My life with the saints

St. Benedict of Nursia by Fra Angelico. Via Wikipedia.org.

St. Benedict of Nursia by Fra Angelico. Via Wikipedia.org.

For the feast of All Saints, 2014.

I was maybe five years old on that rainy Monday afternoon when my mom and I visited my grandparents. The house smelled Polish, like it always did: fresh bacon grease and Vienna bread. My grandmother waved a soaking-wet envelope triumphantly.

“I asked St. Anthony. He found it for me,” she said.

Grandma and Grandpa were supposed to get a check of some sort: Social Security, Grandpa’s steelworker pension, World War II reparations from Germany, something like that. Anyway, this particular check was days if not weeks late. So Grandma invoked the patron of lost objects. Now it was here.

In this way I met the saints. 

*****

When I had to “get my sacraments,” we started attending Mass every week. I spent considerable time gazing at the stained-glass windows.

Except for a few of them, like the “Miraculous Image of the Most Holy Savior of Montella,” and what I figured out much later were the coats of arms of Pope John XXIII and the bishop of Joliet, every window featured a saint. The sun of many Sundays blazed upon me through Jude of hopeless causes, Philomena who may never have existed, the parish patron who held a Bible weighed down with rocks, Francis of Assisi with a skull at his feet, and St. Peter.

St. Peter confused me. I remember, in those days, the priest reading the Gospel in which Jesus blows up at Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” I wondered why we had a window with Satan in it. It was the sort of misunderstanding that seems endemic to Catholic childhoods.

Our parish had statues of saints, too. They all huddled in one place, behind a bank of electric votive candles you could flip on for a dollar. Each statue, without exception, bore that peculiar facial expression of pre-Vatican II legend: calm, benign, vacant. To be a saint was to be removed, mysterious, and dressed in funny clothes.

It took years for me to break free of that.

*****

When I was eleven, I checked a kids’ version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints out of the library. I devoured it.

I learned that many saints were people of whom nothing certain was known, except that veneration and miracles had sprung up around their tombs. I read that some of the most famous, like Christopher, had so few facts clinging to them that their feasts were finally dropped, angering the multitudes.

I found that saints had slots. They needed to fit categories. The most common seemed to be “Virgin and Martyr.” But many were “Confessors,” and saint-makers had a kind of reflexive predilection for “Abbots.”

What I also picked up on was that if you wanted to be a saint, your best shot (as it appeared to even an eleven-year-old) was to be ordained, celibate, and/or Italian. John Paul II’s cornucopia of canonizations corrected some of that. There is now less benefit to being Italian.

When Confirmation time arrived, I needed a name and a patron. I picked one who was solidly in the Butler’s Lives mainstream: Benedict of Nursia, confessor and abbot, founder of the Benedictine order. I liked the Latin ring of “Benedict.” I liked his succinct guide to life: ora et labora (“pray and work”). I also wished to justify a St. Benedict medal I had picked up at a Polish shrine near St. Louis, when I was thirteen and my family was traveling there. These reasons seemed as good as any.

I read one of the scriptures at my Confirmation Mass. Before the bishop thumbed the chrism into my forehead, he told me: “You read well, Benedict.”

*****

Saints, according to later and better books I read, were diverse people. Teresa of Avila ascended into mystical ecstasies which were portrayed in stone, with some suggestion of sensuality and transgression, by the Baroque sculptor Bernini. Meanwhile, Teresa’s contemporary and the archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo, was austere as sand and hard as nails. He had the unenviable job of bringing the Counter-Reformation to northern Italy, and he acted as though he were racing against time. I suppose he was, for he died at forty-six.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, I found Thomas Merton’s recounting of his conversation with friend Robert Lax. A frustrated Lax demanded of him: “What do you want to be, anyway?” Merton said he didn’t know, but he guessed he wanted to be a good Catholic. Lax retorted that what Merton should say was that he wanted to be a saint. Because if you wanted to be one, and you asked God to make you one, God would do it.

Thinking about it, then and now, gives me for one momentary flash the same enlightenment it gave Merton.

*****

In my twenties, I grasped that popes did not canonize you just because you were selfless, or had performed miracles, or had a sufficient crowd of people clamoring on your behalf. Popes, and the bishops beneath them who signed off on the “causes” that were to go to Rome, had priorities.

In my own time, the priorities were both evident and stark. Oscar Romero had a cause going, but knowledgeable insiders muttered that it had been “blocked.” It was understood that it would not be “unblocked” as long as John Paul II and Benedict XVI reigned in the Vatican. The archdiocese of New York did not submit Dorothy Day’s cause until 2012, and then highlighted her “Augustinian” conversion from “immorality.” The Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador have gotten nowhere at all.

But others have been unstoppable. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, an alleged Spanish right-wing partisan who founded the secretive and influential organization Opus Dei, and who was whispered to have a terrible temper, rolled through beatification and canonization in less than thirty years. Pope Pius IX, who convened the First Vatican Council that made popes infallible, and for whose holiness scholars would not vouch (according to Garry Wills in Why I Am a Catholic, when Newsweek‘s Kenneth Woodward asked Pius’ principal biographer Giacomo Martina, S.J., “Do you consider Pius a saint?” Father Martina answered, “No, I do not”), was beatified by John Paul II in 2000.

And John XXIII is now a saint. Of course he is, because obvious papal saints are foolhardy to resist. But he was beatified the same day as Pius IX and canonized the same day as John Paul II, as if to say that these men were really all the same, and that there was no use in discussing it.

So I retreated from official saints, became wary of them. I knew that they were public relations vehicles, costly to produce, and airbrushed so as to be irresistible, or at least unobjectionable to the target audience. I retreated from talk of miracles, forgot about my medals. I sought people without titles, dead and living, who could teach me what I had a hard time learning, but needed to know: that I must be in the street, bearing bread.

*****

But I am Catholic, and Catholics love saints. They are in our bones, our blood, our souls. They come for us.

A couple months ago, I dug around in my dresser for my medal of St. Benedict, bought in Missouri so long ago. I found it. The silver plating was mostly worn off, the copper showing through like a great bruise. I started wearing it again on a black cord. And I bought a couple more St. Benedict medals, bright and happy and shiny, to wear on silver chains.

I am appreciating anew the idea of having powerful friends whom God and I both share, friends who can help me out when I am stupid, which is often, and whom I can carry around in that tangible way to which we Catholics are addicted.

“We forget who we are,” my late pastor used to tell me. “But God never forgets.” Neither do the saints. I need all of them, official and unofficial, ordinary and spectacular, to tell me what they have seen and heard.

Because I forget. And because my forgetfulness is more inexcusable with age.

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