What’s a Saint?

Saint Patrick

Saint. What a word. It’s fully loaded. I happen to like it. Perhaps because I have wrestled its meaning to the ground. I wrestled it until I was blue in the face, sweating all over, spent to the nth degree, and I finally came out on top.

First Round

The Catholic version probably takes precedence. Preeminence. “Saint,” to the Catholics, is a big word. A word imbued with holy, magnificent, colossal, glory of meaning. The Catholics have made the word such a summit that the journey is indeed an arduous climb. Beatification. That’s on the way to becoming a saint. Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003, the fastest achievement of that in modern history. To get to the next stage, she has to be recognized for a second (yes, a second) miracle. I love that. I love that it takes a big set of credentials to earn the title of saint. And shoot, you can’t even become one until after you’re dead, so no cheating. And for gosh sake, there isn’t anyone to argue or make everyone feel bad for their choice (unlike those nasty politicians who show their true selves way too often, especially once they’re up on the old pedestal). And maybe that just goes to show how well Catholics understand human nature: sanctify some living person and watch ’em do some stupid thing to embarrass everyone. And that ruins the whole idea of a saint.

Round Two

But even if Catholics have a corner on the saint market in terms of sheer numbers (1000s) and architecture of process, there are saints, or similar concepts in most all other religious traditions. And a lot of these saints were considered zealots, or weirdos by their contemporaries. Hmmm…that’s a clue. They, whether Catholic or Hindu, Muslim or Jewish, were what we call mystics. So, what’s the difference between a saint and a mystic? It seems to me the difference is the saints got acceptable somehow, whereas the mystics remained in weirdo limbo, or are referred to as poets rather than saints (an odd sort of downgrade). Maybe it’s because the saints got a passel of supporters behind them to lobby for sainthood. But what made a passel of people get behind some of them and not others? Big families? Powerful ties to religious authorities? Ministries that encompassed many instead of those that included few to none?

By the way, some ministries compel going out among the people and others demand sitting alone in a cell or a cave. And which is harder? I guess it depends on who you are. I mean, perhaps saints go and do what is hardest for them or maybe they just go where they are called, and part of what makes them saints or mystics is they don’t bother to notice whether they are inconvenienced or not.

But back to mystics, maybe part of the distinction lies at the foot of the very nature of mysticism: a mystic is someone who communes with God directly through meditation or insight, not through formal religion (sounds like a lot of us, now days) – and thus, may challenge conventional channels of recognition. Rumi, for example, is said to have embraced 72 religions, and in so doing, he is claimed as a saint by none. So, it seems reasonable that many of the mystics were just too “out there” to be accepted or canonized as official, but are regarded more popularly as saints, nevertheless.

Round Three

There is some whitewashing in the whole saint thing. And you’d expect that because what human is really a saint? And by that we could mean perfect. No one is. So perhaps part of the process is re-writing things a bit…leaving some particulars out that might interfere with the sainthood story. That’s okay by me too, since we need saints, just as long as it isn’t really awful stuff. We do that all the time. Great presidents are cleansed of their peccadilloes, or what have you, so we can hold them high. And that can be quite amusing or very painful to experience, depending on who it is and what your political leanings are. For instance, I wasn’t alive for Roosevelt, so what is left out of his story is less troublesome to me than what is left out of Nixon’s. I watched and read as Watergate unfolded and as it did, forever soiled the office of President in this country. Very bad judgment, lying, letting others take the fall, crime even, ending in resignation, and then paid for absolution. How could that be whitewashed? Quaker or no, looks to me like miscreance, so definitely not in the saint category, even if in the recovered presidents one.

Round Four

But we need saints, as I said. Why? Well, I think it has to do with having models, people to look up to, to inspire us. To remind us that great acts of compassion, of love and generosity are possible. To remind us that life is not just about bettering oneself, and that indeed, true life might just be about the opposite, bettering others. There may be some guilt involved in this whole thing, and sometimes the best turns out to be the enemy of the better, but I do trust the underlying notion of recognizing Goodness, with a capital G. We may not all agree with the roster of those religion has decreed as measuring up, but then we can canonize our own saints just as well, can’t we?

Think of Aunt Martha saying “that boy, he’s such a saint,” when the little fellow mowed her lawn or helped her across the street. Or the way my dog, Wiley, looks at me in the morning when he first awakes – his focused adoration and pure heart rank him in my book. Or the guy who dozed the five by 25 foot wall of snow from our driveway a couple of years ago. Or my sister-in-law who cooks my brother a healthy, gourmet meal each night. Or the woman who leaves anonymous bags of groceries on her elderly neighbor’s porch. Or the Dalai Lama who travels the world sharing his loving compassion, and who has prayed for us all every day for the last 74 years of his life.

It is important for us to have saints, through which to awaken, to feel, to know our own sainthood. It is fine to have a high bar for official canonization, but let it not be set so high that the rest of us stop seeking the Good inside us. And let us look about us and see the saints in our midst, performing mighty acts of grace before our very eyes.

In honor of Saint Patrick, patron of the Irish, slayer of snakes (probably referring metaphorically to the poor Druids), and never actually canonized by a Pope, but honored on March 17 by Catholics, Orthodox and Episcopalians alike, as well as many non-Christians the world over. 

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About Rebecca Reynolds

Leadership Guru; Systems Thinker; Complex Problem Solver; Facilitative Leader...also LOVE life, dog Wiley, good food, Malbec, forests, oceans, yoga stillness, the boxing bag, ballroom dance, and movies.
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5 Responses to What’s a Saint?

  1. Related to saints: There is a Jewish mystical tradition that 36 lamed vavniks (righteous Jews) exist at all times, and it is for them that God preserves the world. (I prefer to think of them as righteous individuals, and not necessarily Jews.) No one knows the identity of these 36 — and they themselves do not know that they belong to this special group. In a way, these individual are sort of like super heroes, performing good deeds anonymously and moving on. And just in case we ourselves are one of the 36, each of us is mandated to act as if we are one. If everyone believed this last, how it might change our world!

    • Thanks for the comment, Audrey – and the insights into Jewish “saint” tradition! I had stumbled upon the 36 when I was doing a bit of research for this piece – love the idea! I also found the word “Hasid” (of course, I know “Hasidic,” but did not know its root), which I gather translates to “mystic.” I think Caroline Myss talks a lot about the Jewish mystical tradition, which I am curious to learn more about.

  2. Sarah McCulloch says:

    Thank you Ms. Rebecca for this insightful and delightful saintly post, on Saint Patricks Day. While studying this morning and meditating on the subject of spiritual evolution your writing falls right along the lines of this conversation that seems to be happening more frequently. Nothing stays the same, so if we individually and collectively think, speak and act from our higher selves and from love then are we not changing the world?

    • Thank you for the read! And yes, I think you are exactly right. My experience is that this idea of “acting from our higher selves” means using one’s life as the curriculum for growing oneself up, for expanding more and more into the ease and strength of Love. And that this approach to life actually enables us to contribute to the world in the way we are each uniquely designed to do. Each of us then can live from this Saintly place, with the natural, inevitable result of bringing great good to the world. Who knows if we will change the world, but we can be so magnanimous with each other that it does indeed feel changed! Cheers.

  3. S. Reynolds says:

    There is also a Christian tradition, older than the Catholic process of canonization, I believe, that says all believers, everyone who seeks to follow Jesus, are saints. For example, that is how Paul uses the word in his letters to early communities of Jesus-followers, those who called themselves “people of the Way.”

    I would agree with you that those who are our personal spiritual heroes, from Rosa Parks to the Dalai Lama, can form our own pantheon of saints.

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