When I was a PhD student, I remember having a conversation with an evangelical Christian acquaintance who told me that:
You Catholics worship Mary and the saints, and that’s blasphemy. There is only one God.
So, how do you answer that one? I answered in a way similar to, but less eloquently put than, Sister Wendy Beckett of the Quidenham Carmelites. She said:
If anyone is in need, they’ll say to their friends ‘pray for me’. Nobody lives alone. We’re a great family of humanity and we like to think others are praying for us. Well, that’s all praying to the Saints means. We’ve got all those people in heaven, those lovely holy fulfilled people, who are in that Paradise and who are aware of us and we say back up our prayers. We certainly don’t pray to them , as opposed to praying to God, because there is only one mediator, our blessed Lord, Jesus himself. But to ask your friends to pray for you, yes, don’t you think that makes sense?Quoted from Luke Penkett’s Addresses from a Two Day Retreat, copies can be obtained from The Julian Centre in Norwich: http://email@example.com
Someone told me of a beautiful analogy recently as a reason to ask Mary for her intercession. Imagine a scruffy, dirty beggar who would like to gift the glorious King with an apple: it is all they have. Yet they feel the lack in their apple because it is grubby, bruised and maybe has a maggot or two hiding in it. They want to give something more beautiful, something more, so they ask the Queen, who is much closer to, and knows the King more intimately, to polish up their apple for them, and to present it on their behalf in such a way that the King would receive it with delight. It is not a self loathing that is being described here but a genuine humility and a desire to be more. I would liken it to a time when I was wrapping Christmas presents and my small child wanted to wrap the present she had to give. She became frustrated with the crumpled paper, the sellotape gone awry, and the corners of the box poking out no matter what she did. In the end, she asked me for help and we wrapped the present together. In truth, her dad would have been delighted with the present no matter how scruffily it was wrapped, simply because she had given it to him, but that is not the point here: she wanted the gift to be more than she could present on her own, so she asked for help from someone in a position to enable her to make the gift as she desired it to be. God is always delighted with the gifts we offer Him, no matter how grubby, bruised or wormy: the consolation here is our desire to make it more for His glory, and the grace is the humility to know our limitations and to ask for help.
With the recent canonisations in Rome of John Henry Newman, Guiseppina Vannini, Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, Maria Lopes Pontes and Margeruite Bays, and with All Saints day just gone, I have been thinking about the saints in a general way. A friend of mine, who has also spent some time in the evangelical church, recently expressed some doubt as to the saints as intermediaries. And I suggested to her to think of them as God’s superheroes. There are some parallels.
If you have been reading my blog for a bit, you may have begun to realise that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favourite superhero. And there are characteristics that go along with being a superhero which may have some commonality with being a saint, for example, the secret identity. It takes a while for Saints to be canonised, they spend a long time being “venerable” and “blessed”, Margaret Anne Sinclair for one. I remember my Granny had a picture of her and said prayers for her when I was a child. In God time, are they already saints and we just do not know it yet? Few people know that Buffy is the Slayer, or that Peter Parker is Spiderman, or that Clarke Kent is Superman, to name but a few.
Suffering also seems to be a prerequisite of both saints and superheroes. Buffy certainly has her fair share of cuts and bruises, and emotional pain, and she readily sacrifices her life to save others. It is martyrdom territory. Think about Saint Stephen, the first to die for his faith in Jesus, and many of the other saints who died painful deaths in witness to their faith. But it is not just about how they died, it is also about how they lived. Saint Ignatius died quietly and alone in bed.
Another thing that saints and superheroes have in common are lifestyles that are not easily conducive to intimate, happily ever after partnerships. Superheroes rarely have successful relationships, usually opting to sacrifice that part of themselves either to protect those that they do love from the enemies that would use them, or because always being on call to save the world may distract from being able to invest time and energy in maintaining a healthy intimate relationship. It’s a strong partner who is able to share their loved one with the world to that extent. And maybe so too with the saints: most of them were not married. Christopher Howse wrote in The Tablet recently about St. Julian the Hospitaller. He says:
It’s good to come across married saints, even if they are unlucky in life.Christopher Howse, The Tablet, 12 October 2019
When I was a child, I liked to find secret places to hide away and explore. One day, in one of my favourite places, I found a box of old books that had come from a school. I love books, and always did. I spent some time sitting by this box, flicking through and reading parts of the books. There were some illustrated Bible Histories and a couple of copies of a book with the stories of some of the child saints. The one story that is burned into my soul even now is of Saint Tarcisius, and I remember vividly, feeling myself on fire as I read it, sobbing as the boy died, and wondering if I would be able to do the same: wanting to love God so much that I could do the same.
Of course, Saint Ignatius resorted to reading the “Life of the Saints” when he was convalescing in Loyola, and it was during this period that he noticed the difference between his responses to day dreaming about outdoing the saints in service to God, and his day dreams of being a knight and rescuing damsels in distress. This noticing of the different spirits moving in him was the beginning of his journey deeper into God, and led to him writing the Spiritual Exercises.
Ignatius describes spiritual consolation as when:
…an interior movement is aroused in the soul , by which it is inflamed with the love of its Creator and Lord…when one sheds tears that move to the love of God…every increase of faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly…The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; trans Louis J. Puhl, S.J.
Now, with experience, I see that moment of reading the story of Saint Tarcisius as a child as one of profound consolation. Perhaps one of the reasons I am drawn to Ignatian spirituality is because when I first read about how Ignatius had been affected by reading about the lives of the saints, I recognised that fire, the fierce desire to be like that, to want to be able to do likewise. Not to be a saint as such, but to love God to the extent that nothing else mattered.
It is not just about asking the saints to pray for us: they inspire us with their holy superpowers, they are examples of what it means to live for the greater glory of God. And the best sermon is a good example, I read once. I hear it when people talk to me about particular saints they might have a devotion for. Ignatius felt it in his sick bed in Loyola and it inspired him to live differently. I know that I have definitely felt it and perhaps you have too?