glory and achievement, spending most of their nights on their knees and most of their days in contemplative ecstasy. As a matter of fact, there are saints across the whole spectrum of human endeavor, from contemplatives to daily workers, from the learned to the simple, from those with special talents to those with little or no talent. Yet each saint has his/her own unique combination of prayer and activity, a life of faith and a life of action. Perhaps the arena where the “saint” piece is able to mature and emerge is that place where each person distinctly expresses and lives out the essential truths of the Gospel, doing so in an exceptional, yet ordinary, way. A saint does ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

All of the things that you hear in popular mythology today – Do you own thing. Express yourself. Be all that you can be. Live who you are. – are most acutely found in the saints, because these women and men tap into sources of the soul that remain dormant in most people. The oft-expressed hopes of many become a deeply lived reality for saints, without the prodding of songs, posters, and popular expressions. While we flitter about on the surface of daily experience, others have quietly discovered depths of mystery within themselves, often at some cost, that reveal a “white” that they had hardly ever known. Is it any wonder that many older people become more engaged in their spiritual lives as they mature?

I now think that saints are to be admired primarily for their courage, their long-suffering conviction that pursuing the elusive “more” has greater value and importance than pursuing the obvious “more.” What guidelines do we have about what this “more” might look like? You could do worse than look at the Gospel reading that is used for the Mass of the Feast of All Saints (Matthew 5: 1-12). There is nothing better in the New Testament for laying down the “rules” for becoming a saint.