Friday, July 31, 2009

Faith, Works and Saints/Crazy People

I read a blog post the other day, and I don't know how I feel about it.  I can't seem to let it go, and I don't know why.  It bothers me, but I don't think it should bother me that much.  Writing a whole post about it here seems like overkill, but maybe it will let me put it to rest in my own mind.  

One of the biggest problems, in my mind, is that it is a satirical piece written about the saints by someone that (as far as I can tell) is not from a faith tradition that honors saints.  Satire is one thing when you are pointing out places that your own belief have gone too far, but it's a little different animal when it's directed at someone else.  On the other hand, I recognize that I'm a little touchy about the subject (seriously, why else would I not be able to let it go?), and I really don't think that the author had any intention of implying anything about any particular belief system, but only that those particular examples were pretty over the top.

Maybe it would help to explain a little bit about my own background when it comes to saints.  Growing up, every night we would read a Bible story and a short story about a saint.  I grew up admiring the saints and their dedication to God, but they also seemed to be on  a whole different plane than someone normal like me.  It was clear that they were human, and that what they did, they did by the grace of God, but they seemed to be on an entirely different plane of existence when it came to holiness.  I frankly didn't particularly aspire to some of what they did.  The very short stories were later replaced by entire books about the saints, and it helped to see their lives in a little more depth.  However, from about high school on, I didn't continue to read much about the saints, and "communion of saints" didn't mean anything to me beyond being a phrase in the Creed.

It has only been in the last few years that I have begun to read more of the writings of the saints.  Not books written about them by overzealous hagiographers that gloss over flaws like editors airbrush models in magazines.  These are more like seeing the saints and their walk with God in a mirror; they usually don't try to hide anything.

Guess what.

The saints are human.  They have flaws.  They sin.  They struggle.  Yet they also have an overpowering love for God and a willingness to do anything to draw closer to Him.  Because of the depth of their relationship with God, their meditations about Scripture have intensity, clarity and simplicity.  Their accounts of their journeys to holiness are borne out of a desire to become fully one with God.

One of the problems that I have with an evangelical Christian writing about the saints is that they usually come from a background that emphasizes that we are saved by faith alone, and that works are utterly useless.  Therefore, penance and mortification of the body are something that is foreign and out of place to the Evangelical.  The satire directed towards those aspects of the saints is what bothered me the most.  Those were the points that when people in the comments were laughing at the saints, it hurt.

Remember that Catholics, on the other hand, believe that works are a necessary part of our salvation. Let's be very clear: works DO NOT save us.  Only Jesus saves us.  Only the grace of His death on the cross gets us into heaven.  However, works do play an important role.  Faith without works is dead (James 2:17).  The saints, like James in v. 18, say with their lives: "I by my works will show you my faith." Of course, going through the motions without faith is just as worthless.  Faith must be the driving force of the works.  Any works should be a natural outpouring of that faith, and not done as a crazy stunt.  It bears repeating: both faith and works are made possible by Christ's grace alone.

I am no longer afraid that my good works will not measure up.  In fact, I know that they will not.  I find that the only time I manage to do anything that might be considered "good" is when I finally completely give up trying and simply let Christ work in me. Learning that abandonment to God came in large part through reading the writings of the saints, who had learned it before me.

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That's really the end of the post, but as an addendum, let's talk a minute about the specific examples brought up in the post.

St. Bertilia: Actually, she was far from the only saint to be married and a virgin.  Virginity is not saintly because sex is bad.  Sex is very good, otherwise it wouldn't be a sacrifice to remain a virgin.  However, many saints gave up sex.  Some as married couples (I've never heard of this saint before, but I have heard of this practice with other saints) and some as priests or nuns.  Not having sex is not just about denying yourself, it's also about setting yourself apart for God alone.  (Side note: I don't feel called to that kind of marriage myself!)

St. Catherine of Siena: This one probably bothered me more than any of the others combined.  We live in a society that is baffled by the idea of giving up chocolate or TV for 40 days during Lent.  Greater discipline than that is completely mind blowing.  I do not think that people in general should follow this particular discipline, but I have a real problem with anyone besides a confessor/spiritual director deciding when too much is too much.  Several of the saints were sustained by the Eucharist alone for years at a time.

St. Lucy: Not going to lie.  I don't really want to touch this one.  Personally, I think that this was over the top, and the idea of sending the eyes to your admirer is flat out creepy. Again, young virgins were extreme.  Today, we can do about whatever we want.  At Lucy's time, you really had to fight to live out a call to virginity.  I still can't fully endorse it, though.

St. Wilgefortis: I have never in my life heard of this saint or this story.  However, it's not nearly as crazy as it sounds. Worded in this way, it sounds like she sprouted a well groomed beard and mustache.  Actually, she probably developed some kind of medical condition.  Hirsutism is when a female begins to grow hair in places that usually only males grow hair (face, chest and back).  It is a symptom of several diseases, including polycystic ovary syndrome, Cushing's, diabetes, or cancer of the ovary or adrenal gland.  Given medical treatment at the time, even if her father hadn't killed her, she was going to die fairly soon.

St. Mary of Egypt: Again, haven't heard of this one.  Since I have no facts, I'm going to leave it alone.

St. Theresa of Avila:  Ooh, this is another one that you just don't mess with.  Especially if you don't know the whole story.  Theresa entered the convent when she was young, but the convent at the time was a pretty cushy place.  They lived very comfortably and didn't really have much discipline at all.  She continued to have a fair number of possessions at the time. She was living at a time when folks were turning to religious life for the comfort of living rather than for a great desire to follow God, and she wanted to reform that within her own order.  She did not demand that everyone go without shoes, only those in her order.

Finally, St. Nicholas of Tolentino:  I don't know anything about this saint either, but it just sounds like some of those crazy legends that grow up around saints.  Without any research whatsoever, my position is that I don't believe it happened.

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