If I Were a Saint…
If l were a saint, I would not be able to write about sanctity. Saints radiate God unbeknownst to themselves. They are silent about their holiness because they are unaware of it.
The Christian community has need of saints. Without them, religion becomes flat and institutional. Saints show us the full possibilities of gospel living, They edify us. Because of this, the Holy Spirit, the sanctifier, always guarantees that there are saints in our midst; not for their sake, but for ours. Who are these saints in our midst?
In one of her short stories Ursula Leguin tells about a place, Omelas, where contentment and good order reign, all the time, for everybody but one. The price for their bliss is the suffering of one captive child. Should anybody release this child, or even treat her kindly, the virtues of Omelas would evaporate. Many go to look at the child, and some go home angry or upset, but a few walk away from Omelas forever.
As Jesus might say to a scribe, “Who is the saint here?” Those who walk away from Omelas are the people in our society who learn that the affluence, virtue, and security we enjoy having been paid for by the sufferings of others. They can no longer be beneficiaries of that pain, and they walk away from familiar lifestyles, fixed attitudes, and secure responsibility.
Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day: these are people who have walked away from Omelas. But countless others, less famous, have taken the same walk. There people like the young man who inherited a fortune and together with his wife gave it away and opened a Catholic Worker house in an inner-city in Canada. Or like the doctor who practises part-time to support his large family and devotes the rest of his time to Third World relief work.
Many people have gone to prison for their stand on abortion or peace. Others work tirelessly for groups like refugees or for the homeless. All of these give themselves to others with a commitment that brings about a radical change in their lives. In walking away, these men and women make statements with their lives that inspire and challenge those of us who are less saintly.
There is another saint in Omelas: the innocent who bears the pain. There are countless numbers of these in our midst also. They are the people we put away and in so doing, we demand of them the price for the neatness of our lives. Broken by past abuse, neglect and rejection, they curse on street corners, panhandle on busy sidewalks, express their pain in violence and all kinds of misbehavior. There is a rawness about them which can be disturbing. But if one is very attentive here, sanctity can be found.
It is an inverted sanctity, not expressed in traditional hagiographical terms. It is the same sanctity the church celebrates with the feast of the Holy Innocents, who are not examples of virtue, but were just people who got in the way.
For many years, I lived and worked with such saints. I have not always given them the veneration that is their due. I have been exhausted by their demands and overwhelmed by their inner turmoil. Yet, whenever I was able to be truly and contemplatively present to them, they would enliven me and quicken my spirit. If I approached them with care, something about the left me in awe.
I think this is because suffering is sacred ground, and those who walk on that ground always bear the Crucified. I don’t intend to romanticize broken people, or spiritualize their pain. The mess of their lives and the mess they cause in the lives of others is often horrendous. But scripture tells us that God is always close to the broken-hearted. We know that God does not always rescue people from their pain. God suffers it with them. Maybe on some level broken people experience the union with God that we all aim for but have not yet been readied for by suffering.
I am not only describing my own experience. Everybody who works or lives with people like this, and does so with grace and constancy, is nourished by this involvement. This nourishment is channeled through the lives of unlikely saints, who unbeknownst to themselves, in their path show God in oblique revelations.
In our Omelas, those who have walked away have not left us, and the child is legion. Together they form a dangerous presence, posing a threat to complacent morality and comfortable religion. Bu this, after all, is why the Holy Spirit gives us saints.