Readings: Revelation 7:1-2, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
In his tribute at the funeral of Princess Diana, her brother, the Earl Spencer, warned against the temptation to canonize his sister. To do so, he said, would be to miss out on the very core of her being–her wonderful sense of humor, her joy for life and her boundless energy. His words betray the image that many have of saints as ethereal heavenly figures, no longer really human, exalted and far removed from the hustle and bustle, the grime, the dirt and squalor of everyday life. Understandably such superhuman beings have questionable relevance to our lives here on earth, beyond, perhaps, serving as intermediaries between us and the All-powerful and Transcendent God whom we feel unable to approach ourselves. Much hagiographical writing has encouraged these perceptions and the lives of saints are often described as abounding in the miraculous and the extraordinary, complemented by heroic, superhuman feats of penance, self-denial and self-abasement that suggest an apparent disdain for all that is human.
However, these perceptions of the saints are not determined solely by hagiographers and are equally determined by our own image of God. If the God we believe in is a transcendent God dwelling in inaccessible light, far removed from the world we live in, then those whom we call saints and who now see him face-to-face, share in that same transcendent inaccessibility and are effectively prevented from being a meaningful presence in our lives. Believing in a distant and transcendent God can, in turn serve to keep God at a comfortable distance and shield us from the demands that are made on those willing to surrender all to obtain the pearl of great price. So too, if the saints are superhuman beings, raised to the heights of glory, then we have good reason not to be expected to emulate them or follow in their footsteps. They can remain on their pedestals and we can comfortably persist in our spiritual mediocrity.
But fortunately the saints won’t allow us to do that so easily. And this because they bear witness to the great truth that the All-powerful and Transcendent God, whom no eye has seen or can see, has in fact come to live among us, and has revealed his face in the person of his beloved Son. Their lives reflect the fact that not only did God come to live among us, but through Christ we have come to share in the very life of the once Transcendent God, and have become his sons and daughters. And just as the sacred humanity of Christ is indissolubly and integrally united with his divinity, so too our humanity far from being destroyed by union with an immanent God, is raised to new heights by sharing in the glorified Christ. Sanctity, from depriving us of what is truly human, actually enhances our humanness and its perfection is manifest in those we consider saints. Accordingly, the saints, while they were on earth, were anything but removed and distant from it; and the closer they were drawn to God, the closer became their union with every other human being and indeed with all creation. The love of God which filled and overflowed their hearts propelled them into the midst of the sufferings, pain and struggles of the people of every age and place. The Beatitudes contained in this morning’s gospel are an apt catalogue of some of the qualities exhibited in the lives of the saints–qualities that bind them inextricably to the earth and to us.
Blest are those who show mercy: mercy shall be theirs: a Therese of Lisieux, battling tuberculosis amidst a group of women who were anything but easy to live with, and whose idiosyncrasies tested her patience to the point of exasperation, has something to share with anyone who struggles with the challenges that arise in our human relationships and which call forth patience, mercy and compassion. An Oscar Romero, repeatedly risking his life and finally dying in the defense of the defenseless, the downtrodden and the oppressed, takes his place alongside all who, even today, are persecuted for holiness’ sake. Blest are the peacemakers; they shall be called sons of God: a Catherine of Siena whose life on intense contemplation did not absolve her from embroilment in the political and ecclesiastical intrigues of her age, cautions against those who would escape into a spirituality divorced from the realities of the world around us. Blest are the lowly; they shall inherit the land: who more lowly than the rustic and impetuous Peter, whose triple denial of Christ has endeared him to all who have similarly come to an acute knowledge of their own weakness and cowardice in witnessing to Christ.
And so, while there may be other reasons for not canonizing Princess Diana, to suggest that sanctity would somehow diminish what was most human and endearing in her, is to misunderstand what is truly means to be a saint. To say that someone is a saint is to say that someone is truly human. Thus, Saint Irenaeus insisted that : “the glory of God is man fully alive!” The saints are alive to the very core of their being. They radiate the life, love and beauty of their Creator and glorify him in the perfection of their humanity, which in Christ has become once again, both the image and likeness of God. As such, saints attract us. That is why when Saint Bernard entered a town mothers would hide their sons and wives their husbands lest his almost irresistible magnetism drew them all to Clairvaux. Saints, in the words of Fulton Sheen, make God loveable! And so it was that Teresa of Jesus exclaimed: God deliver me from gloomy-faced saints!