[My March 2009 column in The Meta Arts online magazine]
An Episcopalian woman once told me in some disdain that Protestants don’t have saints. It took a while, but 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. I never got a straight answer to that question, but I gathered that she considered the apostles to be in a class by themselves. They were called saints, but the title 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 still find it strange that I repeatedly find myself defending aspects of the Catholic Church in conversation with people who don’t have any experience of what they’re talking about. I suppose that’s why I came into this world into a Catholic family. My Catholic boyhood serves as a useful window into a world that I could not otherwise understand emotionally.)
Recently I awoke remembering that argument, remembering her certainty that veneration of saints is foolishness at best and superstition at worst. It isn’t that I can’t see her point of view. I remember very well how pious Catholics who had lost things would pray to St. Anthony, I think it was, to help them find them. My mother used to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes (possibly with me in mind). And of course there was St. Christopher, a sort of one-man (one-saint) 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, lying there day-dreaming – how different is this, the Catholic interaction with saints, 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 tapped into what you might call the cosmic Internet. I believe that I have talked with many people, some famous, some not. My father, for one, has given me valuable financial advice, for this was one strongpoint of his versatile intelligence. Many of my “past lives” have contributed, including mystics, writers, adventurers, and soldiers. Famous writers have come in: Emerson, Thoreau, Upton Sinclair, Claude Bowers, Lincoln Steffens, Ernest Hemingway. So have statesmen, including Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph and Robert Kennedy.
In each case, they were as aware of me as I was of them. And, 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. They weren’t fossilized memory-patterns, but living minds, expressing through my own.
How different is what I have been doing from talking to saints? How different is it from what generations of devout Catholics have done over the centuries?
Now, just because we use the same word doesn’t mean we mean the same thing by it, so let’s be clear about what we mean when we say saints. There are at least two different religious meanings, one referring to specifically recognized (canonized) individuals, and another referring to the community of the righteous.
My definition is different. I regard them merely as former people presently on a different terrain (that is, outside of space and time), remaining as they were when they shaped their character and intellect while in life, but now with broader awareness and therefore, perhaps, with fewer human frailties. Few traditional religions would accept that definition, probably.
And our attitude toward the “dead” won’t necessarily be that same as that of older traditions. The faith in saints held by simpler Catholics seems to me (perhaps unfairly) to be like asking courtiers to ask favors from a God-king. That isn’t us, and shouldn’t be.
But 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 side and the other side will allow people to allow themselves to get back into contact. That could only be a good thing.
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 the new way will take seriously things that the old way had discarded in the name of progress. Maybe we need to take another look at the worldview that maintained that we are, or can be, in communication with the saints.