There’s nothing quite like being around someone who is perfect to remind me how imperfect and inadequate I am. Maybe that’s why I’ve had trouble with the concept of saints. People surrounded by an air of perfection in this life can make me feel inadequate; people fortified by the perfect invulnerability of sainthood can make me feel hopelessly so. It has taken me a long time to appreciate what sainthood is really about and to be able celebrate All Saints Day with what feels like genuine integrity.
A saint hasn’t always been someone officially recognized by the church as being extraordinarily holy, especially one who has died and who, according to some traditions, is responsible for documented miracles of healing. Before that definition became popular, a saint was someone who was martyred – put to death, usually in a gruesome manner – for professing Christian faith. Today that kind of saint is still being made, people are still being martyred.
But long before sainthood was linked with martyrdom, “saint” was a title used for all Christians. A couple of decades after Jesus’ resurrection, Paul began one of his letters, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). I’m a saint – you’re a saint – not because we’ve achieved some exceptional degree of piety but because God has called us into a relationship that is whole and life-giving. And like the little yeast that leavens the whole loaf of bread (Matt. 13:33) or the little salt that makes the whole offering acceptable (Lev. 2:13), it’s a relationship that gives life not only to us but to the whole creation.
Sainthood is not about you and me and how good any one of us is. Sainthood is about God; it’s about the relationship God has established with us; and it’s about God’s intent to use that relationship for the healing of the world, for reestablishing the world’s sense of its own wholeness, for reasserting the integrity of creation.
Sainthood is not about our goodness. God created us in all our contradictory complexity and called us “good” (Gen. 1:31); God takes our human nature into account; God “knows how we were made” and “remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). No, sainthood is not about our goodness, it’s about our integrity; it’s about being perfect, whole, complete, like God, in whose image we are created. Sainthood is about allowing ourselves to be used for the purpose for which God creates us and sustains us in life.
What I’m learning as I gain experience in living is that, in God’s plan for my wholeness, there’s a place for even the dark aspects of myself, the aspects polite society teaches me to deny and repress. What I’m learning is that when Jesus affirms that life’s greatest rule is to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37-38), he really means all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength – all of my emotions, all of my intellect, all the deep and mysterious wealth of my unconscious Self, in all of its wonderful contradictions and inconsistencies.
To be the saints we are called to be; to live the life Jesus modeled and that we profess in our faith; to grow toward the full capacity of human maturity, a capacity measured by nothing less than the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13); to be perfect, whole, complete, as God is perfect, whole, and complete (Matt. 5:48) – these are simply other ways we describe living with integrity. They are ways of describing the state of life Isaiah foretold, when “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together” (Isa. 11:6), when all the disparate, contradictory, conflicting aspects of life are seen not in opposition to each other but as diverse and integral parts of the whole of life. It’s the state of life when we can say with Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”1
Reaching that state of perfection in life takes a long time. It takes a lifetime of growing larger and deeper as our little ego-selves give way to the authentic Self that dwells within, deep below the surface of consciousness. But I think it would be sad if, because we don’t yet live in complete sainthood, we fail to live intentionally in the degree of sainthood to which God has brought us. We’re not yet perfect, whole, complete, but we’re on the way. And I think all God asks of us is that we live our little imperfect lives as well and authentically as we are able.
Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets and theologians, says it about as well as anyone in her poem, “Nothing Is Too Small Not to be Wondered About.”
The cricket doesn’t wonder
if there’s a heaven
or, if there is, if there’s room for him.
It’s fall. Romance is over. Still, he sings.
If he can, he enters a house
through the tiniest crack under the door.
Then the house grows colder.
He sings slower and slower.
This must mean something, I don’t know what.
But certainly it doesn’t mean
he hasn’t been an excellent cricket
all his life.2
My life and its worth will not finally be measured against anyone else’s degree of perfection or sainthood, nor will yours. Our lives will be measured by how well we have expressed the degree of perfection to which God has brought us. There are many instruments on which God will play the music of creation.
notes — 1. Walt Whitman, ”Song of Myself,” ll. 1324-26, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 77. ▪ 2. Mary Oliver, “Nothing Is Too Small Not to Be Wondered About,” from her collection Felicity, quoted on The Writer’s Almanac, 30 October 2015.