This morning I crack my eyes open and see the saints. They are marching past, a pageant of virtue from generations gone by. Madeline L’Engle and Henry Nouwen, Wangari Maathai and Richard Twiss, more recent saints like Marcus Borg and Phyliss Tickle parade past as reminders of our inheritance of faith.
The lives of the saints give a tangible vision to what an embodied faith can look like. Their tenure tells of creativity and contemplation, activism and advocacy, even scholarship as a holy offering to the Church. A woman planted trees, a man lived among the mentally challenged and a Lakota elder reclaimed cultural riches in the name of Christ, all incarnating our traditions. Others wrote of Gospel mysteries revealed among us in fiction, memoir and works of theology – contributing to our canon of faith. They showed us some of the ways Jesus works among us.
I inhale their memory.
How grateful I am for each life well lived, the fragrance they offer me as I navigate my own journey of faith. They exemplify the anatomy of faithfulness. They are a catalytic force sparking fresh imagination. Their audacious trust in a loving God burns bright even now, showing me the way. The saints push me beyond my present complacency, the past impinging on my daily considerations and choices.
I know their lives weren’t pristine. Hardship beset many a saint. Some were imprisoned or beaten for their faith in action. “Heretic!” hurled at some, rocks at others. Prophetic imperatives came with great cost. And living in step with Jesus has always been complex and messy, cutting against the grain of most cultural expectations. These mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers of faith never claimed or attained perfection. But still, they shone.
The crowd of witnesses remains a sight to behold.
Late in the afternoon, when the sun burnished the sky in orange and gold hues, my revelry waned. My thoughts turned toward the stillborn saints. It’s inevitable, perhaps, for a girl tilted toward lament.
What about the ones plucked from the land of the living too soon, the ones who never enjoyed a fullness of life? Each one carried the potential of sainthood in their heart. Seasons would have created opportunities in gentle succession, allowing each daughter of creation to come to her place of shimmering faith. Sons of the soil could mature and find their way into fruition, offering a bounty of virtue to the hungry world. Instead, they were robbed of years and potential glory. We were robbed, too. We lost their yet-to-be-developed gifts.
Injustice is a cruel thief.
Who might they have become, given time and the ever-present Spirit circulating around them? Trayvon, Tamir and Michael scarcely began their journey. They could have been tumbled by life early and still grown into polished men, shining saints that might have humbled any one of us. The Spirit often surprises us – turning the lowly, least and most unlikely into revered ones.
Kelly Gissendaner transformed death row for many inmates with her pastoral presence. Her own metamorphosis from murderer to ardent disciple of Jesus demonstrated the wisdom of Saint Paul who spoke of the constant renewal of our mind. She hinted at saintliness – unfurling God’s new thing like a caterpillar-turned-butterfly. Did we execute a saint too soon? And Sandra Bland, what new thing could have been afoot in her life? The God who is always with us was certainly with them.
Were they stillborn saints? We will never know. We will never know the depth of what we lost when they left us too soon to make their sacred contribution.
Twilight settles now, light submitting to darkness. I strike a match. I light candles. I hold the stillborn saints close awhile longer. I mourn the saints I’ll never know, the works of their prophetic imagination that I will never see. It’s my loss. I sit in quiet with my own sadness. I fear my own failure to honor them, their possible virtues and gifts might render me a stillborn saint, too.
I pray what was lost will return, maybe as holy seed into the soil of our terrestrial story. May there be grace for the stillborn saints. Even while the are not with us any longer, they are eternally Yours.
May all the saints rest in peace,
May all the saints shine in glory.
May all the saints offer their gifts to our world.