Anglicans don’t seem to be much good about choosing saints. (I’m using the word Anglican because it reaches wider than “Episcopalian” and serves better as an adjective!) The problem is that we are not sure what a saint is and we are a bit uncomfortable about the whole notion of some group or other sitting around a table coming up with a list of suitable deceased people who can meet the approval of a Provincial Synod, and perhaps be included in a heavy tome sold by church bookshops to further litter sacristies or clergy bookshelves. Perhaps we know that originally, in those blessed days -even days were saintly then – there were neither provincial synods nor committees, standing or otherwise.
Once the Church stumbled into the saint business, it seemed pretty clear that New Testament heroes were saints, even if they weren’t without sins or faults. If you were reading or listening to the “Philemon” lesson last Sunday, rather than judging whether the reader was pronouncing those names correctly, you would have noticed saintly Paul being manipulative and ‘snarky’. Peter betrayed his Lord. Thomas doubted.
Churches were built over the graves of saintly martyrs and soon were called by that saint’s name. Local people began to revere a man or woman, or woman or man, whose life and deeds inspired them. The experts call that a cultus. The Jim Jones’ group of besotted followers is called a cult in a sort of devilish reversal of definitions. The Devil has his heroes.
I find it easier to describe what a saint isn’t. Top of my list is that a saint isn’t someone whose passion is for a cause that describes his or her own condition or circumstance. Such a person may be called an advocate but that doesnt necessarily denote heroic virtue. I don’t mean that a saintly person can’t champion a cause. It just shouldn’t rank above daily, perhaps hourly praise and love for God: a similar love for creation and all created things for what they are rather than for what they aren’t. I can just manage to love the skill and care involved in the creation of a bedbug, and perhaps the wretched thing has a purpose, although I must trust God on that one and wish he hadn’t bothered, but hand me the bug spray. A saint is found to have prayed hard, adored intentionally, interceded regularly and confessed honestly. It was by performing such tasks that a person became good at sharing love, which isn’t a character trait; it is God’s love. Perhaps being nice or nasty is a character trait, both of which can be worked on. Being good is a gift from God and increases as a person cooperates with God and loves neighbor. Yes, this is all about love, or rather about loving, but I didn’t mention that because the word has been sentimentalized. It has become all about feelings rather than doings. You can’t feel your way to sanctity. The list of virtues above is applicable as a rule for us all. Rule? Hang on, perhaps that’s our problem. We’ve succumbed to the idea that spontaneity is next to godliness. It isn’t. Being saintly is a hard, disciplined slog.
As I list these positive virtues I begin to realize why Anglicans are uncomfortable about saints. Their qualities make us feel rather uncomfortable. They are so religious! Anglicans are reticent folk. We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves and we tend to think that the call to a holy life is fine in theory, but impractical and, well, perhaps a bit odd. We tend to think of clergy in the same way, unless they fall from grace and then we are indignant that they didn’t live up to a standard we think to be impracticable and rather odd. It was by performing religious tasks, that is praying, that a person became good at sharing love, which isn’t a character trait; it is God’s love. I better say that again. Goodness is God’s gift to us. We didn’t inherit it from grandma, or learn it from our parents. The notion that doing good makes us good at praying is an upside-down idea. Praying makes us good at loving.
We’ve all probably met a saint without knowing it. Most saints are never canonized and never recognized. Whether recognized or not these holy women and men lift up the Church, its calling and mission and support it by their intercessions. If we get to know a saint, either a living one or one who is much more alive than the living, we will probably experience one of those embarrassing moments, when, in the words of the hymn, “we want to be one too.” What we do at that moment is up to us, or rather a matter of our allowing grace to pierce our cynicism. To succumb to grace (the word grace means gift) is the beginning of a disappointing life. Every time we really try to be saintly we will fail. “Following the good example” of saints, the substitution made in collects for the old idea of asking for their prayers, invites failure. I can no more become saintly by imitating Saint Bede, than I can become a concert pianist by sitting at a piano and imitating one. But perhaps if I practice my scales, and get a teacher, I may learn to knock out a tune on the piano and if I learn how to pray I may become someone who is saintly, probably not very saintly but who knows? I’ve strayed a bit from wondering how someone is recognized as a saint to how one becomes a saint, but I thought if I started by giving suggestions about how you may become saintly you’d be too embarrassed to read on.