Saints for All

by Bob Schwartz

Catherine Wheel
It is All Saints’ Day, and you don’t have to be Catholic, Christian or a believer of any kind to appreciate it.

Observed in the Western Christian church on November 1, it is the day that makes All Hallows’ (Saints’) Eve, aka Halloween, possible. Many denominations, including Anglicans, Lutherans and others, find a place and meaning for the holiday. But it is most associated with the Catholic Church, where it is a celebration of all saints known and unknown.

Saints are most specifically and tightly defined in the Catholic context. Saints are those whose lives allow them a special theological position and a special relationship with the divine after death, so that they may intercede on behalf of the faithful. You’ve no doubt heard reports about the two-step process of being designated a saint by the Pope: beatification (with the title “Blessed”), followed by canonization, based on the investigation and proof of intercessory miracles. It is usually a long road, though it appears that the very popular Pope John Paul II is on the fast track to sainthood.

The Catholic Church has had an historic problem with saints, one that continues to the moment. Two related problems really. The first is that from the beginning, people had a way of venerating those who inspired and who they admired, essentially developing cults around them, whether or not it was “official.” The related problem is that this enthusiasm was often based more on legend and even on superstition, rather than on actual biography or theological fine points. Early on the Church took control of saint making, though sometimes to little avail. As for saints whose life stories were questionable or constructed out of whole cloth, in recent years the Church has begun cleaning up the database, literally demoting some and stripping them of their sainthood.

Many religions, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, hold special regard for those we might call saints, ones whose holiness goes above and beyond those of regular mortal people. In Judaism, for example, a tzadik is one whose righteousness sets him apart and allows him to serve as a channel flowing between the earthly and the divine, or better yet, serving as a model for the divine in the earthly.

Even if you don’t like religion but love good stories, saints are for you. Take Saint Catherine of Alexandria. In the early 4th century, this pious Christian scholar attempted to convince the Roman Emperor Maxentius not to persecute Christians. He arranged for Catherine to debate great pagan philosophers, but she won the argument. He tortured her. He proposed marriage, but she claimed her only marriage was to Jesus Christ. He condemned her to die on a spiked wheel that was to break her body apart. Instead, the wheel was destroyed at her touch. Maxentius then beheaded her; she became a martyr and a saint. (The wheel had its own life. Now known as a Catherine Wheel, it is used to this day as a spectacular spinning fireworks display.)

Or so the story goes. Despite her importance as one of the most revered of saints in the Middle Ages, this is now regarded as legend, with no evidence of the events or even of Catherine’s existence. Though she still has a place in Church tradition, her feast day was removed from the official Church calendar in 1969, only to have her day restored to the list in 2002 as optional.

Besides good stories, and besides the miraculous aspects that some find outside the circle of their own tradition, rationality or belief, the saints often provide some inspiring modeling in their lives. It isn’t necessarily the difference between the sacred and the profane, although there’s plenty of that in cases such as Augustine, where the base and worldly give way to something greater. It is the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary—no more or less than we might admire athletes, artists or anyone who excels in ways that make the impossible seem possible for us too.

In a way, it is a back door path to redefining exactly what miracles are. We might not be martyrs, we might not make a deadly instrument of torture disappear at a touch, we might not heal the incurably sick. Saints reach beyond grasp, and besides asking them for help when no help seems available, that is why people are excited by them. We have arms, we can reach too. We can help, even if it isn’t the kind that gets us listed in some official church roster.

Good stories. Some fireworks. Plenty of inspiration. Maybe every day can be All Saints’ Day.