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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather


Do we recognize the saints who daily walk among us?

We are all called to be saints, St. Paul says, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us.”- — Dorothy Day

It’s the end of mass, Sunday, Oct. 28. The pastor announces that on the upcoming Wednesday there will be a costume party in the parish hall for the children. It being Nov. 1, All Saints Day, the children are invited to dress up as their favourite saint. The woman next to me, a good friend, says with an impish grin, “I’m going as myself.”

I laughed out loud. It’s a brilliant response — and a wise one. Too often, thinking about the saints, we recall the superstars of our faith, the holy men and women of God whose heroic virtues and outstanding lives mark them as special and worthy of honour. We almost never think of our friends and neighbours, and even less, of ourselves. After all, the degree of sanctity necessary to be designated as saint is, we think, way beyond our reach, messy and complicated as our lives invariably are.

Yet, to be called to be saint is surely a call for all disciples. St. Paul, writing to the various communities, addresses all the members as saints, decreeing that status to them as baptized members of the community. Vatican II echoed that understanding in affirming a “universal call to holiness” for all the baptized, correcting, in the process, a historical bias that reserved saintliness for the favoured few.

To be saint was a sensibility that Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, knew well. His own heart hungered for it and he demanded it of his Oblates. “We must become saints,” he thundered at them time and time again. Moreover, such a message was to be carried to everyone: the goal of Oblate evangelizing was to lead people first to their humanity, then to a relationship to Christ, and then to their own sainthood.

In order to understand how such a thing might be possible for the many rather than the few, however, it might mean revising our concept of holiness. For too long holiness has carried the aura of perfection, and we feed such a concept when we sanitize our “saints.” Editing out their struggles, doubts, failings and sins, we effectively remove their humanity. Safely placing them on pedestals, we let ourselves off the hook from any challenge to be like them. No wonder Dorothy Day vehemently declared, “Don’t call me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed so easily!”

What might such a different understanding look like? I recall the time, years ago, when our parish meetings always began with a personal witnessing of faith by an invited guest. At one such meeting the pastor, in introducing the person, lauded her as a woman of great faith, emphasizing several times that she was someone who “knows she is a sinner and in need of God’s great mercy.” Taking her place at the podium the woman smiled at us and gently remarked, “It’s true: I am a sinner,” and then she paused. “But I am also a saint,” she went on, “because God and grace are at work in my life.” Wife, mother, church volunteer, neighbour: she knew herself to be called to holiness precisely in the milieu she inhabited.

What does it mean to be saint? Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner describes saints as “Spirit-bearers,” people who, in their lives, bear to others something of the Spirit of God, that is to say, something of love, joy, peace compassion, forgiveness, and grace. There is our deepest truth: we each, by the grace and goodness of God, at some point or another, and sometimes even in spite of ourselves, have the ability to bring something of God to one another and to strive to do so, to desire to grow in that grace, and to never give up trying, is to pursue holiness.

“What do you monks do all day?” asks the man as he passes by the field where the monastic community is working. “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up,” is the simple response.

I know many saints, those now passed on and those who stand beside me. Many saints of the church reside within my personal communion of saints, Eugene de Mazenod and Teresa of Avila in pride of place among them. But also included in that group are my mother, my father and my brother: they have special charge of my family and I turn to them in particular when one of my beloved ones is in need.

But I also recognize the saints who walk with me, soul friends with whom I can share faith and unburden my heart, mentors, elders and wise ones whose very lives witness to God and who inspire and challenge me in my own fumbling attempts at holiness. I don’t see perfection in their lives, but that’s not what I’m seeking. I see goodness and faith; generosity of spirit and compassion of heart; peace, love, kindness and wisdom. I see something of God in them.

Adam Sofen/Wikimedia Commons

In the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles there are huge tapestries lining the walls of the nave. Represented there are the great saints of our Catholic tradition, as well as of other traditions. St. Paul, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis, Joan of Arc, and St. Pope John XXIII join people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Dag Hammarskjold. But among the 135 persons represented are 12 unnamed others, men, women and children of all ages, representing all the unknown saints in our midst. They are our neighbours, our friends, our relatives, and maybe even ourselves.

Dress up as your favourite saint? At least once, we should dare to go as ourselves.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.