On the Cult of the Saints

19 06 2008

(As in summer television, I am posting essays that I have written before again because I think they make some good points. Here is one I wrote over a year ago now on the cult of the saints. It was originally posted here.)

Giotto

The postured myths of Byzantines? Ho-hum.
Leave to Cimabue the manner and the gaze
of saints whose sandals never bore their weight,
their very gowns stunned in beatitude-
but if two men kiss at Gethsemane
there should be torchlight and the crush of mobs,
a keen blade raised to glance the soldier’s ear.
Let there be lutes and fiddles to attend
the virgin’s marriage; or, say, at the gate
where Anna and Joachim may sometime meet,
the common stir of the gossip of girls.
Saints in their figured scenes shall stand before
the fur of sheperd’s boots, the dogs and sheep,
and there shall be much fidgeting of gowns
amid old hosannas, the actual heft
and weight of angel wings to brush the ground.

-Morri Creech, “Some Notes on Grace and Gravity”, from the collection, Field Knowledge

 When I was a teenager, I used to collect saints cards like most collected baseball cards. (Though there was a phase of my life in which I collected baseball cards too.) I used to tape them up all over a wall in my room. Think of it as a flat Old Believer iconostasis. Saints’ cards were so cool, and the faces on them extended back millennia, from the Old Testament saints (who could not like St. Raphael?) to Mother Cabrini. Maybe I didn’t pray the prayers on the back of the cards as often as I should have, but these were my heroes and I had them pinned up on my wall like others would pin up pictures of pop music stars or sports heroes. At one time, I must have had fifty or sixty up there.

Thus, I have never had any issues about praying to saints. For me, people who have qualms about this are a little like people who won’t tear those nasty tags off a mattress. Does the invocation of saints sometimes look completely pagan? Maybe sometimes. But here again, we see the condescension of God to our own lack of belief in the invisible. After all, that is what the whole mystery of the Incarnation is about, right?

I don’t wish to get into the nuts and bolts of an apologetic defense of the invocation of saints. Needless to say, there is enough evidence in the Old and New Testaments in which God uses the intercession of third parties to work His grace. (Remember Peter’s shadow?) And the cult of the martyrs was the first real manifestation of the cult of the saints. Indeed, in the traditional rite of consecration of the altar in the Roman Church, at least one of the sets of relics embedded in the altar must be the relics of a martyr, harkening back to the days in the catacombs when Mass was said over the tomb of a martyr. Martyrdom, it can be argued, is sainthood par excellence, and the Christian East best describes this by calling the ascetical life “white martyrdom”.

Nevertheless, I have been sometimes left cold by many arguments over the invocation of saints. This is because, at least in the case of Western Christian polemics, those who try to defend the intercession of the saints almost always begin to argue from the position of weakness: “This is not as bad as it looks…” Hogwash! I shouldn’t have to bow my arguments to hyper-rationalist scoffers of sacred Tradition. At the same time, it is necessary to reflect on a deeper reason as to why the invocation of saints is not only permissible, but laudable.

There are two episodes that come to mind in this respect. One is from the Russian Orthodox theologian St. Pavel Florensky, who was martyred under Stalin. In his dense and obscure book, Iconostasis, a shaft of valuable light enters through the tortured prose of the polymath: “The iconostasis is the saints.” For those of you unfamiliar with Byzantine church architecture, the iconostasis is the wall covered with icons that separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church. In Byzantine liturgical theology, the iconostasis is a revelation and not a barrier; it shows how God reveals Himself and yet remains hidden behind an infinite degree of glory. For Florensky, then, the saints do not distract from God in Christ, but reveal His splendor, while expressing at the same time that His splendor is even greater than what is revealed.

Another episode comes from a friend in the Mojave Desert named Patrick. An ex-Protestant, he once said that the problem with people who refuse to venerate the saints springs not from giving too much glory to the saints, but rather not giving enough glory to God. Similar to the line of argument above, no matter how much glory is given to the Virgin and the saints, the believer gives even more glory to God who is glorious in His saints. Man’s ability to love and honor is almost infinite, and it will never reach God’s worthiness to be loved and honored.

The problem thus can be seen as us living in a society that no longer knows how to revere and respect elders and people who deserve a greater degree of respect. When I was growing up in a Mexican extended family, we were taught to kiss the hand of some more senior relatives. In a world where you did honor your father and mother, and by extension, those of the rank of your father and mother, kneeling before a dead person may not have been so awkward. Indeed, Protestant kings and nobleman still exacted from their subjects physical reverence of kneeling and bowing. In this light, why should we not do the same for those who reign in triumph with Christ, who have been crowned with an immortal crown?

I have said in the past on this blog that we must have a correct vision of the whole Christ, Head and members. The saga of salvation was consummated on Calvary, but the story did not end there. In every member of the Body of Christ, the drama of salvation is being played out at this very moment. We will all be the stones of the new celestial Jerusalem, and how we are carved out of the earth, chiseled, and put into our place is just as much part of the history of salvation as the story of the life, death, and resurrection of a Jewish carpenter.

One of my favorite moments in our liturgy is the chanting of the Litany of the Saints. Done in the most solemn moments of our Church year, I always like to think that it is the remembrance, the calling together, of the entire assembly of Israel, from the angels who sing by the Throne of God to the youngest child martyr. Here we best see St. Augustine’s axiom: “unus Christianus, nullus Christianus” (a lone Christian is no Christian at all). To be a Christian is to be planted in a community and in history. And this is what the invocation of the saints, my older brothers and sisters in Christ, has always meant to me.


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5 responses

24 06 2008
Alice C. Linsley

Yes, the poem is lovely and powerful. I will read more at the link you provided.

When I enter my church with icons of Christ, John the Baptist, saints, martyrs, confessors, Apostles, and the Blessed Theotokos, I feel that I am surrounded by ” a great cloud of witnesses” and I worship with them.

19 06 2008
Sam Urfer

This topic has certainly been a thorny one for me, with my iconoclastic background.

Good article, thanks for bringing up the repeat for newer readers!

19 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I just wanted to say outright that this Morri Creech poem is probably one of the most profound theological poems I have ever read. The lines, “…the actual heft/ and weight of angel wings to brush the ground” are achingly beautiful to me.

19 06 2008
The Boar’s Head Tavern

[…] to what Bob said, I wonder if anyone else read Arturo Vasquez’s post of today:  On the Cult of the Saints. Posted by: Mack Ramer @ 1:42 pm | Trackback | […]

19 06 2008
FrGregACCA

I still can’t figure out how to use “trackback,” but click on “FrGregACCA” to go to my blog and see my comments on this excellent post.

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