i’m actually in amherst, massachusetts, this morning, about to traipse over to the homestead, the butter-yelllow brick house where emily dickinson was born and penned her nearly 1,800 poems, and i’m even hoping for a peek into the upstairs room where it all flowed from her inkwell, a room not normally on the itinerary of those who tiptoe in hushed tones through the hallways of emily’s house on the hill. but with an eye toward next week’s all saints day (a day that’s always captured my imagination), i spent a bit of this week musing on sainthood, just another name for what this world needs abundantly, urgently, in the form of plain old honest-to-goodness holiness, empathy, unheralded kindness, and megadoses of humility.
early 12c. as an adjective, seinte, “holy, divinely inspired, worthy of worship,” used before proper names (Sainte Marian Magdalene, etc.), from Old French saint, seinte “holy, pious, devout,” from Latin sanctus “holy, consecrated,” past participle of sancire “consecrate.” It displaced or altered Old English sanct, which is directly from Latin sanctus.
i’ve had my eye on the saints since i was a wee thing. in the catholic imagination of my first and second grade, i thought hard about the haloed ones held up in the pages of my religion books. we were schooled to be demure, kind (endlessly kind), and enamored with Jesus (always dashingly handsome with his ambered skintones and long flowing locks in the full-color catechism primers, which wisely omitted most of the stories of tortures to which the anointed had had to submit).
every night, i prayed to be saintly and attempted what i thought might be a postural shortcut: i began by smoothing my patchwork covers, then i’d lie as still as the mummies that scared me in the darkened chambers of chicago’s labyrinthine field museum of natural history, and then––the clincher––i clasped my hands in my best saintly imitation and hoped to move not even a squiggle during the night, to awake still clasped in prayerful pose. it seemed the first in a series of requisite feats on the dusty pilgrimage to sainthood.
by day, i practiced my fledgling aspirations on a lady bug, my fumbled attempt at assisian communing with all of creation. i built her a village––complete with steepled church––and ordained her high priestess of the cardboard hamlet. i checked on her last thing at night, and first thing in the morning, making sure her wings still opened and closed, and that she hadn’t succumbed to inside air. then i let her go. opened the window and unfurled the chant: “go little lady, go free!” and off into the orchard behind our house she flew, the happiest well-loved ladybug that ever there was.
since i’ve long been an ecumenicist at heart, and don’t subscribe to any of the ecclesial hoops and tangles that dictate who’s in and who’s out in the saintly department, i go about my saint-watching by intuition and impulse. i know a saint when i see one or sense one. a saint to me is just another name for someone whose deep-down goodness is pure as pure can be. while catholics insist on a step-ladder to sainthood, other world religions seem just as intent on holiness but without the boxes to check. according to page 8033 of the thomson gale encyclopedia of religion (2nd edition):
“Historians of religion have liberated the category of sainthood from its narrower Christian associations and have employed the term in a more general way to refer to the state of special holiness that many religions attribute to certain people. The Jewish hasid or tsaddiq, the Muslim waliy, the Zoroastrian fravashi, the Hindu rsi or guru, the Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist shengren, the Shinto kami and others have all been referred to as saints.”
the best of the saints (hasids, waliys, fravashis, gurus, bodhisattvas, shengrens, kamis), in my book, are the quotidian ones. the ones whose everyday garb keeps them from being noticed. except for their kindness, the certain radiance they leave in their wake, the sense that something holy has just brushed by, you might not notice the saintly among us.
but they leave behind a mark, a certain mark, a change of heart, a new expanse of seeing. we become better, bigger of heart and soul, kinder, gentler, maybe quieter, certainly softer, because of them. that’s saintly to me.
among the saints i’ve known in my life, there was the old wrinkled man who perched on a fire hydrant befriending the pigeons. “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today,” joe zeman, the pigeon man of lincoln square once told me.
and there was the foster mother who’d taken in nearly 100 newborns, and who was sitting by a hospital crib when she looked up and told me: “i’m no mother teresa,” she insisted, wrapping her fingers around a metal rung of the crib, as her littlest toddler was being infused with drip after drip of cancer-fighting chemo. “i always think of something i saw in the New World (a catholic newspaper) in which a columnist was saying, `i’d hate to be in line at heaven’s gate behind mother teresa when God looks down and says, `you could have done more.’”
even now, when it’s no longer my job to scour the landscape in search of those sorts of souls whose goodness leaps off the newspaper page, i find saints in the unlikeliest places: behind the cash register at the grocery store; in the catering office of my college kid’s dining hall; at a check-in gate at america’s busiest airport; in the lady down the alley who never dresses in anything fancier than her mud-stained sweats but who routinely writes checks for thousands of dollars for families in trouble, be it escape from afghanistan or domestic abuse. (a secret i discovered only by listening closely, and connecting a dot or two.)
so what makes a saint a saint, or a hasid a hasid, or a bodhisattva a bodhisattva?
is it answering to an otherworldly call, the whisper of the holy divine? is it believing that the glimmering lights of the public square are simply distractions; turning instead to a quieter code, one infused with boundless empathy more than anything: love as you would be loved? is it the courage to call out injustice, to muster the chutzpah to say, “this isn’t right. you’re treating her poorly. your words are scarring her, leaving welts where they’ve hit her.” is it emanating a peacefulness, a serenity, that comes from knowing yours is a timeless eternal, a blessing for ever and all time?
what makes a saint a saint, what makes holiness holy?
it’s a question worth asking, but mostly it’s a question to put to work. what are the scant few things you might include in, say, a manual for the would-be saint, the very title of a poem i left here on the old maple table a few years ago, after coming upon them in a book i was reviewing for the tribune. i’ll leave the first lines here again, as a place to begin your own musings on sainthood.
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…but you might be inclined to pen your own…)
because i’m so worried about the world, and the evils and horrors that seem to be steamrolling goodness, i’m thinking we might put forth a collective effort here, outline a framework for how we might bring a bolus of holiness into this world. have at it. i’ll chime in too…
what do you see or sense when you encounter someone you’re sure is steeped in a certain holiness, another name for the sainted?