Bridging heaven and earth
Review: Saints: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Simon Yarrow
Saints are thought of as exceptional people. Even in a non-religious setting we bestow the name on individuals who are superhumanly generous or stoic. Indeed, Simon Yarrow writes in his book on saints that Christian saints follow in the Greek tradition of honouring virtuous citizens. But in the Christian tradition saints are distinctive by bridging heaven and earth.
Protestants tend to be uneasy about the tradition of saints, especially when it comes to intercessory prayers to saints. Of course we recognise saints, particularly of the early church, but we also remember St Paul calling all the faithful saints.
The original saints were martyrs. Sainthood broadened beyond actual martyrdom to include the symbolic martyrdom of asceticism, which impressed many believers, including St Augustine, who was converted partly because of reading about St Antony in the desert. At the same time there arose a belief in the miracle-working powers of dead saints and their relics. The cult of saints became like polytheism, with local saints resembling local deities. In the New World, the two become mixed up, as in the Mexican cult of St Death. Such was the growth of saints that in the Middle Ages the church took control with an official system of canonisation.
The pantheon includes the grotesque and bizarre. After decapitation, St Denis reportedly walked away, carrying his head in his hands and still preaching. St Marina was so pious she was mistaken for a man (!) and admitted into a monastery, though later she was, ironically, accused of fathering a child. St Joseph of Cupertino couldn’t stop levitating, doing so even during an audience with the Pope. Unsurprisingly, he is the patron saint of air travellers.
Not being human is no barrier to sainthood either, apparently. The archangel Michael is also a saint, and many will have heard of St Guinefort, a canine saint, who may prompt some to reconsider the question of whether dogs go to heaven.
Much of this is, of course, fantasy. Yarrow begins his book by likening saints to fictional superheroes, but in its original form the idea of sainthood is not exceptionalism but merely the recognition that those who walk beside and before us in the church community can be role models in bringing heaven closer to earth, something that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, each of us can do.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com