Nowadays, when younger school pupils are asked what they want to be in later life, many will reply, “famous”. When pressed about what they would be famous for, there are often no answers. Just famous for being famous.
Well, it’s different from wanting to be a train driver.
Down through the centuries, human beings have regarded a select band of other human beings as role models. Think of Joan of Arc or Alexander the Great. (It must be wonderful to be called “the Great” – though you would need to have an imposing first name to go along with it. Ron the Great? Nah. Doesn’t really work, does it?)
In the Middle Ages, certain priests and nuns and missionaries were the celebrities of their day. Did teenagers have posters of religious saints on their bedroom walls? My research assistant, Professor Stan Google, has not come up with a definitive answer to this question.
The word “saint” has an interesting history. In the New Testament, the “saints” are simply the church, the people of God, Christian punters. Gradually, the usage changed.
Instead of having a corporate meaning, “saint” increasingly referred to individuals who exhibited a special holiness.
Miracles became associated with the saints. Saints began to multiply numerically. This caused problems for the Roman Catholic Church: How could the new saints be regulated?
Official lists began to appear, and new tests were devised to check on the authenticity of candidates. Some older alleged saints didn’t make the cut.
In later years it was established that some people on the approved list of saints had never even existed, even though miraculous cures had been claimed in their name.
Wouldn’t it be weird to be sensationally cured of your haemorrhoids, then discover that the saint who you thought had done the business for you was actually fictional? God moves in mysterious ways.
So why am I going on about sainthood? Well, because of the proximity of All Saints Day – which in the Church’s calendar celebrates holiness, as seen in the lives of the living and the dead.
Have you ever met anyone you thought was a saint? I certainly have. Mind you, it all depends on what you mean by sainthood. A popular notion is that of a person who is always calm and serene, never loses their temper, never swears, never bites their nails or anything like that.
I suppose that rules out most of us mortals. Boris Johnson need not apply. Historical figures like Thorfinn the Skullsplitter and Vlad the Impaler might find it hard to get a good reference.
It would also rule out Saint Columba of Iona, who, Professor Google informs me, used to lose the heid with his disciples from time to time. The same applies to Saint Paul.
I said that I have met some genuine saints in my time. None of them were perfect, but all of them showed something of God in their lives. I think particularly of some folk I knew in the big Glasgow housing scheme of Easterhouse – especially the women who helped to hold the community together.
I have been privileged to witness at first hand some tremendous examples of sacrificial living – not all religious, of course – of people caring for elderly folk who suffer from dementia or other chronic, debilitating conditions. They don’t have celebrity status, but I think they’ll be first in the queue outside the pearly gates.
Does this mean that I am discounting more traditional templates of sainthood? Not really. To give one example, the 16th-Century Catholic nun, St Teresa of Avila, was a holy, feisty woman who was not afraid to name injustices. I love her prayer:
Let nothing disturb you,
nothing distress you;
while all things fade away,
God is unchanging.
Be patient, for with God
in your heart
nothing is lacking,
God is enough.
I think this is beautiful, in its simplicity and its profundity. Now some people will object that this prayer encourages a quietist attitude that ignores the problems of the world. In her prayer, though, Teresa wasn’t attempting to lay out the whole Christian gospel in a couple of poetic stanzas. What she was doing was pointing to one key aspect of a fundamental Christian attitude to life.
In these turbulent times, whether we adhere to a religious practice or not, we could certainly do with a quieter, more reflective way of living. The rising decibels of public sound, the screeching certainties that brook no alternative views, the rampant road rage that spills over when some oldie commits the heinous crime of being a bit slow at traffic lights; all these are signs not of conviction but of unreflective madness.
We need better role models, more creative mentors.
So, many of the old saints can’t take the strain these days. They are a bit shop-soiled, or past their sell-by dates. But that’s because they are human.
On this day, then, I want to honour them, even in their frailty. Let’s hear it for them: Let the saints go marching – or even limping – in.