a consideration of saints
long long ago, when i was a wee little thing falling asleep in my tight twin bed, the hand-sewn squares of quilt pulled up to my nose, i, like many a girl who donned scratchy plaid uniform skirt and buttoned all the way up (no matter how hot or humid outside) my navy blue uniform cardigan each day for holy cross school, i drifted off to dreamland wondering what it would take to become a saint, a little flower of jesus, perhaps, or the patron saint of fallen feathered things. i wouldn’t have minded aspiring to patron saint of bicycle pedals, or patron saint of clearing the table, two fundamentals of life i knew well, fundamentals i could work at — perfect even — if given the hope of a life under halo.
it’s not a bad thing to each and every night pluck from among a roster of heroes, sainted not for their football-field prowess, nor the velocity with which they swung a bat at a ball, but for those more ephemeral, ineffable things: gentle kindness, a selflessness that verged on self-erasure. it’s a good thing i hadn’t yet read too deeply of the tortures some of the saints endured. i might have swerved left from a life of good grace. i’ve utterly no interest in strapping myself to a windmill, going round and round in eternal upchucking dizziness. nor any one of the other tricks from the saintly bag of horrors (too gruesome to type at this early hour).
but — tortures aside — the morning after all-hallowed sugar-high (aka trick-or-treating) dawned onto what might have been the super bowl for saint seekers: november 1 in the catholic vernacular is the day of all saints, a feast day of joyous proportion. and that brings us to today, when with a few decades under my belt, i still awake with a particular zing.
only now, my consideration of saints has been jangled a bit. and moved far beyond ecclesiastical strictures. i’m more inclined to look to the everyday for my roster of saints. i see saints every day. have spent a good chunk of my life keeping watch. worry that we live in an age antithetical to saintliness. no saint seeker ever imagined an instagram reel of a life where every good deed was captured, captioned, and cast to the cybersphere. utter humility, a sense of one’s smallness against the vast majesty and unimaginable genius of the one we call God or Abba or Adonai, that’s non-negotiable, an essential place to begin.
the world we live in — at least the public world — seems to have turned it all on its head. it’s all bombast and braggadocio. when, to my mind, the deepest ripples are those that move through the world with barely a whisper. the gentle soul who considered it his life’s holiest work to show kindness to pigeons, to call them by name, to notice when one of his flock was wounded or lame. the one who knew 100,000 cars each and every day passed by him and the fire hydrant upon which he sat, the one who quietly told me “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude.”
the woman who lives down my alley, who cooks by the gallon and, like a sprite in the night, sprints from house to house, doorknob to doorknob, leaving her wares in large plastic bags dangling from handles and knobs. because to her, to feed is to love, and her heart knows no bounds.
i know saints gather at this very table. saints who seed love, day after day in a thousand unscripted ways: the one who feeds a banquet of fine organic greens to her bevy of hard-shelled centenarians; the one who whispers a prayer into every stitch and tug and pull of her needle and thread; the one who every other weekend flies halfway across the country to sit beside her faraway, struggling son; the ones who day after day visit old friends who no longer remember, who feed them spoonful by spoonful, who read them love letters from long ago in hopes that it just might spark a burst of remembering, of story, of unfettered joy.
on this day for considering saints, and counting the saints among us, i turn to a glorious book i reviewed a few years ago, a book of poetry by susan l. miller titled, communion of saints. it opens with this glorious beauty, “manual for the would-be saint,” and it begins like this:
Manual for the Would-Be Saint
by Susan L. Miller
The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.
Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.
The ninth takes time: it is to discover
what inside the seed makes the seed increase.
…(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…)
please, do yourself an all saint’s day favor, and find it and read to the end. and now, quietly, without even a ripple, i will leave you to your own consideration of saints…
what might be the opening lines of your manual for the would-be saint?
p.s. do you know the saint pictured above? here’s a hint: she was kicked out of the calendar of saints for reasons i will never know, yet she remains in some books as the patron saint of architects. it’s saint babs, aka barbara, as a matter of fact, and isn’t it uncanny that de-sainted though she is, her affinity for architecture is akin to the one to which i’ve wed my life…(a saintly patronage that must have brought my jewish husband so much relief upon discovery!) (st. babs is linked to architecture because her father is said to have locked her in a tower after she rejected an offer of marriage he’d relayed to her. egad. i’m telling you, some of these saintly tales belong in the annals of the absurd. forgive me….)
Thank you for being a saint of paying attention and keeping watch in our world!
oh dear gracious, now there is a patron saint to aim for……the prayer of paying attention. xoxoxo it’s what we do here…..
Many years ago, I knew a fair amount of people who attended the 10:30 Mass (contemporary music!) at my parish. I would watch this parade of people whose “backstories” I knew approaching and returning from receiving Communion and my heart (and often my eyes) would overflow with the awareness that these people, truly, comprised the Communion of Saints.
beautiful. absolutely beautiful. bless you.and thank you.
Long ago my mama gave me a santo of Barbara made by Richard Bergquist. Apt for this Barbara who wanted to be an architect (my drawing pads were full of house plans designed by a 5-year-old complete with outlet locations for reading lamps and mismatched elevations), daughter of an engineer whose propensity to blow things up on July Fourth earned him the moniker Rocket Bob, and mother of a mathematician. And she is very useful: I have yet to be hit by lightning.
love this saintly tale. thank you, st. babs! yes, she was also (before being duly dumped from the calendar) the patron saint of artillery and as you say explosions (depending on which litany of saints we turn to…..)
You have introduced me to so many saints, many of whom gather regularly at this table. And to me, you have been a saint of hospitality – welcoming me into your life when I could never have imagined it. Bless you.
you are the one who reached out, with magnificent wide open heart. i will never forget our walk along the river. and what drew you to reach out? our friend with his gettysburg tears. you, monkheart, are the guardian angel of my heart. protector. believer. never let go. xoxox
Principle 1: Take joy [where have we heard that before?] in every living thing.
bam, I am humbled.
sooooooo beautiful. so tasha! and tickled that you saw your sweet and gentle and beautiful self in the litany of saints.
you all are, in my book, every gentle soul who wanders by here. as paula wrote above, sitting alert and watching the passing parade of great good souls, understanding, imagining their hurts, and courages, the ways they have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and tried and tried again. we are a parade of the humbled. xoxox
Per your suggestion, my All Saints’ Day meditation was to read the complete text of Manual for the Would Be Saint. Not since the magnificent Caryll Houselander has a poet touched me so… As I read, truth ascended and tears fell, tears by the dozens. And dozens.
[Note to self: Do not read Manual for the Would Be Saint moments before leaving for an eye exam across town. It is difficult to explain to one’s optometrist that one’s red puffy peepers were caused by a poem. Reminder: most people appreciate poetry in a manner not directly connected to their tear ducts.]
Bless you for sharing this exceptional poem, for spreading a sumptuous banquet at this table, for seeing the world as you do. Happy November, sweet soul. xxx
oh, dear!!!!!!! i did not mean to get in the way of your optometrist appointment!!!! i am beyond tickled that you read it. you would love the whole rest of the book. and her poems elsewhere as well.
we must have talked of our love for caryll houselander before. oh my! her stations of the cross????!!!!
blessed november, beautiful one. did you notice yourself in the litany of saints? xoxo
Ah…sainthood, which for ourselves, we would all probably demur, yet sainthood is all around us and within us. Just as you noted. Loved the memories of the catholic child years…and then those martyrs! Whew.. but one of my favorite sainted poems ~
Poem: Ordinary Saints
The ordinary saints, the ones we know,
Our too-familiar family and friends,
When shall we see them? Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives? Remember how we turned
To look at them, and they looked back? That full-
-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.
But one day we will see them face to face.
We are still (Catholic wise) experiencing Ordinary Time in the liturgical year. Your reflection here just expands it. Happy Extra Hour Of Rest!
oh, dear gracious. this is magnificent. i wholly entered into it, the tracing of the finger along the fold, discovering the flaw but immediately understanding it as the place where the light comes in.
i love when poems are laid here at the table. poems to be absorbed in slow time. in holy time. as the spirit moves us to come and to go……
thank you, lamcal, for your most saintly of hearts. xoxo