Today we celebrate and give thanks for the 'saints', for their role and example to us over thousands of years. It is 'All Saint's Day'. In the Oxford Dictionary a saint is defined as 'Holy, canonised or officially recognised by the church as having won by exceptional holiness a high place in heaven and veneration on earth.' A saint in this light might be seen as something on a pedestal, something held up as an example, far too holy for us to aim for or identify with. And so we find we cannot take seriously a man who 'slays dragons' and rescues a damsel in distress. St George, if he existed at all, could not have been English, and there's no such thing as dragons anyway!
The flavour of the language, 'holier than thou', 'Do-gooder', 'goody-goody', 'busy-body' or 'pious' is such that we use it to describe people not in terms of the literal meaning of these words but in a negative and dismissive way. Our culture is such that as soon as we hear of someone who seems 'too good to be true' we immediately look to find something wrong with them, some chink in their armour, an imperfection that will bring them down to our level. After all if they measure down to us, we need not try to measure up to them!
One has only to look at the tabloid press, the soaps, and the news, to see our obsession with this search for the human failings of others, politicians, pop stars and priests. We know all too well what is wrong with others, and maybe this helps us to put at one side those things deep inside us that we recognise as wrong in ourselves. We cannot after all be as bad as them! What have we got to worry about? If only our curiosity for saintliness was as effective as that we apply to finding out about other's sins. As sinners ourselves we find it easy to identify with the sins of others. Have we lost the ability to identify also with the saint? Statues on a cathedral wall, what has that to do with us?
Sainthood is taken very seriously in the Catholic Church. Evidence of a candidate's 'exceptional piety' is contested before the 'congregation for the causes of saints' by a special sort of lawyer called the 'Promotor Fidei', more popularly known as the 'Devil's Advocate'. If things go well the candidate will be 'beatified'. People may then pray to them if they wish, but more proof must be gathered before the candidate is fully canonised. Even before this process begins a period of investigation into their lives will seldom take less than fifty years. And yet even after this rigorous process we find out that there are literally thousands of saints. In France children are often named after the particular saint's day on which they were born, and often there is a choice. However, according to my encyclopaedia, in 1970 only 58 saints were considered to be of worldwide importance! How easy it is to be cynical, especially when you consider that a major factor in the recognition of a saint is that he or she is dead, and has been for some time. What can we possibly have in common with them?
Well firstly we were created by the same God, and planted in us, as in them, is the ability to do good, to make a difference for the better. By looking at what is good in them we can identify what is also good in us and develop it. If we allow the saints to be mere statues on a church wall they cannot help us to fulfil our purpose. But by getting to know about them they can support us in the growth of our faith.
Secondly, most of them were human too! Perhaps if we let our natural curiosity of the sinner in us find out about the sinner in our saints we would find it easier to identify with them. St Peter is perhaps a prime example. Through his weakness, his failures we can identify our own faults, but we can be encouraged that here was a man to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his church, the keys to heaven. Saints can be bridges to cross the divide between our own imperfect world and our ideals; their humanity gives us a handle on the divine.
St. Augustine of Canterbury, the man accredited with the Christian Mission to our country, this pagan isle, appears to possess some very human characteristics. He very nearly gave up the mission before leaving France; frightened by the gossip in a French tavern he scuttled back to Rome, to be told by Pope Gregory to get on with the job. His pride, in sitting down to receive the representatives of the Celtic Churches meant that he was unable to unite with them. It is comforting to know that he was ordinary and frightened like us, but among the human error the light of Christ shone, helping in the conversion of Ethelbert, the king, and inspiring his little group of monks in simple, honest and busy lives, working in the 'silent power of holiness' to inspire the British people and bring them to a knowledge of the Gospel.
In Daniels vision, Chapter 7, he finds himself in a great hall where horrific beasts, four terrible Halloween style beasts, were subdued by the 'Ancient of Days' and the 'Son of Man' surrounded by the Saints, to whom was given the possession of the kingdom, a version of judgement day, part of another world with resonance in the book of Revelation. The only Gospel reference to Saints I could find was that at the moment of Christ's death on the cross, according to Matthew, the saint's bodies rose from their graves and appeared to many in Jerusalem. It is inferred that they rose with Jesus and went into heaven, having lived saintly lives, and are now on 'the other side', with Jesus, but somehow remote from us.
But St. Paul gives us a new perspective. He speaks of communities of saints, living in places all over the early Christian world; people devoted to the Gospel message and determined to live lives that reflected it. In the New Testament letters the saints were all members of living Christian communities and believers in the Gospel of Christ. In his invitation to the Ephesians Paul invites us all to join that group.
"I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him. So that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe..."
This invitation, this prayer for the early Ephesians church was as a direct result of Paul's recognition of their love for the saints and their faith in Jesus. Many of these people, if not all, would never have met Jesus or experienced his teaching first hand. It was rather through the witness of those Christian communities that the Gospel was spread. Through the lives and examples of these living saints many came to have 'the eyes of their hearts enlightened.'
And as a Christian community today we must realise that we have the awesome responsibility of being 'saints' to those around us. Of standing up for, and trying to represent what is good to our communities. In doing this we lay ourselves open to criticism. In the Gospel Jesus points out; 'Happy are you when people hate you, drive you out, denounce your name as a criminal on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for Joy, for then your reward will be great in Heaven. This is the way their ancestors treated the prophets.' In other words it goes with the territory of being a saint that people will mock, ridicule or taunt.
Through reading and learning about the historical saints, and looking for the saintly part of all those around us, actively searching for what there is to admire in the people we meet, we will find that the seeds of saintliness God has planted in each one of us has a rich and nourishing environment in which to grow in Faith. In getting to know the saints better, both living and deceased, we can find our own understanding and knowledge of God is strengthened, and the 'eyes of our hearts enlightened.'