ALL SAINTS' DAY
Psalm 24.3 Who may
enter God's holy Temple? Those who are pure in act and thought, who do not
worship idols or make false promises.
Theresa of Calcutta has been beatified by the Pope. Some quarter of a
million faithful crammed into St Peter's Square to witness the ceremony.
They were not alone. Millions more worldwide noted and approved, whether
or not they were Christian. She is widely regarded as a saintly person.
Theresa cannot be officially proclaimed
a saint until a miracle has been attributed to her - that is, until an act
is identified which sets her apart from the rest of us. She must, says the
Church, be "holy" in order to be a saint.
The first saints were, according to
Paul, ordinary people in the pews. He never talked of a saint -
always of the saints, those "set apart" from the world.
But it wasn't long before his teaching was twisted and exaggerated.
monks lived apart in forests in order to be holy. Dendrites perched
alone in trees to sanctify themselves. Saint Simon Stylites separated
himself for 37 years on a tiny platform atop a 20-meter pole to get closer
to God and further away from people. All in the name of holiness.
The requirement of a sanctifying miracle
for sainthood derives largely from medieval times. Miracles were and still
are a way of creating a sort of spiritual Apartheid, a separation
of the good from the not-so-good. It's all part and parcel of the idea
that the best people are not of this world. They are spiritual
But beneath the traditional idea of the
"holy" there lies, buried too deep to be easily discovered, a deadly
error. It is that the world in which we live isn't good and is therefore
best escaped from. According to one thread of Christian teaching, saints
are those who turn from this corrupt world into prayer, fasting and
meditation. Miraculous deeds are signs of holiness because they bypass, as
it were, the messy, uncertain processes of nature. The message is that
real life isn't woven upon the glorious tapestry of the world, but lies
somehow behind it.
If "holiness" in a traditional sense is a suspect concept, how might
Mother Theresa be immune from this mistaken view of the world? Why is it
that the thread of her life stands out so vividly in the ordinary cloth of
our lives, so that most people recognise something special in her?
If she is remembered 100 years from now
it will be because she epitomises that strong thread of sacrificial
service, woven into the very fabric of Christian life for two millennia
and into the human tapestry since the dawn of time. She spent forty years
caring for the poor in a teeming, poverty-stricken city. The destitute,
the sick and the dying were her special concern.
That made her stand out from the rest of
us - not a world-denying "holiness". Theresa's group has now grown to over
four thousand. These women have offered themselves because she and her
companions have lived out one of the fundamental aspects of the life of
Jesus - that everyone is acceptable, regardless of race, origin or wealth.
Theresa is regarded by millions as a saint not because she was religious,
or because the Pope has pronounced, but because we see in ourselves the
destitutes she served.
In other words, the life of Theresa
affirms something deep in our hearts. That something is an instinctive
awareness that life is more precious than anything else. She brought life
to the lives of those without a life. She brought it not just to some
lives, not to just the lives of the privileged or the famous or the clever
or the beautiful - but to all she encountered.
Some say that saints are those who give
up their lives for others. That's true - but it's only part of a bigger
picture. The bigger picture was captured well by the scientist, Harold
Horowitz when he wrote:
Life is the property of planets
than of individual organisms.
Every life given for the enrichment of another is a tiny contribution
to the greater life of the world. Theresa worked amongst the detritus
created by those who exploit our planet for their own gain. Her family
were the sick and dying in a world which could be paradise if we so
wished. Fritjof Capra, writer and scientist, had this bigger picture in
mind when he pointed out that ...
The root causes of hunger around the world
are unrelated to food production ... world hunger is not a technical
but a political problem.
Sainthood wrongly conceived, then, can
become a superstitious cult which infects the world like a deadly virus.
It can suborn good men and women to avoid real life rather than engage it.
We can pray, go to church, be holy - and yet pillage the planet.
Contrary to the views of some, then, the
idea of sainthood isn't in itself mistaken. What is mistaken is to suppose
that saints are those who reject our world and escape from it in various
ways, that they are "holy".
On the other hand there's nothing wrong,
as most of us instinctively recognise, in venerating those who affirm life
with a capital "L" through sacrificial service. They are, in a different
sense of the word, pro-lifers.
Theresa of Calcutta and all the saints
deserve our reverence not because they turned more to God than others, but
because they engaged the world more fully, because they immersed
themselves as best they could - and perhaps better than we can - in its
joys and woes.