An inordinate number of family members, friends, and friends’ family members have died in the last month. At memorial services and funerals, I have struggled to find meaning in the loss. From the pulpit we who mourned were reminded often of the "communion of saints"-those people of faith who have gone before us. But who are these saints?
The meaning and place of saints has evolved. In times past, saints have been viewed as the exemplary Christians, sanctified in holiness, who we were encouraged to emulate. The existence of saints gave the rest of humanity an out: I’m not a saint, so don’t expect so much of me. For similar reasons Dorothy Day demanded not to be made a saint as she didn’t want to be so easily dismissed. By categorizing saints as "special ones,"we lessen the responsibility that all the faithful live with integrity. Some disproportionately carry the load for all.
Modern demythologizing (and democratizing) has caused us to take saints off the pedestal, and to see them as very much like us. In many ways, our postmodern preoccupation has led us back to the early church notion that all believers are saints.
ROBERT ELLSBERG’S All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (Orbis Books, 1997) offers images of the well-known and lesser known of the pantheon of saints, as well as the encouragement for each of us to live in a holy way. Ellsberg encourages that we recognize "the saints"because "we are formed by what we admire."
The universe of saints is expanded by this book. St. Francis, St. Philip, and Mary are joined by Fannie Lou Hamer, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Buber. And Ellsberg is willing to look through individuals’ flaws to see how God’s activity is manifest in their lives, making his book the most interesting book of saints available. Arranged into daily reflections, each on the life of a saint, it is a helpful desk reference for special liturgies or as a sermon "helper."
Prayer With Searchers and Saints, by Edward F. Gabriele (Saint Mary’s Press, 1998), includes written prayers and liturgies to commemorate the lives of the saints. Included in this helpful guide are such people as John the Baptizer and Dag Hammarskjold, Therese of Lisieux and Sojourner Truth, Clare of Assisi and Kateri Tekakwitha. Once a "feast day"is selected, this book can provide liturgical options.
Another recent book that could provide interesting sermon material, in the form of poetry, is Pat Mora’s Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints (Beacon Press, 1997). Her masterful wordcrafting gives us a challenging, new perspective on the church’s recognized saints. Accompanied with reproductions of New Mexican saint carving, this book is also a nice devotional device.
No discussion of saints would be complete without a look at the political dimensions. Kenneth Woodward’s intriguing (if a bit disillusioning) Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (Simon & Schuster, 1990 and 1996) is the essential source on the process of canonization. Woodward, in easy-reading prose, recounts in detail the back room and on-the-street actions that go into canonization.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson offers a theological interpretation of saint-making in her recent Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 1998). Johnson examines the historical domination of men in the pantheon of saints, and the ways in which current practical feminist theology is opening new doors in the exploration of saintliness.
A Saint on Every Corner: Glimpses of Holiness Beyond the Monastery, by Albert Holtz, OSB (Ave Maria Press, 1998), is radical in its commitment to find saintliness in the ordinary. Part travelogue, part devotional, Holtz’s book conveys the excitement of someone finding the faithfulness of the normal people of God.
Saints Closer to Home
With very mixed emotions, I write my last "Worthy of Note"column. After more than 16 years with Sojourners, including more than 10 with the magazine, I am making a vocational shift.
The wonderfully faithful people with whom I have been associated here make the transition challenging. Thanks to you, the readers, for your encouragement and faithfulness. I have run into subscribers (or former subscribers) in so many places-on airplanes, in banks, at grocery stores-and have always been gratified to see the "expanded"Sojourners community.
A special thank you to my colleagues. The seriousness with which you take the call of the gospel, the commitment to care for the friend and the stranger, the desire to live and parent justly, and the willingness to risk deeper connection even knowing the inevitability of conflict (as well as joy) are all redemptive.
I have learned much, and am grateful to continue together in ministry even as working together ends. I am calmed knowing we are in fact a "community of saints"who cannot be separated from each other or from our God by anything-death or job change