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Guest post: The vision of the saints

The last time our friend Christopher J. Doucot spoke at an Episcopal church was in 2004. He had just returned from Iraq, and gave what he describes as a "somewhat forceful sermon" critical of the U.S.-led invasion there.

The pacifist and poverty worker learned later that a member of the Bush family was in attendance. One member of the congregation tore up a church bulletin and tossed it in the air like confetti. "Ultimately," Chris says, "the priest was told to sever all contact with us or he would be fired."

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A graduate of Yale Divinity School, a founding member of the Hartford Catholic Worker, and an instructor in sociology at Central Connecticut State University, Chris was told to keep it upbeat on Sunday -- All Saints' Day -- when he is scheduled to speak at St. James Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Conn.

When I was a kid, my understanding of the saints was that they were something like the cartoon superheroes I watched on Saturday mornings. They could fly, endure great suffering, go years without eating and heal people by praying over them. They were not real people.

As I got older, I began to see various athletes from Boston's professional sports teams as saintly – if not saints in the making. Carl Yaztremski of the Red Sox was the patron of the lost cause who never gave up. Terry O'Reilly of the Boston Bruins was the defender of the meek. He spent hours in the penalty box for busting the noses of any player from the opposing team who got in Wayne Cashman's way. Unfortunately, O'Reilly didn't confine his bellicosity to the ice. Once, in 1979, he climbed into the stands of Madison Square Garden to beat a New York Ragners fan with his own shoe.One of my favorite childhood sports saints had been a poor kid from Indiana who dropped out of college and spent a year as a garbage man. He remembered his experience picking up trash as time when he "had the chance to make my community look better." St. Larry, the bird who could not fly or even jump high, was one of the greatest basketball players of our time. Despite his inability to run faster or jump higher than the opposition, Bird led the Celtics to multiple championships because he made everyone around him better.

Perhaps this is the definitive quality of a saint: saints are just everyday people who make everyone around them better. This notion stands in stark contrast with our popular imagination of saints as superhuman and heroic figures. For example, the patrons of my community, the Hartford Catholic Worker, are St. Martin De Porres and St. Brigid of Kildare. Though Martin healed the sick, cared for the poor, and helped orphan, his claim to sainthood revolves around his ability to bilocate. As for Brigid, a bishop in the Catholic Church, her sanctity was revealed by her love of the poor – evidenced by her giving away her father's riches to the beggars who came to her door. She is best known, though, for her ability to turn water into beer, and her fervent prayer for there to be a lake of beer waiting for the poor in heaven.

The truth is we can't be in two places at once, and we'll never turn water into beer no matter how long we pray over it – I've tried. We're mortals. We're ordinary, everyday human beings lacking any manner of super power. We can't leap tall buildings or stop moving trains, but neither could the saints. Saints are not superheroes and they not even perfect. Like the rest of us, our saints have feet – or, in the case of Terry O'Reilly – skates of clay.

Saints are real people who struggle with the same faults and foibles the rest of us encounter in our daily struggle to be good people. It is the fiction of perfection with which we remember our saints that led Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, to reject the moniker of saint. She said she didn't want to be dismissed that easily. By imagining our saints to be demi-gods and ignoring their sins we conveniently excuse ourselves from the example they set for us mere mortals. We can't bilocate but we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We can't turn water into beer but we can provide clean water for the thirsty.

The saints didn't make everyone around them better because they were perfect. They made everyone around them better because they loved not only in thought but in deed as well. This idea that sainthood means perfection is a notion akin to Docetism, one of the seminal heresies of Christianity. Docetists believe that Jesus was not really fully human. If Jesus was not fully human and, likewise, if saints are more than human, how can we ordinary, sinful and imperfect humans possibly imitate Jesus or practice the sanctity of the saints?

Let's not dismiss Jesus and the saints so easily.

Saints aren't perfect people; but they are extraordinary people. That is, they are extra ordinary.

We, too, have the capacity to be extra-ordinary. We are born with the seeds of sainthood lovingly planted in our souls by a merciful God who confidently awaits the sprouting and growth of new saints; much like an experienced farmer knows his crops will yield a harvest in the right season with the right care. We have the stuff – some might call it the Holy Spirit – within us already for the saint we are meant to be to thrive and bear the fruit of justice. Our created existence is holy; our true self is sanctified. We are all saints in the process of becoming, so long as we recognize that the spirit dwelling in us also dwells in all others. The key to sainthood, I think, is merely a question of vision. Do we see the sanctity of others? Are we willing to love not just the people we adore but also those we abhor?

Basketball analysts agree that what made Larry Bird one of the greatest basketball players of all times was his vision. Bird saw the whole court. He knew where the other players were, where they had come from and where they were going. He could do what others thought impossible because he saw what was possible. And so it is with saints; they do what seems impossible because they see what is possible.

Saints have the extra-ordinary vision to see the whole court. They see in the here and now the new heaven and new earth that remains obscured to most of us. This extraordinary vision of the saints comes with trusting Jesus. When Jesus gently scolds Martha in today's gospel: "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" we are all being told to trust him. The saints see what is seemingly hidden from us because they believe in Jesus not only as Christ ; they also believe him when he said things like: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," and "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth." The saints believe Jesus when he said: "Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven", and "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me".

By believing him and trusting him, saints are ready to die to this world and its values to live in the new earth where: 'Death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more." With their extraordinary vision, the saints see our broken present and imagine a just future is within our reach, a just future which, in fact, is made present with each act of love.

Saintly sight results not from the gift of abundant piety or super-natural powers, but from the perspective gained by standing with the poor. Perspective is all about where we stand. Do the guard and the inmate see the same sun rise? In his sermon on the plain recorded in Luke, Jesus says: "Blessed are those who are poor, the Kingdom of God is theirs:" If the Kingdom is theirs, I am guessing that we need to know them and stand with them if we are to gain their perspective on this world and entry into the Kingdom which Jesus has put in their charge.

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Saints have what I call Kingdom vision, which enables them to see in our midst that of the Kingdom which is already. They have this vision because, like Martin and Brigid, they have joined ranks with the poor. Many of us can't see beyond the not-yetness of the Kingdom, the wars and poverty which denigrate human life. Others may think they see the "already" of the Kingdom when they peer from windows whose views hide the poor. But what they see is a fool's mirage. Recall Jesus' parable about rich Dives and poor Lazarus. While living in this Kingdom, Dives never noticed Lazarus, who fought with dogs for the scraps of food that fell from the plate of Dives. When the men die, their fortunes are reversed. Dives begs Abraham to send Lazarus with a drink to comfort him in his agony but Abraham replies that it is too late for Dives. Blinded by his wealth Dives never saw Lazarus when they walked on the old earth and so it was too late for Dives to join Lazarus in the new earth. Our perspective, what we see, is determined by where and with whom we stand.

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Our worldy vision is a tunnel vision, a form of blindness which leaves us focused on how to get ahead in this world rather than into the next. Saints see this world but don't cling to it because they know the promises and treasures of this world are fleeting.

While most of us dwell in the not-yetness of the Kingdom, the saints live in the already. They dance there while seeking partners among the rest of us to join them in the presence of the divine. This invitation to dance is a beckoning for us to further reveal the alreadyness of the Kingdom. We can do so by embracing Kingdom values and abandoning the ways of the world. The values of the world – greed, competition, selfishness, violence and the like – ought to be anachronisms for Christians. They are values of an age that is, or should be, passing.

The opposite of an anachronism is a prolepticism. Whereas an anachronism would be a college student typing a paper today on a manual typewriter a prolepticism would be akin to a college student from the 1970s who had access to a computer. A prolepticism is something out of a future time, a foreshadowing of how things will be done. We are called by the saints to join them in proleptic living by practicing Kingdom values such as sharing, cooperation, community, and nonviolence. In so doing our lungs will be filled with the fresh air of the new heaven; and like an invigorating spring breeze, God's breath will exhale unto the new earth

With the vision of saints we can see the intimate connection between the new heaven and the new earth. What the vision of saints reveals is that liberation and salvation are two sides of the same coin. To gain extraordinary vision we must dwell among the poor. In the new heaven everyone will be saved. In the new earth no one will be oppressed. There can be no new heaven without a new earth and there will be no new earth until everyone is free from poverty, fear, and violence. Standing with the poor we further create the new earth and further reveal the new heaven. To live with the persecuted is to liberate, to liberate is to accept Jesus' invitation to salvation, to accept salvation is to walk among the saints.

We need not fear this invitation, knowing that if we are righteous, our souls will be safe from torment in the hand of God (Sol. 3:1), a hand which is formed by the many hands of the poor and victimized. When we choose to place ourselves in community with them we are choosing to be in communion with our God. As saints we surrender ourselves to become the sacred tools which the hand of God will use to open wide the gates to the new Jerusalem.

We use violence against our enemies, we hoard wealth while many go hungry, we compete rather than cooperate – because still we doubt. We are like the foolish from the Wisdom of Solomon who think the righteous have died because they have surrendered unto the hand of God. We are like Mary who challenged Jesus in bitter disappointment: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." In our disbelief we fear that this is our only life, and our present riches are our only reward.

In the Gospel we are told that Jesus wept at the news of Lazarus' death, which led some in the crowd to ponder, "could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" I think the spectators were confused by Jesus' reaction. I don't think Jesus wept because Lazarus died, because Jesus knew that Lazarus had been born unto eternal life. Instead, I think Jesus wept because though he had successfully opened the eyes of the blind to the world before them, he had yet to open the eyes of the doubting to the new earth awaiting us.

We are called to be saints who dwell in the new heaven. It is our destiny. It is God's desire for each of us, rich and poor, beloved and despised, to be warmly held in Her hands safe from torment both in this world and the next.

Like Lazarus, Jesus has unbound us from the death of this world and removed the cloth from our eyes so that we can see the way to the new world. All that remains for us to become saints is to open our eyes and use our ordinary vision to see the poor amongs us and thus gain the extraordinary vision that reveals Christ in their midst waiting for us to join him.

In a few minutes we will leave our pews to receive Jesus in the form of bread. This has become an ordinary experience. An extraordinary encounter with Christ would be for us to leave the comfort of our homes to be received by Christ wherever he is disguised beyond recognition. That is the call of sainthood made to all of us.

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