Monday, November 1, 2010

The Language of the Saints: Pitching, Torture, Hustle...?

“Hardly any practice is so distinctively Catholic as the cult of saints.” As we read Avery Dulles’ “The Catholicity of the Church” I was disappointed that my students were exponentially more interested in the notion of a “cult” within Catholicism than in the saints. Matthew Kelly states “it is true, some people have placed too much emphasis on the role the saints play in Catholic spirituality.” But this is not the spirituality of the young people I teach. And it is unfortunate, for saints have made the same journey we are called to explore for ourselves. I believe if we learn their language, we can gain a better understanding of how a person is transformed in Christ.

What is the language of the saints? And how have those in this “cult” been transformed in Christ? My students are seeking answers vis-à-visMy Life With the Saints” by Jesuit priest, James Martin. It is more than the biography of sixteen holy men and women. To an extent, it is autobiography, yet it is ultimately an invitation to discover like the saints, how one can overcome struggles, faults and failings and still draw closer to God.

Martin’s companionship with the saints began in an unlikely place, at an unlikely time. Because of his passion for French, Martin traveled several times to France. One particular journey led him outside of Paris to Orléans, a city set free in 1429 by Joan of Arc. A Catholic Saint whose story was largely unfamiliar to him suddenly became a little more familiar. He decided to read more about her short life. He writes “Joan’s story introduced me to a new language: the special language of the saints—verbs like: believe, pray, witness and nouns like: humility, charity, ardor.”
I decided we would read each biography seeking new verbs and nouns—this language of the saints. My students met my request with a bit of a blank stare. What saint doesn’t “believe” and “pray?” What saint isn’t “humble” or a model of “charity.” They were right, even if the saints were largely unfamiliar to them. In response, I decided to apply this quest with the familiar—the San Francisco Giants to determine if could gain a better understanding of this “cult” and a new language. The 2010 Giants are a dynamic and talented team. They have been deemed “lovable” nationwide, but Martin’s language of saints doesn’t include adjectives. Descriptors are easy; but choices and actions—verbs—and what they have or possess—nouns—are different. It’s a nuanced way of thinking, but it invites a creative reflection. When I think of the Giants, verbs like: hustle and execute and nouns like: heart, pitching, torture and victory come to mind. Every game in the NLDS series was decided by one run. If the Giants didn’t hustle, the outcome could have been much different. All players, the pitchers, offense and defense, executed. If you’re a Giants fan, you understand the team’s unofficial motto: torture. (For NLDS) No game was lop-sided or decided early on. In fact, the final two games of the four games series were determined in the final two innings. At times it was torture for me to watch. But this team has a lot of heart. It lacks the strong personalities of the past. Because of outstanding pitching and teamwork, victory is ours!

This example prompted my students to seek the language of the saints familiar and unfamiliar to them, in the text and beyond it. Nouns: With the Blessed Mother we think of grace. We give hail to Mary, who was full of grace. With St. Monica, I think of persistence. She relentlessly prayed for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine. Thanks be to God she did! Because of him, we have a great theology. Verbs: Let’s be honest, many of the saints are extreme. St. Francis, St. Ignatius of Loyola are but two examples of men who were able to renounce luxury and privilege. Their stories may be too severe, but they are viable examples of people who chose otherwise. Furthermore, many of their stories incorporate the supernatural. Padre Pio was able to bi-locate. He was seen at two places at once. Natural law indicates this is not possible; supernatural law allows for it. St Thomas the Apostle doubted. What person doesn’t struggle with their faith? Despite his doubt, He was also the first apostle to recognize Christ Jesus as the Risen Lord with his words “My Lord and My God!” And the list goes on… 
The unofficial theme song of the 2010 San Francisco Giants is Don’t Stop Believin’ I think the same is true for one of the great spiritual treasures of the Catholic Church—the saints. Let us learn their language, for they can lead us to victory in Christ.

Photo Credits
Tapestry of the Saints
Joan of Arc
Giants Win the Pennant
Posey & Baum

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