Friday, August 10, 2007
I've been thinking a lot about saints lately. Although all Christians are considered saints, I'm thinking about those who lived the Christian life especially well. Those who have been recognized by the Church as having followed God through exceptional difficulties, who have died for faith in Christ, who have been extraordinary prayer warriors, theologians, teachers, servants, and lovers of God and all peoples. Those we read about and think, "Wow! I don't know if I could do what St. (fill in the blank) did. I don't know if I could have lived as s/he did, prayed as s/he did, loved as s/he did." These are the people I've been thinking about: the "Saints" with a capital "S."
I grew up in a tradition that didn't acknowledge the Saints. I couldn't tell one from the other in art as, as a child, we paraded through the Timken Gallery in Balboa Park, although some, as I look at them now with my own children in tow, have fascinated me for years. I came to the idea of the Saints in almost complete ignorance. I could spot the Virgin and the infant Christ, and that was about it.
Six years ago, I flew back to the Carolinas to meet with a group of women whom I had come to know via the Internet. Our lovely hostess arranged a trip to the Bob Jones University Art Museum which hosts the most extensive collection of Christian art outside of the Vatican. A sweet art docent, obviously a student at the ultra-conservative university, started us on our tour by saying in her soft drawl something to the effect of: "We at the Bob Jones Art Museum do not necessarily ascribe to the Catholic beliefs found in the following examples of art." We smothered smiles and exchanged knowing looks amongst ourselves as we started exploring room after room of the most incredible Christian art. We examined work after work full of Saints that I couldn't distinguish from one another. One guy kept popping up in paintings by several artists with arrows sticking out of him; we were informed that he was St. Sebastian. We discovered the Apostles each had a symbol that delineated one from another: St. Mark's attribute was a lion, St. Peter's keys, St. John's an eagle, etc. These attributes provided clues as we figured out who was whom in each painting.
These attributes or symbols were of the utmost importance. The symbol provided a way for an illiterate populace to identify Saints, especially as most of the art was created to decorate the interior of churches. As books were not available to the general public, each painting was like reading the story of a particular Saint or group of Saints. Some paintings told of horrific martyrdoms, like St. Lawrence being grilled alive after hiding all the Pope's books or St. Sebastian being shot through by arrows, from which he miraculously survived, before being beaten to death with cudgels and his body thrown into a sewer. Some told of the Virgin Martyrs, those young women whose faith in Christ allowed them to suffer severe indignities and terrible deaths with calm and peace; the stories of St. Barbara, St, Apollonia, St. Agatha, St. Dorothy, and St. Lucy are but a few that have been depicted in great works of art as well as in illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period.
So as we slowly moved from painting to painting, from room to room within the magnificent University Art Museum, I felt my heart become convicted because I knew so little of these brave men and women who had gone before me in the faith. Of the Biblical Saints I knew, of course -- the Apostles, St. Barnabas, St. Stephen the First Martyr, and of the Virgin herself. But of the others I simply did not know. Some stories may indeed be the stuff of legend (much like those inspirational e-mail forwards that make the rounds and are far from verifiable), but a great many we know of through their own writings (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Benedict, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross) or through the writings of others (St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, the Virgin Martyrs, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas a Beckett, etc.).
I knew I had much to learn, so when I found a large book on the Saints in the Bob Jones University Art Museum bookstore, I knew I had to purchase it. Called One Hundred Saints and gorgeously illustrated with art by Masters, it uses the text of the classic Lives of the Saints by Rev. Alban Butler to tell, through word and art, the story of each of the one hundred Saints in the book. I've spent hours poring over the beautiful and sometimes terrifying art while pondering the stories of bravery and heroism in the face of adversity and death that so many of the Saints faced to God's credit and glory. Even though I now am familiar with some of these Saint's amazing stories, I still feel as if I have much to learn in order to be more like them who were indeed like Christ Himself.
St. Paul calls us to follow Him as He follows Christ (Philippians 4:9), so we too can (and perhaps should) find the in the stories of the Saints of the Church the bravery we need to face our hardships, the joy we need in the face of sorrow, and the worship of the King of Heaven and Earth that we need to walk our own path this day and always. The Saints can be friends whose stories encourage us, strengthen us, and fortify us for wherever our lives take us on this side of heaven....
In another post I'll discuss the idea of "praying" to the Saints.