Let me start by saying, I am not trying to be provocative or edgy in this post. As some of you know, I am on a quest to listen to the top 200 songs of every year, from 1950-2018. I am currently up to the year 2000.
One of the songs I listened to from the 1997 list was Meredith Brooks’ song B****, from her album, Blurring the Edges. Though controversial at the time, the song is really good and has a great message. In the song she sings:
“I’m a b****, I’m a lover. I’m a child, I’m a mother. I’m a sinner, I’m a saint.”
The point, I think, is that Meredith, like all of us, is more than what one word can capture. She is a complex human being. A mix of good and bad. Our society has problems thinking about people in this nuanced kind of way. For example, we have often made women choose between being a powerful leader (some would say a b****) and being a nurturer, like a mother. Odd that we create this false dichotomy for women but not men. So, we would never say that being a powerful man excludes the possibility of him also being a nurturer. Or, would we? Isn’t possible for a person, woman or man, to be both a decisive leader and a kind person?
We make the false dichotomies in lots of other ways. You’re either liberal or conservative. You are either religious or non-religious. You are either for us or against us...right?
Reading in the Talmud, I came across these words: “Even the greatest of sinners abounds in good deeds as a pomegranate abounds in seeds. On the other hand, the greatest of saints have their share of moral imperfecations. In short, all humans are cut from the same cloth.”
Which brings me to the topic of saints. This Sunday is All Saint’s Sunday, in which we remember those who have passed on before us. Our church will light a candle for each member of our community who has died in the last year. This is a part of the liturgical work of All Saints Day. When we use the word saints to refer to those who have gone on before us, we mean by it, ordinary men and women who partake of God’s glory by grace.
Another part of the work is remembering and celebrating those who set a powerful example of what the faith can look like. We, the Church, do not think that these people were so perfect that they didn’t need a savior. No. They were human. But there was something about the way that they lived that is instructive to us. In other words, they got some aspect of the faith so right that we need to pay attention to what their life can teach us. When we use the word saint in this way, we are talking about some extraordinary display of grace in the life of an otherwise ordinary person.
G.K. Chesterton said that “Saints were those who exaggerated a virtue their age had forgotten.” So, for example, Francis of Assisi chose to live in simplicity and voluntary poverty at a time when Renaissance Italy was living in lavish amounts of luxury and the country was going through a gilded age. Saint Agnes practiced chasity in a time of sexual libertinism. Theresa of Calcutta displayed mercy in a century of violence. And, Saint Thomas displayed creative intellectual capacities at a low tide in Christian theological exploration. The fact of that these people were so out of sync with their age is usually what made them stand out, and in many cases, made them seem a nuisance. They got a virtue right that was being neglected at the time.
This means, that they are honored, not for being perfect human beings. They had flaws like any one of us. They were a tapestry of strengths and weaknesses. We honor them for being more human than the age in which they lived. And so we sing, “For all the saints...”