I had a dispute once with an Episcopalian woman, who told me in some disdain that Protestants don’t have saints. Eventually I thought to ask her why so many Episcopalian and Anglican churches were named St. John’s, or St. Paul’s, or St. Mark’s, etc., but I never got a straight answer to that question. I think she considered the apostles to be in a class by themselves, so that although they were called saints, it was an honorific, something like calling someone a Kentucky colonel. In this I may not be doing her justice, but in any case, it is clear that she was acting from the not uncommon Protestant assumption that Catholics, as Catholics, are superstitious idiots.
(I don’t know why it is, but I continually find myself defending aspects of the Catholic Church in conversation with people who don’t have any experience of what they’re talking about. My own Catholic boyhood has always served as a useful window into a world that I could not otherwise understand emotionally. Maybe this is why I came in to a Catholic family.)
Recently I awoke thinking of that argument. I thought of her certainty that veneration of saints is foolishness at best and superstition at worst, and I thought of how pious Catholics could develop a personal relationship with saints. For instance, my mother used to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. (I expect she had me in mind.) People who had lost things would pray to St. Anthony, I think it was, to help them find them. And of course there was St. Christopher, a sort of one-man (or one-saint, rather) Travelers Aid Society.
It certainly is a different way of thinking, one easy to make fun of. Even assuming the reality of an afterlife, the idea that saints would be interested in helping ordinary individuals to find a misplaced item, or travel without mishap, seems rather disproportionate. What possible connection could there be between individuals on earth and individuals on the other side?
But — it suddenly struck me — how different is that from the connections that I seem to have struck up with people on the other side? For the past several years, with increasing frequency and ease, I have been tapped into what you might call the cosmic Internet. I believe that I have talked with Emerson, Lincoln, Thoreau, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph and Robert Kennedy, Upton Sinclair, Claude Bowers, Lincoln Steffens, Woodrow Wilson, and many others, some famous, some not. They were as aware of me as I was of them. Being in connection with my mind, they were in a sense as much in our day as in the timeless place we go to after death.
How different is what I have been doing from talking to saints?
I have said elsewhere that when one civilization ends and another is being formed, people who are firmly enmeshed in the old way of thinking will regard the new way of thinking as merely a reversion to superstition, because it will take seriously things that had been discarded. Maybe we need to take another look at the worldview that maintained that we are or could be in communication with sainted beings on the other side who take an interest in us.
This doesn’t mean that we should proceed to emulate the sort of faith in saints held by simpler Catholics. I don’t envision those on the other side as courtiers asking favors from a God-king. I don’t regard them as a different order of being, but as former people presently on a different terrain, with broader awareness and therefore, perhaps, with fewer human frailties. And yet, many of those with whom I communicate are people whose memory I reverence, whose talents or achievements or character I admire. I have received assistance from some of them, Ernest Hemingway most notably. So how different is what I’m doing from what generations of devout Catholics have done over the centuries?
Maybe, in throwing away the idea of communing with the saints, we haven’t come closer to reality but have instead merely condemned ourselves to an unnecessary loneliness. Maybe a new understanding of the relationship between this site and the other side will allow people to allow themselves to get back into contact. That could only be a good thing.