To Be a Saint

The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Ark.
November 6, 2011
All Saints Sunday, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 5:1-12) – When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

For those of you who read my Morning Reflections blog, some of this will be repetitive, because I’m going to stay with some thoughts I had Tuesday morning on All Saints Day. I woke up that morning with a children’s hymn in my mind: I sing a song of the saints of God. Some of you probably know most of the words.

The first verse ends this way:
And one was a doctor,
and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green:
they were all of them saints of God,
and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
(Hymn 293)

I can remember singing this hymn as a child and thinking enthusiastically with the naiveté of childhood, “Yes! I could be one too.” Something deep inside me wanted to be good and noble, like the ones we read about in the heroes’ biographies. A similar urge still moves inside of me today. I want to live a real and authentic life. I want to be open to whatever God may draw me toward, anything that might help God’s work in the world.

Now, as I live in my sixtieth year, I certainly know a lot of my limits and many of my abiding faults, but I can also claim some of my gifts as well. Now that I am a grownup, I’ve read some of the more adult biographies than they gave us when we were kids, and I know that many of those heroes I thought to model myself by also had some significant limits and faults.

***

To be a saint doesn’t seem quite as exotic as it used to. It seems to be more about being who I am. It seems more about trusting God in each present moment, and detaching myself from those habits and distractions that always seem to draw me away from simply being.

I think a lot of the saints that live among us often fly under the radar. I remember a woman named Frances, she belonged to my church in Jackson, Mississippi, St. Columb’s. She was there every Sunday, sitting in her pew, about halfway down from the front, two or three seats in from the center aisle. She was there just about every Sunday, but she wasn’t part of other things in the church, other fellowship groups and outreach things. St. Columb’s was a small church, compared to St. Paul’s, and I realized when Frances showed up for a book study some time in my fourth or fifth year there, I had never had a conversation with her beyond the greeting at the back door. I didn’t know her at all.

We were reading a little book by Louis Evely titled That Man is You. It is a devotional classic, written in a rather intensely personal style. For the first couple of sessions, Frances didn’t say much of anything. But somewhere around our third or fourth meeting, she said something that made my antenna go up. In a very humble, matter-of-fact way, she identified with something that the author had said about an intimate, abiding, personal sense of God’s presence with us, alive and real, tingling and manifest. Gently, almost like an aside she said, “Yes. I’ve always felt that.” She spoke it so naturally, I knew instinctively that it was true. Then I began to pay attention to her. She’s one of those “once born” people. People who have an intuitive, natural union with God. You don’t run across them too often. I started watching her. Really, I wanted to learn from her.

And what I saw was someone utterly comfortable in her own skin. So relaxed and at home with life that she didn’t bring any extra attention to herself. She just was. Calm. Pleasant. Peaceful. As comfortable to be with as an old pair of house-shoes.

As I started watching her, I began to see her – this woman who had been almost invisible in front of my eyes for five years. I learned that she ran all the errands for an elderly neighbor next door, and cooked for the neighbor. I learned she was raising two of her grandchildren, picking them up after school and caring for them each afternoon, because her daughter’s life had fallen apart. I learned that Francis’ husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she nursed him at home. He was living mostly in his lounge-chair and his bed.

When I tried to speak words of sympathy to her about these things, a sadness filled her eyes, yet they retained their joyful spark. Her smile remained, briefly marked by an accepted grief. “Yes, it is sad,” she said. “But I am so glad I can do what I can do for them. Each of them brings me such joy.” She wasn’t putting on. She spoke sincerely from her own deep truth. Quiet awe is the only response one can muster in the presence of a saint.

***

What was it about her? She had a deep, almost untroubled acceptance of her reality. She wasted no energy complaining about the injustice of it all. She dwelt with a simple intuition that God is with us. She drew comfort from God’s present reality. She herself was so humble, that she almost wasn’t there. Yet she was fully alive, present, comfortable with herself and her situation. She lived with a kind, simple courage and humble being.

***

Toward the end of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory the Whisky Priest sits in his prison cell, the gallows that will hang him on the morrow outside his window. His has been an ambiguous life. With some courage he had stayed behind to provide the sacrament to the people after the army arrived. Yet he had fathered an illegitimate child and drowned much of his fear in liquor.

Approaching his end, “He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted — to be a saint.”

A little self-restraint and a little courage. Moment by moment. Trusting. You know, I think I can do that. I’ll be you can too. It doesn’t seem that hard, does it?

It’s going to take a little bit of tenderness though. Tenderness toward God. Tenderness toward others. Especially tenderness toward ourselves.

I know that when I think kindly of myself, I tend to relax enough to act more kindly toward others. When I can live in an atmosphere of acceptance, something good seems to grow in me. The acceptance takes a bit of trust however. Acceptance of the present moment — after all, it is the only moment I have – acceptance of the present moment, regardless of its particular shape. Acceptance of ourselves, for God has accepted us in God’s immense and infinite grace. If God has accepted us, we can relax and accept ourselves. We can be more gentle with ourselves. We can become comfortable in our own skins.

After all, underneath everything, it is all love. And life is good. Hard, but good.

So, we can relax. Simply be. A little self-restraint and a little courage is all it takes… to be a saint.

They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school,
or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains,
or in shops or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.