What do you see when you look at a lump of coal? Do you see merely a lump of coal? Or do you see fire? Steam to drive engines and light cities? Coal is not our best source of energy, but for a long time it was exactly suited to our level of development. Now we’re discovering and learning to use better sources of energy, renewable sources that are cleaner and more efficient, as we grow into a new age of knowledge and environmental stewardship.
Now, what do you see when you look into a mirror? Do you see merely you? Saint Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” When you look into a mirror, do you see the glory of God? Do you see a human person fully alive, a person “filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Eph. 3:19 NLT)? When you look in a mirror, do you see a saint?
If you don’t trust what you see in a mirror and want to know what a saint looks like, talk to the folks around North Cream Hill, in Shoreham, Vermont. Gary and Lisa Larmay had lived there only about three months and had not even met many of their neighbors when a fire destroyed their home, but those neighbors responded as if the Larmays had lived there all their lives. They provided winter clothes to replace those lost in the blaze; they volunteered to clean up the site; they donated money and food to help the family get by until a replacement mobile home was in place; they even found and provided the mobile home themselves.
Most of those people had never seen one of their neighbors burned out. But when the Larmay home went up in flames that October day, deep in their bones they knew who they were and what they were meant to do. The Larmay family’s need called out of them some pure expression of their identity, and they were radiant “with the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”
Of course, the folks around North Cream Hill have their share of faults, fights, and failures. And that’s the point. Saints are not rare people who are better than the rest of us. They are people who live ordinary lives like the rest of us and in living their ordinary lives reveal their true identities, often in rare, unexpected moments. They are imperfect people who despite their imperfections, or maybe precisely because of their imperfections, exhibit something of God’s perfect image.
Parker Palmer has pointed out that the real question we have to come to terms with in our vocation, our calling in life, is not “What will I do with my life?” The real question is the more basic and demanding: “Who am I? What is my nature?” Our vocation, he writes, “does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000], 10).
Becoming the persons we are born to be – John Wesley called the process “sanctification,” becoming perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48) or holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16) – is a lifelong process, and it isn’t easy. It happens like it happened for the Velveteen Rabbit, when we’ve been loved so long all our hair is rubbed off.
Or it happens like it did for Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. When someone asked her why she hadn’t moved on to another congregation, she said it was “Because they keep changing me. I bump up against these people in holy, frustrating, and unimagined ways and realize at some point afterward that the shape of my heart has changed for the better” (Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People [New York: Convergent, 2015], 182).
This motley crew of sinners with whom God has cast our lives is exactly the place where God is transforming us into the image of a heavenly glory. It’s the place where saints are being made. It’s the place where we find our place in “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” worshiping day and night at the throne of God (Rev. 7:9-17).
In the ancient desert tradition of our faith we find the story of Abbot Lot, who came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, as far as I am able I keep my little disciplines. I fast; I pray; I meditate and keep a contemplative silence; I try to cleanse my heart of impure thoughts. What more should I do?” Abbot Joseph stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. “If you want,” he said, “you can become all fire” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert [Boston: Shambhala, 2004], 106).
We are the living legacy of the saints whose lives we celebrate, and in us they continue to bear witness. They live among us still, giving us vision, shaping our lives, guiding our actions, breaking bread with us around this table. If you and I are remembered by some future generation, I hope it will be because we have discovered who we are, what our essential nature is, and have had the grace and courage to let it blaze up in us. ▪