I was chatting with a friend about the upcoming canonization of Louis and Marie Zelie Guerin Martin. You might never have heard of them, but you have heard of their daughter -- Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Louis and Marie were kind of an interesting married couple. At first, they wanted to live a celibate life as brother and sister. Their parish priest got wind of this and advised them that as a married couple, it was their duty and station to raise up children to God. The Martins obeyed and went on to produce nine children. Four died in infancy and went directly to heaven. Five others, all girls, entered the religious life. One of these became a saint.
The wag in me smiles at the idea that the first married couple to be canonized had a stereotypically Catholic abhorrence of sex. How could it be otherwise in a Church that fetishizes celibacy? But it is what it is: a sexually active couple has found its way into heaven via the express route. Thanks be to God.
Anyway, back to my friend. After relating this story, he (a convert to Catholicism) said "I don't know what it is about Catholics and saints, anyway." I might have expected some skepticism about some of the sillier aspects of Catholic cult of the saints (like burying a statue of Saint Joseph upside down to sell real estate more quickly) but not a wholesale abandonment of the saints. Abashed, I stammered out something about the Church seeking to recognize those who have lived the heroic lives of faith. But I am sure I made not dent in his rather smug rejection of the very idea of saints.
My esprit de l'escalier* moment came later, as it typically does.
What is it about Catholics and saints?
Lots of answers, with some nobler than others. Aside from the garden variety saints -- the ones invoked as little more than fairies or hobgoblins to ward off disease or find lost objects or sell your house more quickly-- we (laity and Church hierarchy alike) recognize some truly interesting people who have expressed some facet of the Christian faith far more perfectly than others. The answer that I wish I had come up with is that the saints are there to show that Christianity can be practiced better than we are. The saints are like streetlights on the bridge to sanctity, showing us, by the brilliant light they throw on the path of Life, that we ourselves have a long way to go.
Even Theresa of Lisieux, Louis and Marie's girl, the tubercular young woman who died at the age of 24, had something to say. Bullied and demeaned by the older sisters of her convent, this rather spoiled child found that by doing ordinary chores with love, she could find peace and a special closeness to Jesus. She did not fight back or argue when reprimanded, no matter how unfair or petty the charge. She achieved the sanctity of being able to accept the verbal blows of the wicked without losing her serenity or her intimacy with Christ. None of this was known during her lifetime, but was only discovered after her death when her fellow nuns read her diaries. Theresa's "Little Way" became famous as a means by which ordinary Christians could maintain their equanimity and sanctity under the most demeaning of circumstances.
The Little Way might not be for you. But it is for some. For you, it might be the social justice preaching of an Oscar Romero. Or the militant resistance of Joan of Arc. Or the church-changing vision of St Pope John XXIII. Or the wildlife love of Saint Francis of Assisi. Or it may by the suffering humanity of Mary. Or the quiet self-discrediting example of Saint Joseph. Or the blustering swagger of Saint Peter. Or the fidgety genius of Saint Paul. Or the sauciness of the woman at the well. Or the audacious courage of the women at the tomb. There's someone out there on the bridge, showing that there is more to you than you have shown so far. That your achievement of holiness, service or action can be taken a step farther. Maybe many steps farther.
So, my friend, Catholics are instinctively attracted to the saints because they are a silent admonition against self-glorification. They point toward heaven simply by being closer to it then we are.
*l'esprit de d'escalier (literally, spirit or genius of the staircase) refers to the moment, long after the moment when it is need, when your mind formulates the perfect comeback to an argument.