Lent (Day 10) — A sad saint is a sad kind of saint

I very much enjoyed the opening pages of chapter 3: “Joy is a Gift from God.”  The heading here is a quotation from St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and journalists (he was an inveterate pamphleteer), and of the deaf, and after whom the Salesians (founded by St. John Bosco) are named.  This echoes a statement of St. Teresa of Avila’s (patron saint of those suffering from headaches, and chess players, among other things, and a famous Catholic mystic) also quoted in this opening:  “A sad nun is a bad nun.”  Martin also quotes a statement attributed to St. Teresa, but not found in any of her writings, “From somber devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”  

I guess I was especially moved by the opening of this chapter for a couple of reasons: 1) Growing up Catholic, I thought the point was somehow making connection with the divine, and humor always seemed to me a way to cut through the rigid frames and definitions to something beyond (good poetry does the same) — I am wont to say that “I live for revelation,” and revelation to me often comes through humor, that, if done generously, includes rather than excludes, and shows a glimmer of an ultimate truth, at least a truth beyond our rational understanding;  2) Martin says something that I hadn’t thought of, but really struck a chord — one can view the saints as patrons (e.g. St. Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of the Internet — direct all your prayers about the slow moving, too often freezing or crashing Internet Explorer to Isidore), or one can view them as companions.  To view a saint as a companion is to adopt a saint as an older and wiser friend, one who can help one reflect on an issue, or to live in some better way.  But it is more than that.  For having a saint as a companion means that we can, in some ways, see ourselves in the company of saints, which points to our own saintliness with all rights, privileges and responsibilities appropriate to such a station.  And humor helps us see the saints as human, and relatable — once we can relate to the saints, we no longer think of them as separate and beyond our ken and abilities, but see them as figures to emulate, which means we have work to do (we don’t have an excuse).  That’s a pretty powerful idea.

Martin said something else in this section that resonates with a statement before about heresy.  In talking about the dour-faced saints we may think of (and St. Bernadette, whose photos show her as a dour figure — remember that 19th c. photographs always show dour faced figures), Martin notes that such thinking “is not simply an aesthetic fault, but a theological one, with serious implications for Christians.”  It tends to dehumanize the saints, and by making them other than us, keeps us from joining them.  It cuts us off from some deeper truth.  And that’s a powerful statement.  

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