In August, Loyola Press released a special Tenth Anniversary Edition of My Life with the Saints (with a foreword by John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux fame). In the final chapter of the book, after looking at the ways that a variety of Catholic saints have shaped my life, I reflect a bit on saints in Catholic culture, and the meaning of sanctity itself.
How do I feel about the variety of ways in which people relate to the saints today? What about the sometimes seemingly bizarre piety surrounding the cult of the saints? What of the tradition of burying statues of St. Joseph in the ground in order to get a house sold? Or those front-lawn shrines to the saints sometimes housed in overturned enamel bathtubs?
Just a few weeks ago, I was walking through a heavily Italian section of Brooklyn and was amazed at the number of homemade shrines to Mary and St. Anthony and St. Jude, whose painted concrete statues were festooned with colorful plastic flowers and twinkling lights.
As a Catholic I am used to that. It’s part of Catholic culture. It may disturb some progressive Catholics, and certainly many Protestants, but it’s good to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their faith.
If such practices help people feel closer to their favorite saint, and that in turn helps them feel closer to God, then that’s terrific — as long as people remember that it is God to whom they are praying and that devotion to a saint should never blind them to the centrality of Jesus in their lives.
But, as with any friend, a saint should not be seen from a strictly utilitarian point of view: that is, we shouldn’t see them simply as models, as intercessors, as ones who exist to encourage us. This is far too narrow an understanding of the saints. Too often we reduce their role to doing things for us. Or, worse, getting us things.
Recently, a friend told me that she prays to Mother Cabrini—or St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Italian nun canonized for her work with immigrants in New York City—when she wants to find a parking space. Apparently, Mother’s urban sympathies make her the go-to woman for frustrated drivers. Her prayer is a variation on St. Anthony’s:
Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, please find a spot
for my little machine-y.
It’s fun to imagine Mother Cabrini searching out parking lots for an open space. But if we reduce the saints to a purely functional role, we overlook the invitation simply to rejoice in the variety of gifts that they reveal in the kingdom of God.
The saints are not just useful tools; they are people to celebrate. The stories of their lives on earth are gifts for which we can be grateful, as we are grateful for works of art. Someone once wrote that the saints are like actors in a play, and the script of that play is the gospel.
To borrow another metaphor, from St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite, loving the saints is like enjoying the marvelous variety of a garden. You don’t love a flower for what it does, but for what it is.
Now I know that the most common image of the saints is probably the “cloud of witnesses” that comes from St. Paul. And while I like that image for its notion of the saints as a hovering presence, it also seems a bit cold and impersonal. I much prefer the image of the garden, where each of the saints shows forth God’s beauty in a different way.
Without a doubt, that’s the most important aspect of the saints for me: they teach me about being who I am. Each of the saints has been, to quote St. John XXIII, “holy in a different way.” Each was placed in a different situation and time. Each had a different personality and dealt with life differently. And each related to God a little differently.
Think of the variety of holy men and women just in these pages. Not only did they live in different times and places and speak different languages, but they also possessed their own personalities and followed their specific calls to holiness.
Some examples: Though both of their lives were rooted in God, Thomas Merton, the 20th-century Trappist monk, and Aloysius Gonzaga, the 16th-century Jesuit, approached life in very different ways. Merton was forever questioning his vow of stability, his place in the monastery, and his vocation as a Trappist, almost until the end of his life. Aloysius, on the other hand, seemed to have known precisely what he wanted to do—that is, become a Jesuit—from childhood.
Or think about Thérèse of Lisieux and Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Thérèse realized that God had called her to spend life cloistered behind the walls of a Carmelite convent, while Dorothy Day understood that her invitation was to spend life on the “outside,” working among the poor and marginalized in the big cities.
Both grasped their respective calls. But both appreciated styles of sanctity that varied significantly from their own. Thérèse, for instance, greatly admired the Catholic missionaries working in Vietnam. And Dorothy Day admired Thérèse enough to write a little book about her.
The earliest example of the variety of ways to be Christian can be found in the story of the call of the first disciples. The Scripture scholar William Barclay once offered some provocative insights on why Jesus of Nazareth might have chosen fishermen among his first disciples: fishermen are patient, they are brave, they know how to fit the bait to the fish, they know how to stay out of sight, and so on.
But that only explains why Jesus chose the four disciples who were fishermen. What about everyone else? Why would Jesus call, say, a tax collector and a religious zealot and, among his wider circle of disciples, a prostitute?
One reason may have been that Jesus saw how each disciple contributed something unique to the community. The unity of the Church, both then and now, encompasses a tremendous diversity.
As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. . . . To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. . . . For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Each of us brings something to the table, and we each, through our own gifts, manifest a personal way of holiness that enlivens the community. We help build up the kingdom of God in ways that others cannot.
Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, echoes this in her famous and quite beautiful saying: “You can do something I can’t do. I can do something you can’t do. Together let us do something beautiful for God.”
Excerpt from My Life with the Saints 10th Anniversary Edition by James Martin, S.J. (Loyola Press 2016). Reprinted with permission from Loyola Press.