Monday, November 8, 2010

Sanctity And Underwear Reform In The Middle Ages

Today we celebrate all the saints.
But who and what are saints?
St. Jerome, a 5th Century theologian,
translated the Bible from Greek into Latin.
He was a bad theologian and a questionable translator.
He surrounded himself with women whom he constantly maligned,
both personally and theologically.
But it is said he once removed a thorn form the paw of lion,
to the lion and he became good friends.
That probably gives him a better claim
to being the patron saint of animals
than St. Francis who merely preached to birds.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus were officers in the Roman army.
They were favorites of Emperor Maximian,
until they admitted they were Christians.
Then Maximian forced them to parade through the streets in drag,
and eventually had them executed.
Speaking of being in drag, there’s the 4th Century St. Pelagia.
Before her conversion, Pelagia was an exotic dancer
with the stage name of Pearl.
After her conversion, she changed her name to its male form, Pelagius,
dressed as a man, and lived in Jerusalem as a monk.

3rd Century St. Calistus began life as a slave,
then after his emancipation became a professional thief.
Later he became the Pope, and ordered that penitent sinners,
Including murderers, were welcome in the Church.

St. Odo of Cluny was a 10th Century monk.
He suffered from severe headaches,
but was nonetheless able to institute
many important church reforms – not the least of which was
requiring monks to wash their underwear every Saturday.

So what makes a saint?
Some were notably kind, good, and generous.
Others, not so much.
Some were smart – like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
Others not so smart.
Some, like Joan of Arc, did great things that shaped history.
Othrs, like St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney lived simple lives
far removed from the world’s great affairs.

Saints are not necessarily moral heroes who got it right.
Many of them were deeply flawed.
Some were downright nuts.
So why do we canonize them, celebrate them,
devote special days to their commemoration?

The saints are a communion of sanctified humanity.
Let’s look at each of those three terms
– communion, sanctified, and humanity
– starting with humanity.
Being human gives us the ability to imagine and create,
to love and appreciate beauty,
to remember and to dream.
But those good gifts come along with vulnerability
to all sorts of flaws and foibles.
Humanity is, to use Bishop Tutu’s word, “untidy.”
It’s complicated. It’s fraught with ambiguities and contradictions.
People are not consistent. Frankly, we are pretty squirrely.

Most people are sometimes happy.
All people sometimes suffer.
We know all about loneliness and anxiety.
We all have death looking over our shoulder.
We all want to be special,
and most of us are afraid we are not.
This is the stuff of being human.

Now what might make this humanity sanctified
and still be human?
Something is sanctified if it’s dedicated to God.
A cup is just a cup, until we set it aside to use
as the chalice for Holy Communion.
No matter how ordinary it is – be it chipped, bent, or misshapen –
once dedicated to this sacred purpose, it is a sanctified chalice.
Another cup may be exquisitely crafted silver,
but if it’s used for any old purpose, it isn’t sanctified.

The saints are just people as holy chalices are just cups,
but saints are dedicated to God.
The saints of history just lived the best they could, as we all do.
When they did well, it was for God.
When they did poorly, that was for God too.

The old saying goes, “God carves the rotten wood.
He rides the lame horse.”
We do our best – then God uses our faults as well as our virtues
as channels of grace.
The quirkiness and even sinfulness of the saints
is proof of God’s readiness to work
with whatever we have to offer.

Finally, what makes all these sanctified sinners into a communion?
Being a communion means belonging to God’s family.
It means acknowledging that we already belong to the human family,
and are willing to associate with an especially mixed up batch
of humanity called the church.

St. Jerome, the woman hating celibate scholar,
and St. Pelagia, the exotic dancer,
were, no doubt, surprised to find themselves
in the same family.

The Church isn’t a club of nice people who all think alike.
It isn’t a bunch of people who agree about everything.
It’s a family.
Sometimes we are proud of our family.
Sometimes people in our family embarrass us.
Being family doesn’t mean approving of people.
It means belonging to them.

We join this family through baptism.
We renew our commitment to it every Sunday
by gathering at the family table
to eat from one loaf and drink from one cup.

The communion of saints is a picture
of God’s quirky family.
We are human – together – with all the loneliness, vulnerability,
crankiness, and squirreliness that goes with being human.
We are sanctified together because we are all dedicated
to “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all.”
God has provided no way for anyone to be sanctified alone.
When we dedicate our lives to the one God,
those lives are joined at the deepest level
- the level of their reason to live.

Our purpose is to be a communion.
Our sanctification, our dedication to God,
consists precisely in our struggle to live together,
to share each other’s joys and sorrows,
to accept and even appreciate each other’s humanity.
As St. John of the Cross said,
“God has so ordained that we are sanctified
only through the frail instrumentality of each other.”