Last week, we gathered to commemorate the saints who have gone before us and to celebrate the unsung saints still in our midst. Some of us brought fresh grief to the table, and others more seasoned sorrow. And I was left thinking about how both gentle and powerful, comforting and terrifying love can be. It can be as simple as a warm hug at the end of a long day or as profound as giving up one’s life for another.
I doubt that many of us would self-identify as a saint. It feels a little presumptuous to equate ourselves with such a lofty-sounding title. And yet it seems to me that such an identity is exactly where Jesus calls us…to be God’s faithful servants, the venerated and the ignored, always and everywhere, in life and in death.
Holiness is not a human quality but, rather, God-given. It is not about what we do, but with how much love we do it. It is our response to God’s eternal invitation to be who we really are, staying open to God’s gift of love and then giving it back to the world. And there is a certain level of humility involved in this transaction. As Frederick Buechner points out, “If you’re too virtuous, chances are you think you’re a saint already under your own steam, and, therefore, the real thing can never happen to you.”
We identify holiness in the stories of the saints officially recognized by the church and in the actions of our contemporary sisters and brothers who devote their lives to the poor and the outcast. But for most of us, holiness means doing ordinary things with extraordinary love. It may be as simple as an extra dollop of whipped cream you put on your spouse’s pumpkin pie or as profound as Desmond Tutu’s work for social justice. When we move in the world with a sense of divine love, listening to someone, writing a letter, or even changing a diaper can be sacramental.
During the years I served as a chaplain to the homeless community and to hospice patients here in San Diego, I met many saints who manifested this truth over and over again. Some had a firm footing in a religious tradition of one kind or another and could draw on their faith for comfort and courage. Others, however, were not aware of the spiritual foundation they already had.
I remember my friend George who had lived on the streets for nearly 10 years when we met. George was born without arms, a physical reality that made being homeless all the more challenging. But every morning, as members lined up to enter the shelter, George would stand at the door and greet each person with a nod of his head before walking in himself. Now, George was not without his moments of less-than-pious behavior, but everyone could see his heart of gold. About six months into our friendship, I asked George how he kept going, and he answered, “It’s the good Lord, Baby. He’s never let me down.”
I remember my patient David, who was dying from cancer but never missed the opportunity to ask me how I was doing. When we first met, he shared that he had no interest in religion whatsoever and said, “I’m not even spiritual…let’s not go there.” So, in the beginning, we just hung out, swapping stories and eating way too much coffee ice cream. One day, David took a turn for the worse. He was extremely short of breath and understandably frightened. After his symptoms were managed, his eyes filled with tears and he held my hand. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said, “I wish I could believe in something like you do.” And I asked him, “What do you believe in, David?” He was silent for a moment. “Kindness,” he replied. He looked at the ceiling. “I’m going to hold on to that.” I never saw him frightened again.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Panama and to live in Laja Lisa, a rural community you will not find on Google maps. There, I lived with the Rodriguez family in a house with dirt floors and just enough electricity from their solar panel to power two light bulbs and recharge a cell phone. I showered outside with a giant toad and opened my eyes each morning to the household rooster staring me in the face. Celso and Erica Rodriguez have precious little in the way of material wealth, and yet opened their home to me and fed me from their flock of chickens and the bounty of their garden. In the evenings, after their three children had gone to bed, we sat outside in the moonlight and talked about the faith that informs their way of life and about the dreams they have for the future. “We have enough,” Erica said, “But it is not easy.”
So saints come in many guises, and most do not realize their own holiness. The faith expressed by George and David, Celso and Erica was their response to God’s revelation in their lives. For George, it came from “the good Lord.” For David it was manifested in “kindness.” For Celso and Erica, it meant recognizing blessings even in the midst of struggle. But each understood that the way they moved in the world, the love they manifested by being themselves, was not of their own doing. Like the story of the widow’s offering, their experiences suggest that faithful giving comes out of our relationship with God, however we understand that mystery, and that it is as much for the giver as it is for the recipient. There is a certain freedom in this idea; if the ends are assured in the economy of God, then only the means remain.
What do we believe in? As Christians, we understand the meaning of love through the life of Jesus, and that can be a scary proposition. Such love does not necessarily fit our human definition. We often miss the signs on the road to real freedom because they are obscured by our own expectations and fear. Sometimes, we have to take a leap of faith, acting as if God will be with us on our journey, even when we have our doubts.
We’ve all heard that “God is Love,” but I prefer the idea that “Love is God,” because it places love in the mystery that takes us to the unexpected. It can be hard road to follow, but I am less afraid when I remember where love comes from. We do not travel on our own, and dependence on God gives us a level of courage we may not have thought possible. You may find yourself having coffee with a man who hasn’t showered in a week, working with local politicians for affordable housing, donating to a cause you never imagined, or attending seminary. And, I promise, you will be surprised and blessed by what these experiences give back to you.
“Do not be afraid.”
“She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.”
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The words of scripture ring in our ears, pointing to a way of life that can change us forever. The widow at the gate had only a handful of meal and a little oil in a jar. The widow at the temple had only two small copper coins. Their offerings seem insignificant, and yet they show that seemingly worthless gifts can change the world. It takes nothing and everything we have. Are we willing to enter that paradox? Are we open to that kind of conversion? What do we believe?
As Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “Whoever you are, you are human. Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.”
To that I would add, “Including yourself.”
Christie Fleming is a seminarian at CDSP