Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Saints

You who love the LORD, hate evil! He preserves the souls of His saints; He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. (Psalm 97.10-11; NKJV)

The Daily Struggle

All Saints’ Day is when it happens. This kid from a tradition that doesn’t follow the liturgical calendar starts envying churches that do. Though he’s aware saints’ days and feasts occur regularly, they fascinate him more as Christmas comes into view. He feels cheated because his church delays its celebration until very near the actual date, while others celebrate Advent for weeks. And since those communions (unlike his own) also venerate saints, he somehow links the two. In a vague attempt to enter the Advent spirit, he opens Butler’s Lives of the Saints and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and spends hours immersed in heart-stopping—sometimes blood-curdling—tales of faith. They strike him as perfect for the lead-up to Advent and Christmas, sort of like envisioning a parade of future Olympic champions during the torch’s odyssey to the host city. The amazing feats of courage and tenacity that spring from Christ’s birth make anticipating its celebration all the sweeter.

In effect, Hebrews 11 does this with its Who’s Who of Old Testament heroes—albeit as precursors, rather than the posterity, of Christian faith. After that, chapter 12 opens: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (v1-2) Since Hebrews was written, its “cloud” has expanded to include thousands of legendary examples—and millions of unsung ones—that also depict committed faith. Whether studying a ninth-century ascetic or observing a saintly life unfold in real time, we find a common element: the daily struggle to join Hebrews’ cloud of relentless believers by shaving away hindrances, defying weakness and fatigue, and focusing completely on Christ. Specifics that garner their acclaim—epiphanies and miracles, suffering and sacrifice—grow out of fierce resolve to overcome. The daily struggle is the thing. Ask St. Augustine which is harder, healing the lame or heeling the libido. He’ll tell you.

Deep Determination

Hebrews 12.1-2 isn’t intended as criteria for sainthood. It’s aimed at all of us. It clearly identifies strategies for winning our struggles and makes no bones about the daunting nature of our challenge. Many hindrances bogging us down we dearly love. We sought them and carry them voluntarily, which makes them twice as hard to let go. The same applies to sins that easily entangle us. If we didn’t enjoy them, we wouldn’t be susceptible to their temptations. This is a marathon that tests our stamina, endurance, and commitment every step of the way. There’s no gain in looking for applause from the sidelines, no sense in leaving the route in search of short cuts. To finish, we fix our eyes on Christ and stay as close to Him as possible. But while Hebrews paints a sharp picture of how we triumph over daily struggles, it’s pretty sketchy about where the impetus to triumph originates. Psalm 97.10 fills in the blanks.

“You who love the LORD, hate evil!” it shouts. And when all is said and done, that’s what daily struggle is—combat between deep determination to honor our Maker and nonchalance about dishonoring Him. In Matthew 6.24, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Wannabe saints scour the print for exceptions to this rule and invent all sorts of extenuating circumstances to justify the easy thing versus the right thing. Deeply determined saints take Jesus at His word. “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” He says in John 14.15. It doesn’t get any plainer than that. Loving God as He commanded, with our entire heart, mind, soul, and strength, leaves no option to hating evil with equal passion—down to the tiniest urge to indulge harmful thoughts and behaviors in others or ourselves. The daily struggle is a two-fisted battle.

Join the Cloud

Words like hate, combat, and battle don’t appeal to sunny-side believers who’d rather retreat from conflict than resolve it. But ignoring the struggle won’t make it go away. If anything, it overshadows us, stripping the light and joy from our lives. Even then, however, some of us have got so adept at make-believe peace we simply toss a make-believe sun into the sky. And while we’re living the dream, we miss the sunny side of the struggle, the brightness we experience when we're intent on joining the cloud. The psalmist continues: “He preserves the souls of His saints; He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.” (v10-11)

The struggle can be grueling. The choices it calls for can drain our energy and put us on edge. Confronting evil can leave us staring into the heart of darkness. Defying human nature can sap our sense of pleasure and turn our lives upside-down. But we press on, driven by unyielding love for God, deeply determined to join the cloud. He preserves our souls. He delivers us. His light breaks through. And despite the topsy-turvy misery around us, He rewards our upright hearts with gladness. That’s what happens when saints do what saints do.

The daily struggle to love God and hate evil with equal fervor is the common element in every saint’s story.

(Tomorrow: Words and Wisdom)

Personal Postscript: Thank You

I’m truly grateful to all who sent get-well wishes and held me in your prayers these past few days. I’m back on my feet, gaining strength by the hour, and happy to be back. Thank you so much.

3 comments:

Fran said...

What a beautiful post Tim.

As one who does follow this sort of liturgical calendar, I love the saints. I know that many might consider Catholics little more than "neo-pagan idol worshippers." However, one reason I did not become something else during my years away from the RC church was that I was not letting go of my saints!

We are all the saints -
"Simul iustus et peccator" - simultaneously saint and sinner. (My Latin might not be precisely correct!) We are all indeed "the Great Cloud of Witnesses."

The saints were humans, just like us - with greatness and with weakness, just like us.

Two great "saint" resources are the book, My Life With The Saints by James Martin, SJ a lovely book about Fr. Jim's life growing up with saints. Another is the movie
Millions, which was at once whimsical and wonderful.

Thank you for this lovely post. Healing love and prayers your way!

(i tried to link to the book and the movie, but was having some problem doing so. google away if interested!)

Tim said...

Fran, the RCC's views and approach to sainthood are--for this outsider, at least--among its most profound and moving aspects. The mysteries and majesty of faith are locked inside the lives of the saints, and had I grown up as familiar with this and them as many of my friends were, I may not have been so quick to leave the my upbringing to find a new home in a more "mainstream" communion.

As I gain better understanding of the diversity within the Body of Christ, I'm coming to realize the deep-seated emotional bond so many of my sisters and brothers have with saints--often portrayed in statuary and glass and every other kinds of art form. Suspicious and unlearned minds look at this and immediate grab for the neo-pagan tag, which only shows how shallow their sense of the saints is.

As I gather it, the saints are not "gods"--they're spiritual family members we admire for doing whatever it takes to draw close and stay close to God. Since when are admiring, feeling awestruck by, and learning from exemplary family membmers idolatrous?

And, my wonderful sister in Christ, I have you and dozens like you to thank for opening my mind.

Blessings always,
Tim

PS: Thanks for the recommendations. Will get them both pronto!

Cuboid Master said...

I was raised *loosely* Lutheran, and I too was awestruck (and left fearful) by the stories of the saints as told by my Catholic friends. Usually, the lives of the saints ended in horrific ways, a sort of DIY manual for any would-be torturer. What was most notable, I later recognized, was their courage and sacrifice, not the manner of their deaths. Their dedication serves as an excellent example.