Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours…
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet…
So, who wrote that? Teresa of Avila?
Nope. Methodist minister, Guy Pearse. He wrote the first few lines in 1888. The rest was added in 1892 by English Quaker, Sarah Eliza Rowntree, of the York, England, Rowntrees, who were chocolate makers, like the Cadburys of Birmingham.
But a chocolate loving Quaker is not as sexy as a 16th century mystic. Who wants Sarah Eliza Rowntree when you can have Teresa of Avila? That’s what a well-known blogger said to me when I pointed out the misattribution on his site. He said, “Yeah, I know, but Teresa’s name makes people want to read it.”
In 1968, a Harvard undergrad named Keith Kent wrote some guidelines for student leaders as a class assignment. He called them “Paradoxical Commandments.” We know them as the “Anyway” prayer of Mother Teresa. Seems you’ll never get your 15 minutes with a saint in the neighborhood. They’ll steal your stuff every time. There’s just something about a saint that confers authority even on clichés. You can write, “You must let the dog out,” sign it “St Francis of Assisi,” post it on Instagram, and within five minutes it’ll go viral.
And speaking of Francis…
We Protestants say we don’t “do” saints, but we sure “do” Francis. If we have outdoor statuary, it’s often Francis in a birdbath. And somewhere in our churches there’s a copy of a familiar prayer (that he didn’t write) that begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Who cares if in addition to loving birds and peace, Francis loved priests, popes, and transubstantiation? Somehow this medieval Catholic has become a saint even modern Protestants can love.
But we aren’t supposed to love saints. We don’t canonize them. We don’t pray to them. They don’t do miracles for us. We don’t believe it’s just the few, the fine, and the dead who are saints, but all the baptized, including you and me. In most of our UCC churches, all it takes to become a saint is to sign up for a committee. Nothing canonizes you faster than volunteering to fill a slot on the Board of Christian Education!
We say saints aren’t special, yet we reverently share Facebook memes with their supposed sayings. We don’t privilege canonized saints over ordinary people, but we let Teresa of Avila steal from Sara Rowntree and get away with it. We don’t believe saints have special powers, yet some of us will pray to Jude, patron of hopeless causes, when we really need a parking space, or to St Anthony when we’ve lost our glasses.
We all know that the Protestant Reformers downplayed devotion to saints. It made a lot of sense to do that in the 16th century. But now? No one is collecting their relics and selling them any more, at least not where I live. No one is making crass bargains with them in return for a cure. No one thinks they can get us or our relatives into heaven if we donate a bundle to a hospital in their name.
There are no insurmountable theological obstacles to our veneration of the saints, nothing to keep us from honoring and emulating them. St Paul told the early Christians to imitate him insofar as he was imitating Christ. That’s precisely what we do when we set the saints before us so that we might gain encouragement and derive fruitful lessons for our own discipleship. It’s what we do when we light a candle in memory of dear departed grandmother Smith or Pastor Jones on All Saints Day, too, acknowledging the many ways their example of Christian life has shaped and inspired us to be who we are.
And if we believe that the saints are with God and living still, even asking for their intercession is not terribly different from asking our earth-bound friends and neighbors to pray for us. Protestants have reconsidered and adapted a great deal of our pre-Reformation heritage, including more attention to ritual and the liturgical cycle, and even to fancy vestments. Why not the saints? And yes, I do mean the “big” ones, canonized or otherwise universally esteemed saints, as well as the more domestic, local ones.
We call them “the church triumphant”—the church triumphant, living members of the church, still active in and crucial to its mission. If we want to be the church, the whole church, and nothing but the church, we can’t go about our mission ignoring an entire segment of the membership! Bad enough we do it with children and youth. And old people. Recovering a vivid sense of the communion of saints could make a big difference in the way we live into the church, its mission, and our own discipleship. I think we need the saints.
The saints shows us the myriad ways grace takes shape in real human lives.
We have one pattern—Christ. But Christ comes in all shapes and sizes. Race, gender, class, nationality, marital status, ability—you name it, in every time and place God has made saints from the material at hand. All different, all saints. To see the particularity of the saints helps us claim the particularity of our own discipleship. I don’t have to be anyone but me to witness faithfully to the gospels. In fact, if I’m not me, in all my particularity, I’m not witnessing faithfully to Christ.
Now, to be honest, over the centuries the church has not always done well in showing us the full range of human particularity in those it has named as its saints. For too many of those centuries, the official saints have been predominantly white, male, straight (as far as anyone knew or wanted to believe) and in the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, celibate. The more we reflect on the saints, however, and the more we wonder about what makes for one, the greater the chance we will expand the old parameters and add to the rolls people from every race and clan, every condition and class, every geography and time.
The saints enlarge our notion of community.
We say, “St Swithen’s by the Sea is a friendly community,” and “St Polycarp by the Pool is an active community.” But ‘community’ is one of those weasel words that can mean a lot of things. Too often it means only us like-minded folk, this happy, homogeneous little bunch. But when it comes to the ties of affection, aspiration, and accountability that bind the church in Christ, we need a thicker, more durable word, a word that fills the gaps we would happily leave unfilled—we need a communion. A communion of all the saints. If our idea of community is too thin or too parochial, too inward looking or self-regarding, too non-confrontational and not sufficiently challenging, the active presence of the saints in glory will enlarge it. The saints always bring a bigger world to our smallish one.
The saints teach us it’s not all about us in the now.
One of my missions in life is to convince everybody that just because people lived in the past doesn’t mean they were stupid. Or benighted. Or naïve. We who live today think no one’s ever been as clever and enlightened as we are. This is (as scholar Peggy Bendroth says) “presentism.” Like most all isms, it’s bad. The ‘now’ is a very narrow slice of human experience, after all. When you’re stranded in the present, you quickly come to the end of your own resources. You’ll easily grow cynical and defeated.
What might it do for a church like the UCC, still captive to the culture of the West, if, for example, we were to make the acquaintance of the patriarch Timothy who in the late 8th century was head of a church that extended over a vast territory—Iraq, Iran, Turkey, India, China, Tibet; and which by the 11th century encompassed a full third of the world’s Christians?
How would it spark our imagination and enlarge our sense of possibility if we knew that, unlike his medieval European counterparts, Timothy did not look to secular emperors or kings to guarantee his authority, did not amass wealth and power, and did not persecute people of other faiths, but interacted and cooperated with them without fear, contempt, or hostility? (One of the emblems in use in Timothy’s church was the cross sitting on a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.) So many things we think of as challenges unique to the 21st century were normal for Timothy in the 8th and 9th—globalization, interfaith encounter, the complexities of living under regimes of other faiths.
And that’s just one example out of millions. The witness of the saints helps us recover parts of the Christian story we’ve forgotten. The saints offer us insights and practices, convictions, and hopes that stir and challenge our thinking and doing today. Even the sometimes bizarre “past-ness” of the saints is a gift. It teaches us that we will one day seem bizarre to our descendants too. This is much needed humility for presentists like us who believe that, compared with silly ancient people, we’re the cat’s meow.
The saints held the treasure in earthen vessels.
The saints are indeed wonderful, but they weren’t born wonderful. They worked out their salvation in fear and trembling. If we imitate them, it’s that “working out” that we imitate. It’s one of the most encouraging things about them. Living in communion with the saints we see how God’s power really is manifest in weakness. How else to explain John Wesley with his embarrassing boundary violations, a man so frustrated by his inability to fix himself that he wrote to his brother, “I do not love God, I never did”? Or a Teresa of Avila, a people pleaser (“I could be bought off with a sardine”) so unwilling to say no a person who’d once done her a favor that she endangered the safety of her nuns? Or a Simon Peter, whose denial of Jesus was every bit as bad as Judas’ betrayal?
Maybe you find the notion of sanctity off-putting, especially if you think it means moral perfection. You know you can’t reach that, and people who try to be perfect are usually insufferable. But the saints’ holiness is different—it consists in their having really needed forgiveness, and in having loved the world out of an experience of undeserved mercy undeservedly received. The communion of saints is a communion of sinners. Forgiveness made their faithfulness possible. God’s power shone brightest in these sinful people who knew they depended on mercy for everything.
The saints witness to the ordinariness in being extraordinary.
In St Francis’ world, lepers were frightful creatures. One never got close to them. It was extraordinary that anyone took up the calling of caring for them. Francis and his first brothers did. When he reflected on this, Francis noted that it was one of the effects of his conversion. After he was converted, he wrote, “I did not turn away from lepers” any more. But Francis didn’t become a saint in that moment he stopped turning away. He had to keep re-turning towards them day after day, not turning away again and again.
Holiness is not a matter of a moment, but of a lifetime of moments of not turning away, a lifetime of persevering practice, purified and shaped by an ever-deepening commitment to Christ. We rarely think of it when we think of saints, but it’s there—the unromantic routine, the sheer drudgery of doing things faithfully day after day with no audience, no reinforcement of the self, no consolation. And so we learn that sanctity is more about discipline and perseverance than mystical flights and heroic deeds.
Without the saints, we won’t remember what we must never forget.
Right before he invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler spoke to his staff about the Armenian genocide 24 years earlier—a horror invisible to the outside world because those who knew about it chose to say and do nothing. He assured the generals that no one remembered the Armenians. And no one had ever paid a moral price for what was done to them. There’d be no moral price to pay for the invasion of Poland either, he said—not in a world with such a short self-serving memory.
As Peggy Bendroth says, “The world’s unwillingness to remember one genocide will always enable the next.” Bendroth concludes that remembering is an ethical obligation. But we don’t remember alone. We need a community to remember—a whole community, the communion of all the saints. If memories are partial or local or lost, she says, we’ll end up believing we’re not the kind of people who burn witches or look away from holocausts or criminalize the poor. But when we remember with all the saints, “they will say to us, ‘Well, we were that kind of people. You could be too. You’re not immune.’”
We need the saints. We need to be in everyday communion with them. But how do we do that? It takes practice. It is a practice. Here’s the shape it might take:
Invoke the saints often
Especially at the Font, the Table, at annual meetings and other crucial gatherings, and when new members join. Create and introduce a litany of the saints as a regular part of these celebrations. Acknowledge their presence with you as you gather to worship, as you decide big issues, as you bury your dead. Treat the saints as active members of the community on whose encouragement, inspiration, and prayers you rely. Make the cloud, the communion itself, a key part of how you understand the church, your church. When people ask how many members you have, say “Billions!”
Learn about their lives
Big saints and little saints—make it part of your church’s formation efforts to get to know one or two every year in order to appreciate and be inspired by the diversity of ways God has acted in human beings to produce holiness, service, and wisdom.
Tell the saints’ stories to each other and especially to your children, as you would the stories of family.
Because they are family. Don’t be afraid to hang pictures of saints in your church. (The icons of Robert Lenz are perfect for this practice.) People will say, “That’s too Catholic!” Tell them to get over themselves. It’s the family photo album. When we look at the photos we remember who we are, where we came from. We hope to see family resemblances, to discover who got Francis of Assisi’s feet, the belly laugh of Jonathan Daniels, Bishop Romero’s justice-seeing gaze, the vibrant intellect of RBG, the courage of Sojourner Truth. And millions more. Tell their stories.
If your children or grandchildren have a saint’s name, look up their saint’s day on a calendar of saints.
Celebrate that day annually, along with the child’s birthday, baptism day, and other anniversaries. If a child isn’t named for a saint, make up a saint’s day for them, and on that day bless God for the saint the child is already becoming.
Honor your baptisms in every way you can
The holiness of the saints is nothing more than baptismal grace unfolding over a lifetime. At every baptism, and on your baptism anniversary, remind yourself and each other how incarnated and particular this grace is, and that it’s at work in you.
Desire to be a saint.
When I was a child, the nuns taught us to aspire to sanctity. They meant moral perfection, and that was wrong. But their encouragement wasn’t. Understood rightly, growing into a generous and generative Christian maturity should be our dream. So next time you sing, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” be serious about the last line of each verse—“…and I mean to be one too!” It’s just anther way of affirming our baptismal commitment to the cause of Christ, aka discipleship.
Celebrate the heck out of All Saints Day!
Remember your dear local saints, but don’t confine yourself solely to the local list: celebrate all the saints in glory—past, present, and to come. Make All Saints day more than a kind of congregational memorial day. Make it a festival of the whole church, a day of baptismal renewal, a day to thank God that, by grace, all of us who truly “want to be in that number” surely will be.
By these and many other practices, make sure the saints feel at home in your church. Make sure they know that no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey, they are welcome here!
Image is “The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints” by Ira Thomas; http://www.catholicworldart.com.