November 2, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Today is the day we pray to pass the saint test

Cynthia DewesToday is All Souls Day in the Church calendar.

Among other things, it’s the day we set aside to pray for all the souls who have gone to God before us. We hope they are in heaven as are the saints we celebrated the day before on All Saints Day. If you think about it, those two days just about sum up Christian aspirations.

The only given is that we all know we’ll die one day, and at that time we believe we’ll meet our maker and be judged. The saints are the ones who pass that ultimate test, and the poor souls are the wannabees who hope they will make it. So we all pray for ourselves and each other.

Actually, it’s kind of hard for me to imagine what it is to be a saint. We’ve heard the stories about holy people in olden times who wore hair shirts and ate bugs in the desert. Or we’ve read pious tales about the ones who bravely stood up to cruel Roman emperors, pagan warlords or licentious boors of all kinds.

We know that saints have persevered through physical pain, emotional cruelty and indifference imposed upon them by their supposed superiors. Of course, the tormentors were the actual inferiors because the saints trusted in God’s love and the promise of redemption. They believed in obeying God’s will, not in obeying the whims of others or even serving their own selfish ends.

Frankly, when I take into account all these saintly qualities, I’m not sure I am saint material. Vanity would prevent me from obeying fools for a lifetime, and I’m sure I couldn’t eat bugs or withstand physical torture. Martyrdom does not appeal to me, either.

Speaking of martyrdom, how about those poor Islamic terrorists who think they will go straight to heaven if they blow themselves up and take as many innocent people as possible with them? Surely, mindless suicide and cruel murder could not be what God wants, and they were never factors in the lives of Christian saints.

This brings us back to the initial question of who or what exactly is a saint? And what do people do to become saints?

If we read the lives of the saints, we may be surprised to learn that they were not all pious, meek or kindly. Some were irascible, some inattentive to other duties while they went about single-mindedly answering God’s call. Some felt themselves to be failures in one way or another, and others refused to obey parents or other legitimate authorities when they conflicted with what they knew that God demanded.

Still, the one thing saints all seem to have had in common is their constant and unchanging faith in God, and their desire to serve God. If this aim involved solitude in the desert or martyrdom or untiring physical effort, so be it. Popularity or earthly rewards were not in their thinking.

Some saints experienced the stigmata, levitation or visions of heaven, and I don’t expect to experience those, either. Luckily, they don’t seem to be required steps along the saintly path.

In the end, I think that sainthood must be a day-to-day schlep along life’s journey involving ordinary events.

As we are taught in the wonderful Thornton Wilder play Our Town, we must attend lovingly to those around us all the time because salvation lies close at hand in the small things which make life large.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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