I had gotten up at 5 AM, but after looking at my e-mails I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to begin the day. I sat down in my recliner and covered myself up with a blanket and leaned back, ready either for sleep or meditation or daydreaming or whatever would come. There came an association of ideas that I will not try to reproduce. But here is what I came to.
I had a dispute once with an Episcopalian woman, who told me in some disdain that Protestants don’t have saints. She was, of course, implicitly passing on the not uncommon Protestant assumption that Catholics are superstitious idiots. 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. But in this I may not be doing her justice.
It is safe to say, however, that she was expressing her own certainty – that Catholic veneration of saints is foolishness at best and superstition at worst.
Thinking about this, this morning, led me to think about my own Catholic boyhood, which 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. And it made me remember how all pious Catholics could develop a personal relationship with saints. My mother used to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. (I expect she had me in mind.) When people lost things, there was a saint they could pray to help them find them. And of course there is St. Christopher, a sort of one-man (or one-saint, rather) Travelers Aid Society.
It would be easy to make fun of the assumption that there could be a reality behind the idea of bonds between individuals on earth and sainted individuals on the other side. Would be easy, is it easy, has always been easy. 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 with whom I have had a connection, or for whom I have felt admiration?
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.
How different is that from talking to saints?
I have said elsewhere that when one civilization ends and another is being formed, people who are firmly immersed in the old way of thinking will be strongly tempted to regard the new way of thinking as merely a reversion to superstition, because it will take seriously things that had been discarded previously. 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.
That doesn’t mean that we should proceed to emulate the sort of faith in saints held by simpler Catholics. I don’t communicate with people on the other side asking them favors, or asking them to intercede for me, or begging them to obtain favorable notice from a God conceptualized in the form of a monarch. I don’t regard them as a different order of being than myself, but as former people presently on a different terrain, with broader awareness and therefore fewer human frailties.
And yet, it is true that many of those with whom I communicate are people whose memory I reverence, whose talents or achievements or character I admire, and it is true that 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?