Saturday, 31 October 2009

I don't like Saints!

Sermon for All Saints 2009

I want to start today with what may sound like an extraordinary statement:
I don’t like Saints!
Does that sound odd on this day of all days - All Saints Day? It may sound heretical to suggest that there is a problem with Saints, but I think Saints rather than inspiring us in our lives of faith can actually be a hindrance to our walk with God.
You might well ask what is the problem with the Saints – Surely people who led godly lives and did heroic deeds of self sacrifice for the sake of their faith should be celebrated and revered as the Church has traditionally done. What about St. Peter and St Paul, or more recent saints such as Mother Teresa or indeed our own St. Brigid or indeed St. Kieran who has a particular association with this group of parishes? Should they not be revered and celebrated. Actually No, I don’t think so or at least not in the way we tend to celebrate the Saints and have done through the ages. We have made of the Saints impossible role models who in the way their lives have been portrayed make us feel inadequate and guilty for our failings. We have attached to them a perfection that Christ himself never demanded of any of his followers. We have turned them from icons to idols always an easy line to cross and one which the Church has continually done through the ages.
There is an almost direct equivalent in today’s celebrity culture though at least in the celebrity culture we are aware of the warts as well as the achievements of our cultural idols. When it comes to Saints things are very different – they are painted in terms of their virtues with little or no account of their vices and yet like all human beings they had their vices….and were all the more human for them.
It is very hard for you and me, mere mortals, to identify with an image of almost sterile perfection.
It is neither realistic or attractive – It may fascinate us but we cannot ultimately relate to it. We really do the Saints a disservice when we portray them in this way. We actually devalue their witness because we dehumanise it and make it impossible for us to aspire to. I am named after St Stephen, traditionally the first Christian Martyr (I don’t aspire to that for one moment) I would love to think I had that courage but I doubt it - but I would love to know more about him – Apart from his Martrydom all that is concrete is that he was one of the first deacons of the Church – There was probably a lot more to St. Stephen, plenty of weaknesses and failings, plenty of idiosyncrasies, but all we tend to think of is a heroic martyrdom.
So one thing is clear, the lives of the Saints as presented and celebrated are heavily edited – all we get are the highlights and like watching the highlights of a great sporting occasion they are no substitute for the real thing. We miss those little seemingly insignificant moments which might actually have allowed us to identify with them.
The other problem with the Saints is that it is all about them! What do I mean by that? Well it is all about their achievements and their witness when it really should be about something or someone else entirely. The stories of the Saints are not about heroic human beings but rather about God’s extraordinary Grace working in them. It is not about them – It is about God! The Saints are not saintly because of any innate virtues but rather because they were open to God and so more perfectly fulfilled their God given potential, a potential in which we all share! How often are we told that we were created in the Divine image? What does that mean? It means surely that we ALL can be Saints of God and it certainly means that we are ALL called to be Saints of God. We all have the potential to mirror something of the Divine in our lives, not the totality but something and that is surely the most extraordinary privelage.
And sometimes it is in our imperfection that God is revealed. One of my favourite and I think most profound lyrics from contemporary music comes from Leonard Cohen and it is this – ‘There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in’.
The wonderful story of our faith is that we are acceptable with all our flaws and imperfections. By becoming incarnate god has sanctified the whole of Creation and revealed in Christ the incredible potential, not just of humanity but of the whole created order. It is not about the Saints but it is about God, a generous God who calls us all to participate in helping this beautiful world achieve its true potential to mirror the glory of God.


Daithí said...

I understand your point.

Perhaps, however, we can distinguish between the saccharine hagiographies on one hand and truly historical lives of the saints on the other.

I like my saints "dirty", that is with warts and all.

It's hard not to love Saint Maria Skobstova, who gave up her life for hiding Jews from the Nazis, but never managed to give up her cigarettes. (An image of a nun smoking fags fascinates!)

I am planning to have a medical procedure in 3 months and was so happy to find a YouTube site with patient testimonies.

Yet, the action of God's uncreated grace on the lives of those who receive it is much more fascinating.

And what is the Acts of the Apostles other than the first ever Lives of the Saints?

You're correct. No to unrealistic hagiographies of perfect saints.

But yes to fellow partakers of the Divine Nature. (2 Peter 1:4)

Póló said...

Take your point entirely.

Now the RC view of saints is even more problematic. It is also a validation that they are alive and well and living in Heaven and are authorised mediators of human requests to the deity.

Apologies if I already mentioned this (RC) church also named after your saint. It is a very peaceful place (when it's open).

Stephen Neill said...

Daithi - I agree with you and perhaps my sermon was a bit one sided but I suppose I was swinging the pendulum for the sake of correction.

Póló - Yes while I did not focus on this the intercessory role is problematic - I will check out the link

Stephen Neill said...

Póló - re the link - WOW!!

Póló said...



Here's another one. One of yours this time round!