I put my question to the earth, and it replied, "I am not he"; I questioned everything it held, and they confessed the same. I questioned the sea and the deep, and the teeming live creatures that crawl, and they replied, "We are not God; seek higher." I questioned the gusty winds, and every breeze with all its flying creatures told me, "Anaximenes was wrong: I am not God." To the sky I put my question, to the sun, moon, stars, but they denied me: "We are not the God you seek." And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said, "tell me of my God. You are not he, but tell me something of him." They lifted their mighty voices and cried, "He made us." My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty. THE CONFESSIONS Saint Augustine
The Saints have so much to teach us. I’m grateful for my stint in the Protestant churches, but they get it wrong by lowercasing the saints. There seems to be a decidedly self-focused take on a personal relationship with Jesus and the Bible. At first I found this refreshing. I did not like knowing that there were people who were “better” or further along spiritually. I loved the devotionals that coached one to “listen to one’s inner voice.” That came in quite handy at times — especially when I wanted to do something a bit un-saintly.
Stripped down to my personal relationship with God, within a white-washed church building devoid of elevating beauty, and listening (half-listening) to a witty pastor’s weekly take on a Bible passage, I often left church thinking I could definitely do this whole thing at home by the fire with my dogs. People sang rousing sort-of modern tunes with guitar hooks borrowed from the latest pop-rock songs on secular radio and raised their hands above their heads caught up in a personal thing with God, I guess, but I was never feeling “it” that strongly.
I made a few really good friends attending those churches and know for a fact that, in many ways, they are far further along the spiritual path in thought and action than I am, but there really was no point (as far as I could see) in showing up. The table was just that. A table with cubed rye bread and grape juice. Sometimes I went to church hungry and vied for the biggest cut of bread and gulped down the sickly sweet juice with a less than reverent relish.
Maybe it’s just that simple isn’t always best. Where in creation is there any simple? Are sunsets simple? How about kittens? A pomegranate? Melancholy (or for that matter any personal feeling I happen to be having at this moment)?
If simplicity were the greatest good then we would never get past basic multiplication in third grade. The early church, despite the seeming simplicity of the Nativity scene, came out of the Jewish Temple with an insanely rich and complex tradition — a tradition thrown away or underexamined by my Protestant friends. Oh, so much they miss!
When I briefly became a missionary (for about two seconds), I stood with the others, inside a Catholic Church in a Nicaraguan town square, as if the group of us were heroes penetrating Hell. My fellow missionaries murmured about Catholics worshiping images of saints and even worse, the Virgin Mary. As a cradle Catholic I knew this was an untrue over-simplification and misunderstanding, but at the time I deferred to them because it suited me.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! Romans 11:33
Catholics don’t worship the Saints. The Saints are beautiful creatures, like eagles and elephants, who point us to the Creator. When artists and writers create beauty, they too, point to some longing for eternity; a longing for truth, goodness and beauty that comes to us now only fleetingly: When we stand watching waves lash the shore. When a person halts traffic to let a raccoon and her babies cross the road. When we stand in a cathedral contemplating the talents of the hundreds of creators it took to bring Heaven down to mingle with the frail beings on earth.
The BIG Saints tap into that something deep, eternal and essential. You don’t even have to be Catholic to accept this. We have no problem capitalizing our own names or applauding the idols that our secularized society puts before us.
The Saints are beautiful creations. They are a treasure to embrace for the richness of their wisdom and experience. I will not deprive myself of them any longer:
“But what am I loving when I love you? Not beauty of body nor transient grace, not this fair light which is now so friendly to my eyes, not melodious song in all its lovely harmonies, not the sweet fragrance of flowers or ointments or spices, not manna or honey, not limbs that draw me to carnal embrace: none of these do I love when I love my God. And yet I do love a kind of light, a kind of voice, a certain fragrance, a food and an embrace, when I love my God: a light, voice, fragrance, food and embrace for my inmost self, where something limited to no place shines into my mind, where something not snatched away by passing time sings to me, where something no breath blows away yeilds to me its scent, where there is a savor undiminished by famished eating, and where I am clasped in a union from which no satiety can tear me away. This is what I love, when I love my God.”