What We Can Learn from the Saints
Reflections on the lessons taught by the heroes of faith
People misunderstand saints; they think of them as being nice people, good people, people who behave well and don't make mistakes. But saints aren't like that. Saints can be crabby, cranky, cantankerous, bitter, ill-informed, misogynist (lots in that category!), racist, opinionated (even more in that category!)— I could go on. Saints are extremely human, and they are products of their cultures and times.
Note that I'm using the present tense, not the past one. Saints aren't just the people officially sainted by the Roman Catholic Church; they are all believers, all who have chosen to follow the Way of the Christ, however imperfectly. Not one of us fails to charge off the path and into the bramble bushes, sometimes quite frequently. Not one of us fails to get it wrong at least once a week and probably much more often than that. It was a saint who invented that lovely prayer:
God, today I have not been nasty or rude;
I have not given or taken offense;
I have not done wrong;
I have fulfilled your will.
Now, God, please be with me,
because in a minute or so
I'm going to have to get out of bed.
But saints have shown us that there is the possibility of living Godwardly in this life, however imperfectly we do it. Saints are simply people who have chosen to point their lives in what they believe is God's direction, and there are enough lives pointed in the same direction that it begins to look like a long procession of people, all walking the same path, keeping each other company. That's what we celebrate on All Saints' Day.
When I was a child our librarians encouraged us to read biographies that had been written especially for children. There was always special attention paid to the childhood or the youth of the biographical subject. It was important to see the struggles and challenges that the person had to overcome, even as a youth. And the character values that would later become evident in their adult leadership were usually formed and illustrated in incidents when the person was just about my age.
Those were good books. They inspired at an unconscious level. They broadened our horizons. We could see that some people had more difficult childhoods than we did. We could see that patterns of virtue could begin early. We could be like them. They weren't so different from us. Our lives weren't so tough that we couldn't adopt a bit of their courage and goodness.
I remember a joke that seems to have its roots in this reading tradition. A father looks at his lazy child, who hasn't done his homework, and says, "When he was your age, Abraham Lincoln was chopping wood, lighting the fire, doing his homework by firelight and walking miles through the snow to school." The kid replies, "When he was your age, Abraham Lincoln was President."
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the courage and example of those heroes who have gone before us. There are gallant stories of hard work and perseverance. There are stories of those who faced suffering and death with courage and hope. But they are more than memories, says the author of Hebrews. They are our witnesses.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Maybe you know of some stories about the remembered or sensed presence of someone now dead who seemed to bring courage or hope to someone alive. Maybe there are some who inspired you and whom you would not want to disappoint. Although they may be far away or no longer alive, you sense an enduring tie of obligation to them. Maybe there are stories of those who have been models of inspiration to you. You would like to be like them.
We can be like them. But more than that, they can also help us. Just as Elijah gave a portion of his spirit to his successor Elisha, so these "witnesses" can still give a portion of their spirit to us who now run our own race.
Hebrews invites us to do just that, "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."
Who are some of your heroes? Who has been inspirational for you? Let them be your supporting witnesses. Let them help you live with inspired integrity.
Copyright ©2006 Molly Wolf and Lowell Grisham.