Remembering the Saints

Today is All Saints’ Day. As a convert to Catholicism, in my pre-Catholic days, I recall a considerable bit of skepticism about the idea of the saints. In my Protestant tradition, the saints were not talked about much, or if they were, as a general ideal but without much attention to particular figures. As a Catholic, I have a strong attachment to two saints: Ignatius of Loyola and Therese of Lisieux (with Teresa of Avila, Jean Joseph Lataste, and Dorothy Day close on their heels as others whom I greatly admire). Much of the importance of the saints is in their particularity. No two saints are alike, but each lived out his or her personal history of a life with God and with others in a distinctive way. Therese spent her life as a contemplative, while Teresa of Avila had lived out a life of not only contemplation but also serious reform of the order.

Neither were the saints morally perfect. St Augustine of Hippo lived a life that was exemplary in many respects, but he writes with honesty about his life before conversion: most famously, “Grant me chastity, but not yet!,” although an Augustine scholar explained to a group of us faculty that in fact his biggest struggle was with the esteem he desired as a rhetorician and a desire for career building. There is no reason to think that he was perfect afterwards. Teresa of Avila often wrote of her great imperfection, and while it is tempting for later generations to write off such comments as humility (i.e., perhaps she just had unkind thoughts toward another sister, once), such a view dehumanizes the saints. The point is that the saints led exemplary lives despite themselves, and now we believe that they have been purified of their imperfections in heaven. So they can intercede for us and understand us.

Tomorrow is All Souls, when we remember the souls of those faithful departed who have died this past year. I will be remembering in a special way a colleague from our faculty, Jonathan, and a fellow prison volunteer, Charlie. Each one of us has people for whom we cared in different ways who have gone on home to God before us. Of course, there is continuity between All Souls and All Saints, as we hope and pray for the recently departed that they may join the community of saints, and so watch over and guide us in our journeys as well.