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Understanding the Mystery of the Saints

Earlier this month, the day after we put our Halloween costumes away, the Christian world celebrated the Feast of All Saints.  This is the day when we lift up the paragons of faith and virtue in the life of the church.  We tell the stories of men and women who stood out during their lives and have been set apart after their deaths.  The piety of some Christians even leads them to pray through these saints (not to these saints) as ones who can most tenderly carry our intercessions to God.

Of course, it’s not easy to become a saint.  In Roman Catholicism the process is lengthy and arduous.  First, the person must die.  (For those with saintly ambitions, this news is a real bummer.)  Then, after a respectable amount of time, the deceased’s bishop must initiate an investigation into whether the candidate led a virtuous life.  Next, the case is presented to Rome, after which the candidate’s body is exhumed and examined.  Subsequent steps require confirmation that a miracle has occurred through the intercession of the candidate, and finally the Pope must declare that the person shares in the beatific vision around the throne of Christ.  And that’s how a saint is made.

Saints, of course, have specific job descriptions.  I’m especially grateful for the journeyman saints, those who don’t get a lot of fanfare but nevertheless have a tough row to hoe.  Just consider St. Dominic Savio, the patron saint of juvenile delinquents, or St. Hubert of Liege, the patron saint of mad dogs.  I don’t know about you, but I’m glad they’re there, keeping adolescent hormones and frothing canines—sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference—in check.

All lightheartedness aside, were it not for some saints our world would be a much-diminished place.  St. Jude is the patron of hopeless causes.  The story of the 1950s actor Danny Thomas praying to St. Jude to jump start his hopeless career is well known.  Thomas eventually landed the starring role in the sitcom “Make Room for Daddy,” and he subsequently founded St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in my former home of Memphis, in thanksgiving and gratitude.  The lives of countless children have been saved as a result.

I take such stories seriously, but I also find myself wondering about the real nature of sainthood.  Is sainthood about suspending the laws of nature with miracles, or something else?

On All Saints Day, many churches read the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel.  The Beatitudes are Jesus’ overturning of the world’s values.  They are God’s claim of worth upon the very things and very people that our conventional wisdom declares weak and worthless:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who are persecuted…”

When I was preparing for the priesthood, I participated in an exercise called the “spiritual lifeline.”  You take a sheet of butcher paper, and draw a crooked line across it, with the peaks and valleys indicating the high points and low points of your life.  And then you go back and draw a second line in a different color, indicating when you ultimately felt furthest from and closest to God in your life.  A common surprise is that these lines often have an inverse relationship to one another.  Oftentimes the deepest valleys in life lead to the closest walk with God.

The Beatitudes tell us why this is so.  It is crucial to notice that the verb tense in the first half of each Beatitude is present.  Jesus does not say the weak, the sorrowful, the hurting will be blessed.  He says they are blessed.  Surely, the second half of each beatitude promises the alleviation of our pain and sorrow when the kingdom is fulfilled, but the first half assures us that God walks with us even now in our most tender moments.  It is when the fall into the pit seems bottomless that God extends his hand.

And how does God do so?  By parting the heavens?  By miraculously suspending the laws of nature?  Maybe.  Rarely.  But most often we meet God because we are met by someone else who has walked in the valleys in which we find ourselves.  Episcopal priest Bill Tully tells us that another way to translate “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is “Blessed are those who know their need of God.  Blessed are those who know the valleys they’ve lived in.”

They are us.  We are the saints.  We are the ones, by the grace of God, to walk with one another in the valleys, speaking of God and of hope.  In the wake of All Saints, we are invited to remember those who have walked through the valleys with us.  If they are yet living, we can thank them.  If they have moved on, then we can give ourselves permission, even if it isn’t our custom, to pray through them just once in thanksgiving to God the Father.

By Rev. Barkley Thompson
St. John’s Episcopal Church is located in Roanoke at the corner of Jefferson Street & Elm Avenue.  Sunday worship is at 8, 9, 11, and 5.  St. John’s is on the web at

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