On the Saints

In my library, I have two books on the lives and legends of saints in the church: David Hugh Farmer’s somewhat staid Oxford Dictionary of the Saints, and Richard Coles’ considerably more playful volume, Lives of Improbable Saints. Where Farmer’s book aims to distinguish what is historically verifiable from what is legend about any given saint, Coles revels in the more spectacular stories associated with his subjects. For example, in his detailed entry on St. Benedict, Farmer focuses largely on Benedict’s monastic Rule and its impact in Europe. He gives but brief and passing mention to the miracle stories set down by St. Gregory the Great a half century after Benedict’s death. Coles, on the other hand, delights in Gregory’s stories about Benedict, marked by things like a miraculous axe head and a life-saving raven.

If I’m looking for an historical treatment of any given saint, I will turn to the Oxford Dictionary of the Saints. However, Coles’ Lives of Improbable Saints is a good deal more fun to read, and not only because it is wonderfully illustrated by the cartoonist Ted Harrison. Coles’ book speaks to the very human character of these saints of the church, as it is their crankiness, emotional complexity, and eccentricity that often draws his attention. Sure, there are many characters in his book who are more than just a little improbable—St. Rumwold, for instance, who was said to have preached a sermon on the Trinity at the age of just three days, and then promptly died. But even this unlikely life invites a very human question: what was it about the world of 8th century England that led people to so want to tell and retell this story of Rumwold?

As Anglicans, we haven’t formally canonized any of our own saints in the years since the Reformation. Our calendar does, however, include memorial days and days of commemoration for people whose lives and deaths have borne strong witness to the claims of the Gospel. Such days are designated for an array of people, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John and Charles Wesley, and Florence Nightingale. I think rightly so.

That said, I believe that the most fitting feast day for Anglicans is the Feast of All Saints.’ This feast day has been in existence since the late 300s, and its great wisdom is that it celebrates all Christian saints, both known and unknown. This means not only the big league, stained glass sorts of saints after whom most of our parishes are named, and it extends well beyond the more obscure figures of questionable provenance such as our dear St. Rumwold. Indeed, it is a festival of all the saints.

Biblically, the saints—in Greek hagios or “holy ones”—are those who follow Jesus, including both the living and the deceased. In his greetings at the beginning of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,” (Romans 1:7), and then later in that same epistle writes of the need to contribute to “the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (15:26). We are “called to be saints” in Paul’s words, or maybe called to be numbered by God amongst the holy ones, in spite of the sometimes unsaintly and unholy character of our lives. In Eucharistic Prayer 2 in the Book of Alternative Services we are claimed as God’s “holy people,” and maybe some Sundays one might stop and think, “who me?” Or maybe, “Who her? Him? Holy? Really?”

But then again, if you read the New Testament with your eyes truly open, you will have to agree that even Peter and Paul were not without their failings and foibles. Paul could be hard-nosed—which is sometimes the other side of faithful—and it is clear that he and Peter had a serious falling out over the matter of whether or not Jewish and Gentile Christians should share meals together. Paul also had a falling out with Barnabas, and that was over whether or not they should give young John Mark a second chance after he’d failed to come through for them once in the past. Barnabas affirmed the second chance, while Paul said not a chance, and so the two parted ways. Saints?

These two are, of course, numbered among God’s holy ones, in spite of the sometimes less than holy character of their real lives. No matter how long a list of saints you might generate, there is not one of them who will be perfect, completely integrated, or without sin. This is true whether you are naming the upper case “S” ones found in the stained glass or the lower case “s” ones that have never quite caught the attention of popes and prelates. This is another way of saying that there’s not one of us who comes without our own complexities, failings, wounds, blind spots, and sin. As soon as you begin to acknowledge this truth, the next step is to say that our church has to be a place where it’s okay to be a broken person. Because these are precisely the people God declares, by sheer grace, to be both beloved children and numbered with the hagios, or saints.

Returning to St. Rumwold, Richard Coles doesn’t actually believe that a three-day-old baby preached a sermon before dying. I’m entirely with him on that count. I do, however, believe in the importance of remembering the lives and witness of our saints. These include the official ones like St. Benedict—whose work in laying the foundations of the Western monastic tradition is more than worthy of celebration—the “commemorated” ones like Bonhoeffer, and the ones whose lives will fade quietly into the mists of time, but who in life embraced the call to number themselves, by grace, with God’s saints. The latter ones are all around you, some living and some dead, as a great cloud of witnesses, as a great cloud of all the saints.

Jamie Howison is the rector of saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg, He was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land in 1987, and a priest in 1988, and has remained in his home diocese ever since, ministering in parish contexts, as well as in campus and institutional chaplaincy. Jamie is the author of a number of books and articles, and will see his latest book – “A Kind of Solitude” – published in early 2021.

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