Have you known any saints? Anyone who has lived a life that you consider saintly? When I visited schools, I‘ve been asking the school kids what does takes to be a saint, and of course I got a lot of answers. What’s easier is to talk about saints in real life rather than in abstract.
I knew some saints in St. Joseph, MO, who were an inspiration for me. One of them was Bernie: he was a widower who loved to play the guitar to amuse himself at home at night. He was in my funeral choir, and great company at the funeral lunches. He ran an Alzheimer’s group: he had meetings every couple of weeks where he lead them in singing and other activities so that their care-givers could have some time off. He always came to church on Saturday night and was there no matter what the weather did. He worked at the food pantry and the open door kitchen. Oh, did I tell you that he was already ninety when I met him. He passed away a couple of years after I left St. Joe, and although he had no family, there were a couple of hundred people at his funeral: he touched so many people.
He had a friend named Earl who was a retired firefighter, who was also there a lot. Earl had a great sense of humor also, was full of stories from his heyday around the firehouse. He was there working on various things around the parish, came out to sing for funerals frequently as well. He and Bernie were great friends: you could tell by the way they gave each other a hard time.
Then there was someone we called the Cardinal, surely the nicest one I’ve ever met. George’s sole musical gift was that he sung loud, not particularly well, but you always knew when he was in the house. George was one of the first directors of the parish food pantry, visited a lot of shut in and he also took care of his wife who didn’t get around very well. This man was always a bundle of energy, almost to the end of his life. His pastor thought a lot of him: I could tell because he tried to talk George into attending every other parish in town from time to time (in jest, of course) while his wife and envelopes stayed put. I wish we had more Cardinals like him.
Each of these men were old enough to be my grandfather, but I enjoyed their company so much I looked forward to funerals and funeral luncheons so I could spend extra time with them. They were all gone by the time I was ordained in 2000, but I remembered them at my First Mass, and felt their presence with me that day.
There are saints officially recognized by the Church that have inspired me as well. St. Gaspar del Bufalo is a crucial part of my life, and I’m getting better acquainted with St. Theresa of Avila. St. Lawrence the Deacon from antiquity is a favorite of mine; there are two stories of him I love. St. Lawrence was the treasurer of the Roman church in the mid 3rd Century, and the Emperor commanded him to bring all the treasures of the Church to lay at his feet. St. Lawrence gathered all the street people of Rome and brought them to that august presence, calling them the Church’s treasure. As he was being martyred on a grill, he allegedly told his executioner: “You can turn me over, I’m done on this side by now.”
There was St. John Bosco, who juggled and did magic tricks for street kids to get their attention, and St. Hidegard of Bingen, dramatist, composer, and advisor to bishops and princes. St. Peter Neri, who struggled with his temper, and St. Theresa of Calcutta, who struggled with a dark night of the soul decades long while she founded a community and tended the poor in Calcutta.
The Beatitudes are something that you’ve probably heard before: in Catholic school or religious ed they are something that you probably had in workbooks, you may have drawn little pictures or written little essays on them and how to do it. It’s Christianity 101: this is the first thing that Jesus taught his disciples. Everything that happened after that is an elaboration, it’s kicking them up a notch.
The Beatitudes are a blueprint of living the life of discipleship. It is the first thing that Jesus teaches his followers; the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount. You might say that the rest of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament is commentary on the Beatitudes. It takes ordinary values and turns them upside down. It doesn’t make sense to say that the meek shall inherit the earth, or the hungry will be fed, it’s not the way that the world seems to work. In Jesus time it would have made less sense, living in a hierarchical society where the rich and powerful were thought to be close to God. But that’s the vision of the kingdom of God to come, the kingdom that we glimpsed in the first reading.
What does it mean to be a poor in spirit? Does is mean that we’re real about ourselves and our limitations while knowing that God has given us unique gifts to share? How do we mourn our losses, how do we recover from where we’ve been hurt? Are we able to face the pain and go through it to healing or do we bury it and let it undermine us and run our lives? How are we meek? Does it mean that we’re doormats, or that we’re good enough that we don’t need to brag or show off? Do we really hunger and thirst for righteousness, or what we think is righteousness? Do we show mercy only to people we can put up with, or for anyone no matter what they’ve done? What does it mean to be pure in heart: it is only about sex or is it about greed too? Do we make peace because we’re afraid of conflict and we want to avoid it, or because we are at peace ourselves and want to make it possible for others to have that peace also? Are we afraid to be talked down because we are Christian and not in tune with the way the world operates, or can we let it pass because we know what’s really important in life?
When we think of saints, we look at people who have lived the Beatitudes. We look to people like my old friends or the people who have kept the Church going over the years, or to the saints that have been our heroes in faith in the past two thousand years. The saints can inspire us because they lived life as the rest of us, with all of the blessings and problems that we deal with, with praise and persecution, with sickness, with uncertainty, at times thrust forward into places they did not wish to go, but had to go because their faith meant more to them than life itself. The saints shared this table on earth, and they share their prayers with us now. As we look to them, we also look to be a people of faith, people of discipleship, people of the Beatitudes. Thanks to the saints, we know becoming people of the Beatitudes is humanly possible: we can do it.