Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Story of the Saints

It's as if Christmas Eve eclipsed Christmas Day: Halloween has become better known that the holy day it's named after. Halloween is just a contraction of “All Hallows Evening.” It preceded “All Hallows Day, ” which is the old name for All Saints Day. Celebrated since the late 4th century, All Saints Day reminds us of how important the saints were in the story of the church. Statues and icons of them were found in most churches. Prayers were made to them. The saints became specialized, with each having efficacy over certain areas of life. Thus if you wanted protection against fire and lumbago, you prayed to Saint Lawrence of Rome. If you were a sailor, you might pray to Saint Elmo. If you had disappointing children, you prayed to Saint Clotilde. Pilgrims visited shrines of saints. Bits of their bodies were venerated. How did this state of affairs come about and why do we have a holy day devoted to all the saints? Hold on to your hats because we are taking a quick tour of the history of the church.

The word “saint” in the Bible meant someone set apart by God for his purposes. In the the New Testament, all Christians were called saints. All are saved by Christ and set apart by God to live by his Spirit and spread the gospel. But as time went on, the founders of the church were considered saints with a capital “S,” especially since most of them became martyrs. “Martyr” is just the Greek word for “witness,” someone who testifies to the truth. In the early days of the church, testifying to the truth of Jesus as the risen Messiah and Savior could, in times of persecution, get you killed by the authorities. So the term martyr took on the added meaning of one who dies for the truth. You can see how the first Christians, those who died for their faith, came to be honored as superstars of the church.

Not only were most of the twelve apostles (13 including Paul) martyred but so were many of their successors, whom they had appointed to oversee the individual churches. The word for “overseer” in Greek is episcopos, from which we get the word “bishop.” Originally a bishop was one of many elders of a house church. He was chosen to preside over the Eucharist and baptisms. As the faith spread and the number of churches in each city grew, so did the jurisdiction of the bishop. Eventually he couldn't get to all of the local churches on the same Sunday and so he ordained (which means “listed”) elders to act in his stead. The Greek word for “elder” is presbuteros, which eventually became the word “priest.” They handled the day to day duties of running the local church, but went to the bishop over bigger issues and essential matters that needed authoritative decisions, which they brought back to their parish. The priests represented their congregation to the bishop and represented the bishop to the congregation. So when the churches of an area were persecuted, the local bishop who oversaw them was targeted by the Roman authorities.

One of the most famous martyr bishops was Ignatius of Antioch. As you remember from the Book of Acts, Antioch was the site of the first major church founded outside Judea. It was the church which sent Paul out as a missionary. Under Trajan, the first Roman Emperor to make Christianity illegal, Ignatius was arrested. As he was transported to Rome, a trip that took months, Ignatius wrote a series of letters to various churches. Seven of those letters, in which he offered encouragement, corrected theological errors and contemplated his coming martyrdom, still survive. What is remarkable to us is his anticipation of getting to God through dying for his faith. He even writes to the church in Rome and asks them not to try to prevent his execution. This is alien to us but Ignatius was not alone in viewing martyrdom as a glorious thing. It was seen as following in the footsteps of Jesus, as the ultimate form of discipleship. The alternative was to give up one's faith or hide one's faith in the face of persecution. So Ignatius embraced his martyrdom. One can see how his heroic stance impressed other Christians.

So the first capital “S” saints were martyrs. And not all were bishops. Ordinary people who stood up for their faith and were executed were also designated saints. When Constantine made Christianity a legal religion, 200 years after Trajan, martyrdom was largely a thing of the past, unless you became a missionary. So the term “saint” was now bestowed on any extremely holy or charitable Christian. They were held up as shining examples. As Christianity spread through the known world, each region could boast at least one superstar who was designated a saint by the local churches and bishops.

As the faith spread outside the cities and beyond the Empire, it at last came to the pagans. The word “pagan” originally just meant rural peasant, just as “heathen” used to mean someone who lived on the heath. Since Christianity first spread from city to city, along the excellent roads of the Roman Empire, early Christians were usually urban. Rural people were considered, then as now, less sophisticated, and, then at least, more barbaric. (This is why the word “villain” comes from the word for a farm servant, one who worked on a villa.) Rural people were also more conservative than urban folk, which meant still holding onto faith in the old Roman pantheon of gods. Agricultural life is hard and so they had a difficult time giving up reliance on the gods of the harvest and the rain and fertility and such. How could one god do it all?

Rural folk also saw the spiritual realm as set up pretty much in the same kind of hierarchy as the Empire, where local landlords and officials were the only contact one had with the reign of the current emperor. In the same way, there may be one supreme god, such as Zeus or Jupiter, but you usually dealt with the lesser gods. They were the masters over the particular departments of life that were people's everyday concerns, like safe childbirth or good weather. The idea of having direct access to God Almighty was a strange concept and probably a frightening one, like taking a local matter all the way to the emperor himself. Going through intermediaries was more comfortable. So the form of Christianity that developed from this was one in which the pagan gods were exchanged for saints, and the saints took up the specialized oversight for the common concerns of the peasants.

Sometimes this was a stretch. The lives of the saints were ransacked for any link, however tenuous, with some activity, illness, trouble or profession that he or she could sponsor. So if you were a craftsman who worked with wheels, your patron was St. Catherine of Alexandria, presumably because she was sentenced to be broken on the wheel! I don't think she would have appreciated the irony. If there wasn't an appropriate saint for an occasion, a pious legend might arise. My favorite is St. Wigglefoot the Unencumbered. Hers was one of the many tales of Christian virgins who prayed to God to protect them from the lustful attentions of pagan princes. In the case of St. Wilgefortis, God caused her to grow a mustache and beard overnight! The next day was to be her wedding day but the groom rejected the hirsute girl and her father crucified her. Thus St. Wilgefortis, whose difficult name devolved into St. Wigglesfoot, became the patron saint of women who wanted to be rid of their troublesome husbands. I think she could make a comeback. But she was removed from the list of official saints when the Roman Catholic Church cleaned out the more dubious ones in the late 1960s.

It is said that sometimes a popular local deity was merely “baptized,” so to speak, and reborn as a saint. St. Brigid of Ireland may have been a pagan princess converted by St. Patrick. Or she may have be the powerful pagan goddess repurposed. Or the attributes of the goddess and those of a real woman got mixed together in popular lore. In this and other alleged instances of pagan gods turned into saints, it's tough to know for sure. The original stories predate writing in most cases. And often our knowledge of certain pagan gods is only available because they were written down by Christian monks, as the story of Beowulf was. We do know that pagan shrines were frequently cleansed and then made into churches. Was the same thing done to their former objects of worship?

Another reason for mixing up the functions and attributes of the old gods with the saints was the incomplete conversion of barbarian tribes. Usually missionaries aimed to convert the king or chieftain of a tribe. If they succeeded, that leader then decreed that all his subjects be baptized and become Christians as well. But the average member of the tribe was not doing this out of personal conviction and thus was often in total ignorance of the basic tenets of his newly mandated faith. Again, letting go of familiar gods was hard and so the saints were substituted for them in the hearts and minds of these new “converts.” Along the way the spirit of Christianity was in danger of being lost when only the outer forms of the faith were adopted by tribes whose chief virtues were those of warriors rather than peacemakers. A lot of problems that we attribute to the so-called “Dark Ages” did not originate with the church but with the breaking up of the Roman Empire into a mass of warring tribes who did not care much for learning nor for the gentler teachings of Jesus and who tried to remake Christianity in their image.

Eventually the cult of saints degenerated into the regional veneration of certain spectacular Christians whose bodies were considered to be imbued with holiness and miraculous powers. Though some saints were merely great teachers or preachers or charitable souls who helped the poor and suffering, sainthood's primary sign became the working of miracles. And if the saint didn't display any wonder-working powers in this life, then he or she might suddenly manifest the ability after death. They could do this by granting cures to those who prayed to them. Or they could do this by simply refusing to rot. (If you wish to see why this phenomenon was so powerful, go to and look at their list of Top 10 incorrupt corpses, complete with remarkable photos. They are not creepy because they all look as if they are simply sleeping. I was startled to see Pope John the 23rd in their company!) At a time when the art of embalming was lost, you can see how a body that didn't decompose inspired awe.

The problem was that the saints were superstars and like Elvis' Graceland, their graves and shrines attracted pilgrims. And pilgrims, like tourists, brought wealth. People would pay good money to see and have their prayers offered up to a saint. There weren't enough whole saints to go around so monasteries and churches competed for relics, bones and bits of the saints' bodies. For a humorous take on this trade, try to see or read the play Incorruptible by Michael Hollinger. The playwright did his research. Marathon Community Theatre did a production several years ago and it was both funny and touching.

The cult of the saints became a primary target of the Protestant reformers. Besides the obvious fraud (Luther asked dryly how was it that there were only 12 apostles and yet there were 30 of them buried in Germany alone) the trafficking in saints literally commercialized the sacred, cheapened the idea of grace and put a price tag on answers to prayer. In addition, saints were seen, at best, as the objects of superstition and, at worst, as centers of idolatrous worship. The whole idea that through Christ we have access to God was lost when people's primary religious devotions were directed at secondary figures. Since the saints were alive in heaven, the Roman Catholic Church compared asking a saint to pray for you to asking any Christian on earth to pray for you. The difference was that the extraordinary virtues of the saints were treated like cash in the heavenly bank and, of course, being continually in the direct presence of God gave the saints a better chance of getting what they asked for. To the reformers, the cult of the saints was simply paganism redux. In reaction, Protestants tried to suppress the cult of saints. Rulers like Henry VIII found it very profitable to seize the property and money of monasteries who made a mint out of saints. In the zeal to purify churches, many beautiful works of art were destroyed by mobs. So, apart from liturgical traditions like ours, most Protestant churches today are not named for saints, nor are they talked about much. And unfortunately, that means they don't pass along the inspiring stories of some remarkable Christians.

If we look upon the saints as they were originally seen by the early church, as exemplars of Christian living, we can find a lot to appreciate. A former slave, St. Vincent de Paul, started organizations for the poor, nursed the sick, and found jobs for the unemployed. St. Rose Venerini founded and oversaw 40 schools for girls despite violent opposition. St. Richard Pampuri was a doctor who treated the poor for free, even setting up a dental clinic for them. St. Bridget of Sweden was the mother of 8, one of whom became a saint as well, and yet found time to become the counselor of theologians, popes and royalty. St. Raymond of Penyafort gave up law and refused to be made archbishop to do parish work and start a school that taught the culture and languages of Spain and northern Africa to missionaries. The first book written in English by a woman came from St. Julian of Norwich, who was widely recognized in her day as a spiritual authority and who wrote of God's love at a time when the world was rocked by the Black Death and peasant revolts. St. Francis of Assisi was a spoiled rich kid and fame-seeking soldier who renounced his inheritance and tried to end the 5th Crusade by going to Egypt and speaking to the Sultan. There is a wealth of stories of heroic faith here.

So let us reclaim the saints, their extraordinary lives and the lessons in faith and service they can teach us. But let us also remember that we too are saints, people saved and sanctified by God. We too have been set apart for his purposes. We too serve him, even if we don't always get noticed. Let us remember that, more than attributed miracles, the hallmark of the saints is their humility. The greatest of the capital “S” saints would admit that they could accomplish nothing without the grace of God. They all realized that they were ordinary sinners, rescued by God and called to imitate Jesus Christ and to continue his work. If they are different from us, it is perhaps the extent to which they put God before self and the needs of others before their own. To paraphrase Dag Hammarskjold, saints are those who say “Thanks” to God for all he has done and “Yes” to all that he will do. To be a saint, then, is to decide which voice to listen to, your own or Christ's, and which will you obey.

What is Jesus saying to you right now, right here? What are you going to do about it?

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