At All Saints-tide, many of us may call to mind our favourite patron saints: jolly old St. Nicholas; St. Anthony, who helps us find things (and people) that are lost; St. Christopher who keeps us safe when we travel; St. Valentine, inspirer of romance; and St. Jude, the patron of lost causes, often called upon, I think, and most recently recalled when last week’s storm struck. Some of you with a more Catholic background, may have grown up with little statues, pictures or cards; others may have necklaces, bracelets or other lucky charms, the idea being that the saints somehow have the power to inspire, guide and protect us along life’s way, for they are thought to have the ‘special ear’ of God. In the past few years, though, much has changed in the Catholic tradition. Many of the legends of the old saints have been re-examined and found to be wanting. Indeed, it has been suggested some of them never actually existed at all. There are saints, though, who certainly were real, and whose lives still impact on our own in significant ways. The profound theological reflections of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, for example, still influence our spiritual searching today. We not only remember them, we also treasure the gifts they have brought to the church over the centuries. Today’s celebration, however, reminds us we are by no means limited to those who have been officially canonized, or those saints who are commemorated on their own individual days in the church calendar. All Saints speaks of those who were not famous, and not remembered by everyone, but whose lives and deeds have nonetheless endured. That’s not to say for a moment that all these people were perfect. In fact, saints in general have a strong track record not only in being imperfect, but in being decidedly odd!
Even the most famous figures don’t always fit our expectations as to what makes a saint. St. Peter himself hardly fits the traditional image: rash, impetuous, prone to talk too much, and to make promises he couldn’t keep. And what about St. Paul? How strange to devote your life to killing Christians, then suddenly see the light on the Damascus Road, and spend the rest of your life making Christians. And from what we read of Paul, it seems he wasn’t an easy person to know or to please. Then there’s St. Augustine, who lived on raw vegetables and promiscuity for years while praying, Lord, make me chaste and continent – but not just yet. Then he met God in a garden and became the most inspired theologian of the early Christian centuries. The offbeat stories of the saints and what they inspired doesn’t stop there. Devotees of St. Vitus used to go in for a whole night of wild dancing in chapel, believing this would keep them free from all ills for the rest of the year: Vitus became the patron saint of dancers and comedians. St. Perpetua, along with her companions, had many bizarre adventures until she was finally put to the sword after being tossed by an infuriated cow! The 13th century St. Albertus Magnus prescribed an unusual holy cure: if an ounce of elephant bone is drunk with ten ounces of wild mountain mint from something which a leper has first touched, it is an excellent cure for a headache. Much easier to stick with a box of paracetamol from Boots, I reckon.
One final story concerns St. Simeon Stylites, (4th-5th century AD), probably best known for spending 37 years living on top of a pillar. But another story goes that on a journey into town one day, he found a dead dog on a dung heap. He picked it up, tied its leg to a rope round his waist, and went through the streets dragging the creature behind him. He attached himself to the local church and during services threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. He also developed a theatrical limp; at the baths ran naked into the women’s section and, on solemn fasting days, he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans, with deliberate and entirely predictable results! Weird or what? Actually, Simeon was of the type known as the Holy Fool, and there was at least some method in his madness. His strange behaviour was a sort of acted-out sermon, an indictment of what he saw as the world’s false and foolish standards to show, as St. Paul said, that God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame those who think themselves wise. I don’t know about you, but I find the very human oddness of many of the saints much more helpful than visions of ethereal figures in long, white robes floating around in a cloud of dry ice (or incense!) with a saccharine, pious, look on their faces.
St. Paul often addressed his letters to the saints in a particular church, and that meant all the members. So, if he wrote to us today to try and put us on the right track, chances are he would start off by saying something like, To the saints of the church in Richmond. Ever thought of yourself as a saint? No, me neither. But the tradition of the church tells us we are all saints, albeit with a small rather than a capital s. Not only that: we are also part of a company of saints. Often when I come into St. John’s, but especially in November, the month of remembrance, I feel an affinity with those saints who have gone before, some of whom I have known, others not. There is a real sense here of being part of that great company. The traditional All Saints hymn paints a wonderful picture of the countless host entering the gates of pearl. But the Feast of All Saints tells not only of those who have gone before us, but also of the saints of the present day, including, incredibly, you and me, in all our diversity, our human-ness and, yes, our oddness as well. Called to be saints. We may not rank alongside some of the great saints of the past; should we even try? Of course, some saints will forever remain our exemplars and inspirers, and they rightly find their place in stained glass windows, but isn’t a hierarchy of saints a contradiction in terms? As I suggested, I must say I feel I have more in common with the oddballs and the less famous than the ‘superstars’ of the Christian tradition. But what we are all called to is a strong awareness that we are made in God’s image to reflect the God whose nature we encounter in Jesus Christ. Our own individual ways of doing that are likely to be smaller scale, quieter, and often unrecognized. But any act of helping someone along the journey of life, not least when life is hard going; any deed of making other people and their welfare – rather than our own – the centre of our focus; any willingness to take time to listen; any showing of understanding; any act of forgiveness; any seeking after reconciliation; any act of speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves; any moves to establish peace and justice on even the smallest, local scale – in short, any act of love – is what makes a saint. It’s not about unreal piety, or excessive devotion. It’s about being essentially human, and living with humanity towards one another. Today is a history of great saints, to be sure. It is also the history of nameless saints. Dead or alive, the saints are among us; they touch our lives every day. You’ve no doubt encountered a number of them in your life. You’re in their presence right now.
The novelist George Eliot was not a believer, but towards the end of Middlemarch she writes, “…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” As we honour the saints today, let us thank God that we, too, in our very ordinariness, are called to be part of that great company no one can number.