Over the last couple of days I read a lot on sainthood. It is the time of year. I would have benefited more on reading of specific Saints, but I found myself unable to do so thinking more on those who have been saints to me, but who carry no such title. Being in a tradition that has no All Soul’s Day, I did not labor the point, though I did reflect on how having separate days to honor the faithful departed was not such a bad thing even if I found it difficult to wrap my head around it.
My problem in considering such matters is that I take up complex things, but at the end of the day I am too simple to give them much thought. It is true that some lead better lives than others and perhaps a very few attain that level of holiness to deserve the title of Saint. I do not worry about such things however preferring to leave it to those with the time and intellect to figure it out.
I have, especially after working nearly two decades at a Catholic facility, learned a little about Saints. Most important, at least for me, is that it is best not to try to capture the entire scope of what makes for a Saint, but rather think on those to whom you can relate. I do not know if I know the lives of the Saints well enough to know who I could best relate too, but I did have an experience that brought me to the place, at least on a certain level.
I was part of a study of the Saints that was being done by my small group at Immanuel. Most of you who read this know Immanuel is my home parish, a congregation of High Church Lutheranism, where the Saints are spoken of as models of edification and acknowledged to be important in understanding the role of “being friends with Christ in all times and places drawing all who profess Christ into a communion with Him” (That language is borrowed from the eighth round of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue that concluded in 1990.) Anyway one of the assignments of our small group was to reflect on the life of a Saint and to share the reflection.
At the time I had received a copy of The Story of a Soul. Up to this time my experience with the Saints was held in two ways. First the Saints gave me good stories (some that were none too literal) that I would read to those I taught. These stories would be those emotionally touching accounts of how to lead good lives of service to others. The other way the Saints had been considered is at the point of study where I would concentrate on their contributions to theology and history. In neither the first or second example was I trying to find out about Saints on a relational level. I was not trying to do this with Therese of Liseaux’s biography either, but her writing was from such a pure and wonderfully simple place, I could not help but be drawn in to the life of one who was impacted by the world, who experienced great distress, and yet who knew God to be her shelter. It was from such a place that I could see God active in the world in the personage of a childlike and joyous faith not letting her travails, but her fidelity to God dictate how she led her life. Certainly such a thing must be sainthood.
As I shared my account of Therese with the small group I was often brought to think of Marina, who had a wonderfully simple, but sustaining faith. Of course sainthood for Marina exists only in the sense of the word that being a saint is the work of God and that her life would never be recognized by anyone who seriously studies the matter. Besides, Marina was no saint in the formal sense of the word. (She could be as much like the rose in The Little Prince as she could be like the “Little Flower of Jesus.”) Still her life helped me in understanding Therese, who in turn, brought me to a fuller spirituality especially as it related to the grace that we can receive from the vulnerable and the maligned. (A lesson some of you know to be very necessary in my place of work.)
That experience would eventually lead to invocation, but that is something that is too personal to share at this time. Besides my level of comfort made it a complex matter and I am far from a complex person.
Of this time of year….I do think of the departed and the not departed. I think of the grace I know in my life because of the lives they led and are leading. The stories of these lives are found among the well known and the little known. For the last couple of days my reading and thought brought me to consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Graham Greene. Neither will ever be a Saint. Even their saintliness could be questioned, particularly in the case of the later. The lives of these men, one who strove for a certain type of sainthood and the other who wrote of it, can give us cause to reflect on what makes for a holy life and if it is something we should even strive to attain.
First I consider Bonhoeffer who has enjoyed a resurgence of late. Besides Eric Metaxes’ biography that is a good read, but mistakenly turns him into a hero of American religious conservatism, there has been in recent years, several books, two movies, and even an opera of Bonhoeffer’s life.
Bonheoffer was thrust into a mad world. We all are, but his was among the maddest. In looking upon his striving to sainthood (language he used with some reservation) I ask myself is it possible to attain holiness when one has to take actions that appear not to be acts of holiness. For Bonhoeffer, this action was political assassination. With many others in what is called the Schwarze Kappelle he had conspired to kill Hitler in the July 20 plot, an act conceived by a devout Lutheran named Henning von Tresckow to be carried out by the even more devout Roman Catholic Claus von Stauffenberg.
One can only lament the failure of the July 20 plot. The German Reich had already brought the world untold misery, but the misery would have been less if this plot that most of us know as Valykrie had been a success. Still it was a plot that had to be done with espionage and violence. No matter how noble the cause, there was at least some morality to be sacrificed. And I don’t mean the assassination itself. That could easily be seen as a moral act. But others would also die the explosion that was to take Hitler’s life and danger and surveillance would be visited on the friends and families of the conspirators. The actions of “saintly” men would involve the ends justifying the means. In short their obligation to cause was forced to override the obligations they made to those they loved. (Perhaps Maria von Wedemeyer and Erika von Tresckow were the real saints.) The question remains if saintly action can be truly carried out in a mad and dangerous world and if it is really saintly action that is needed.
I thought less of Graham Greene, but my thoughts turned to him as well. He could in no way be construed as a saint. His passion for women was too great for such a thing. But he wrote of the saintly and not just of their holiness, but their struggle with the thing. In the last year I read two of his Catholic novels, The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair. These readings begged the question as to who could want sainthood?
Joseph Campbell once advised that we should read outside of our traditions. When we do this he says, “we get it.” This is true though I have to say it does make the world a little fuzzy and blurs the lines.
Redemptive suffering gets a short shrift among Protestants. It is why Protestants should read Greene. As I read his work, I thought who could want to be the Whiskey Priest or Sarah Miles? These fictional lives which exemplified Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” make apparent “the price of love is never cheap.” Taken in the wrong way, it could lead to a quietism that Greene himself succumbed to.
As I read Greene I did question as to who could want such suffering. Would it not be better to be left only in peace with our bottle or to eat sandwiches with someone we love. The price of holiness is high and it is high even if alcoholism and adultery are not its subjects. Besides in spite of these sins, neither the priest nor Miles is a bad person and both do attain a degree of holiness. In fact, it is their weaknesses which lead to their suffering and eventually to their crucifixions which for the priest means a fidelity to the sacrament that accompanies his decision to face death and for Miles allows her to attain a purity that could not be had in this life. Besides what credit is it to struggle against that which is not a struggle. If we ”sin boldly” should we not “believe more boldly still.” (If one cannot get around this statement by Luther without realizing it is about righteousness as much as the messiness of the world Lutherans among others are so fond of, then they should read Greene.)
In both Bonhoeffer and Greene we see models of saintly lives, even though we do not really see Saints. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the characters of Greene’s novels are too much like us, even if our lives lack their intensity. Then again Saints and saints do no not escape being human. It is because of this that their holiness is not only challenging, but also so exemplary.
Bonhoeffer, who is as close to a Saint as Protestants get, like Greene’s Whiskey Priest, was thrown into the cruel madness of politics and into the place where he would not back down, even at the cost of his life. And Sarah Miles was no Therese of Liseaux, but like Therese she died in illness with a love for God so strong that it could challenge this life’s greatest feeling, which at once gave her joy and a mighty struggle. That we should be like these (and at our best moments we are like these) points the path to holiness.
It is the time of year to remember those gone before, for whom the struggle has ceased. Do we dare call on these especially in our own struggles? For some of us that is an easier task than others, but for everyone the lives of saints and Saints should be the cause of reflection.
Saints do not escape this life. They exemplify Christ and tell us that in that great communion we are to be Christ to one another. I can’t wrap my head around two days to celebrate the lives of the departed. I do not know the benchmarks that separate a Saint from a saint. It makes sense such a thing can exist, but until I get that figured out, I will call on the saints in this life to help me on the way and I will remember the saints who have gone before and have done so much already to bring me to holiness. And these will not have one or even two days for reflection and perhaps even that which approaches prayer, but they will own every day I have breath.
Image: Marina with her Madame Alexandra