Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Saints as teaching

Communion of saints elise ritter

Especially if you are a nonbeliever (and even if you aren’t), you would be forgiven for looking at saints as a rather outmoded, superficially pious and self-congratulatory aspect of Christianity. Their statues can appear as nothing more than window dressing and be part of what Cardinal Martini referred to as off-putting 'pomp'. Even a closer look can yield unedifying results and present a view of saints as freaks, focusing either on their horrific deaths (burning, skinning, drawing and quartering, beheading, mauling, hanging, …) or on weird stunts like levitation, bilocation, living atop a pillar, or severe self-mortification. With a view like that, you’d do best to stay well clear of them and the last thing you’d want to do is tell your children about them!

If you have seen this blog before, you’ll know that I profoundly admire many saints and that I strive to learn from them. St. Francis is an example for approaching poverty, St. Therese for valuing simple, everyday life, St. Maximilian Kolbe for what it means to give one’s life for one’s friends, St. Anselm for how logic can point to God, St. Philip Neri for recognizing humor as a gift, Bl. Chiara ‘Luce’ for how cancer can be an encounter with Jesus, St. John of the Cross for how one’s relationship with God can be misunderstood even by one’s closest fellow believers, St. Thomas More for how adherence to Jesus is above any secular power. And I could go on and on :)

What is the point of looking up to saints though? Actually, the point is precisely that it is a looking across rather than a looking up, since saints are my fellow followers of Jesus - subject to weakness, limitations, errors, lapses, pride, difficulties of personality and bounded intelligence. They are what makes me think that I too may have a shot at faithfully following Jesus and it is their virtue, selflessness, compassion, determination and love for all that spurn me on.

There is another key aspect to saints that has been forming in my mind since I have started writing this blog, and it is the following: Church teaching is a complex, often technical and hierarchically–governed set of prescriptions and proscriptions. It is far more akin to the law than anything else, and - just like in the case of the law, its correct interpretation and application to ‘real life’ is arbitrated by professionals: theologians and church officials - the barristers/solicitors and judges of theology. This, however, presents a serious challenge for the individual Christian, who is keen to be faithful to Jesus’ teaching, but who faces the complexities of a technical corpus with finely-tuned, carefully-crafted, legalistic language. How am I, an apprentice follower of Jesus, to grapple with encyclicals, exhortations, the church fathers, canon law, the councils, and even the relatively user-friendly catechism, when I lack theological and legal training? How on earth did St. Peter - a fisherman - do it?

The answer lies precisely in what the early Christians realized already: that it requires putting one’s faith in God and acting on the inspiration provided by the Holy Spirit (e.g., see the account of St. Stephen’s trial and execution in the Acts of the Apostles - chapters 6-8, where Stephen is repeatedly referred to as being ‘filled with the holy Spirit’ (e.g., Acts 7:55), but it also requires continuity with how God acts in others and has acted in others in the past (where the more structured aspect of Church teaching, referred to before, comes from) also so that one’s conscience is purified of errors. What all of this leads to is that explicit Church teaching is certainly a guide to following Jesus, but also that the example of others can provide a more accessible means of seeing it put into practice. For example, by imitating St. Therese in seeking God’s will in everyday chores and doing them out of love for Him and my neighbors, I will not only act orthopractically, but also on an orthodox basis. By seeing how a saint has acted, I have a more applied and immediate view of what the Church teaches. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI said something similar yesterday in the context of ecumenism, when he highlighted that while Church unity is not something that we can cause (it will be a gift from God), we can “learn from each other how to follow Christ today.” In other words, orthopraxy is to be imitated regardless of who does it.

Finally, there is another aspects of learning from the actions of saints, which is that it is not only individual Christians who can do so, but the Church as a whole too. I believe that official, formal Church teaching can be seen as a distillation of the orthopraxy (holiness) and therefore orthodoxy of saints. This was evidently so at the very beginning of the Church, where it is Jesus’ actions and beliefs that are Church teaching, but right from the get go it is also the teachings of the apostles that attain orthodox status (e.g., see Peter’s ‘trance’ in which he is told to eat food considered impure and told “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” (Acts, 10:15)). The history of the church is then a sequence of growing insight into how best to follow Jesus and the actions and beliefs of saints are a key part of it (just look at the Catechism and notice the number of references to what the saints have said). Since such growth of insight also involves change, the new understanding, acted upon by saints, is often misunderstood and often so for decades or centuries (but luckily saints don't do what they do for celebrity status). In the end though, the orthopraxy of saints tends to be of such vehemence that doubts about the origin of their beliefs are dispelled.