November 5, 2021 Editor

Irrelevant Saints

When was the last time that you considered what a saint would do in your position?

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By Terence Sweeney

November 1, 2021

WN: A great challenge to everyday sainthood.


When I made my First Communion, I received some money, a few rosaries, and copy of Picture Book of Saints. I don’t remember what I did with the money, and I lost the rosaries to my voracious dog. But the Picture Book of Saints became a well-thumbed companion. I loved the drawings with saints such as the deathly pale Patrick, Peter Claver baptizing a man painted blue, a Christopher who seemed not at all close to drowning, and the fiery Francis Xavier overshadowing a grayed-out world. My favorite was the martyr Tarcisius, whose picture looked like Julie Andrews and whom I found deeply inspiring (I still do). But “when I became a man, I set aside childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11). One childish thing I set aside was my saints’ book. It resides in my childhood bedroom, unread and unpondered.

That is, alas, where we put saints’ lives when we become adults. The saints are irrelevant, eccentric, and imprudent. They are seemingly impossible guides for living in what W. H. Auden calls “the moderate Aristotelian city.” Francis of Assisi stripping bare in the streets, Augustine rejecting Roman wealth and power, Rose of Lima living a life of penance, Damien of Molokai living among the lepers, and Dorothy Day residing with Bowery bums and advocating for a society that won’t need soup kitchens. As the not-yet-canonized Dorothy Day put it, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” What Day put her finger on is a deep scandal in the life of the church. To be declared a saint is to be relegated to children’s books, to be petrified on a pedestal, to be treated as irrelevant to our actual lives.

This is the opposite of what should be the case. The life of a Christian is to attempt to live in imitation of Christ, with the help of his grace. In his followers, Christ is refracted like light through a prism into a multitude of images, each saint bringing to expression some facet of Christ. This refraction offers ways of living as Christ according to our varied personalities and vocations. From the contemplative hermit to the active parent, from a far-roaming missionary to a small-town teacher, there are a multitude of ways to live out the imitation of Christ. What do we do instead of taking seriously the various examples offered by the saints? We consign them to children’s biographies and, if you’re Catholic, maybe an All Saints’ Day dress-up party.

Léon Bloy wrote that “the only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.”

The irrelevance of the saints is a theological scandal. If the saints – as refractions of Christ’s image – are irrelevant, then Christ is too. We see this in the woeful lack of importance so many professed Christians place on the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t take seriously the idea that we should turn the cheek, offer our cloak, walk a mile, and love our enemy. Though we can rightly see that Christ is teaching by means of the hyperbolic (do not cut off your hand!) that does not justify metaphorizing the life out of his teaching. There is a charter for the life of Christians and that is the Gospels, from the Sermon on the Mount to the care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). As we read in Following the Call the Sermon on the Mount calls us to “wholehearted, total, single devotion to the rulership of God.”

The Sermon on the Mount is the map for the path to sainthood for each of us. Such a call is beyond any of the world’s accounts of prudence. This is not to say we don’t need prudence in this life; prudence should not mean determining if we will live the Sermon on the Mount but rather how we will live it. How we will love our enemies, feed the poor, and instruct the ignorant requires discernment, but that we must do these things does not.

Please click on: Not To Become A Saint

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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