Recently, a dear friend of mine asked me for advice. Her father had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and, being a convert, she wasn’t sure which saint she should turn to in such a seemingly hopeless situation. Raised as a Lutheran, she still had reservations about the possibility of saintly miracles in moments of crisis. What would her parents say, if she showed up with a statue? And whom to turn to, if there are so many? This is what she wrote: “One thing I've struggled with as a convert is how to pray for an intersession from a Saint without venturing into superstition? I also worry about "picking the Saint"- that seems so irrational! What if I "choose" the wrong one? Do I go with a proven miracle deliverer? Or someone needing a biggie to be canonized? Should I make the effort to procure a relic? Would my Lutheran parents think I'm a lunatic voodoo practitioner if I come with one?”
To Catholics, the saints are a great treasure and most of us have favorite saints during particular moments of hardship. Yet pondering my friend’s conundrum, led to further thoughts on the meaning of saints in our faith. Why do we love our saints so much? Their greatest value lies not in humbling us, in making us feel small and wanting in the presence of their sanctity. On the contrary, they make us richer, because their stories remind us of who we can be within the limits of our human frailties and diverse personalities. Hildegard of Bingen and Therese of Lisieux are two of our greatest saints, yet their personalities and great accomplishments, their “saintliness” on the face of it, couldn’t be more at odds. The former was bold and audacious, a mover and shaker; the latter taught us about love and holiness in littleness and simplicity.
There is a saint for everybody. But a saint, truly understood, cannot be like a flavor of the month, curiously and superficially appealing, or a statue on a pedestal to worship from a distance. Similarly, a saint is much more than a hand-maiden to be called upon for miracles. Granted, we all have our “favorites” – saints whose stories amaze us and whose promises of miracles comfort us. However, we can only know that we have found “our” saint when we find the opposite of comfort. It is when we both recognize ourselves and we feel challenged to the c ore. It is when we see parts of ourselves mirrored in the saint and we see those shared traits transformed and lifted towards a greater unity with God that we encounter the challenge we must face – to become the best we can be. Saints are an image of what God expects from each one of us; they represent a humanity exalted. It is here that the saints’ true gift to us comes to light. They are our prodding companions on our own personal journey towards deeper faith and closeness to God.
No saint has given us as lucid an example as Augustine of Hippo of such a journey. In his Confessions, we recognize the truly human in the saint and the way in which God tries to reach all of us. In Augustine, we recognize human weakness in all its forms. We recognize a life-long struggle to come to terms with those weaknesses and, finally, to surrender to God’s grace.
His Confessions tell of a life long struggle between the flesh and the spirit, a struggle that Augustine has helped define. Eventually, his account documents the triumph of the will over the frailty of human nature. The Confessions read like a passionate love story, a declaration of ardent love to a God who had been waiting patiently and has shown his face to a man thus humbled. It was by overcoming his human limitations through a change of heart and a focused intellectual effort towards understanding God and human fate that he came to be the great saint he was.
God waits for us, too, as we strive to live in the spirit and lead a life of purpose and meaningful choices. And he rejoices in our attempts to overcome the human frailty that is holding us back and over our child-like, longing glances towards heaven. As Augustine writes in his Confessions, God created us for himself and our hearts are “restless” until they find peace in him. He is there, waiting, at the end of our own, so very human and so very exciting, journey.
And where, you may ask, does that leave my friend? I recommended she go with the real power: Christ and Mary. For sure, they would provide comfort and know what kind of miracle, be it physical or spiritual, was needed – better than anyone. And I advised her to find a saint later - one who could provide a good example for coping with life’s struggles in a more practical way. Indeed, the choices are many with about a thousand saints officially recognized by the Church. Who is your travel companion?