Thursday, March 8, 2018

Look Lightly at Saints

Do saints have any assigned duties?  The Roman Catholic Church seems to think they do.  Not quite with the status of demigods, they nevertheless are said to be patrons, protectors and intercessors for various causes,  places and people.  Even Protestants have been known to ask St. Anthony to help them find a lost article.  I have my wife to do that for me, although there is a severe price to pay for my not seeing it in an obvious place.

Orthodox and Anglican traditions have saints, all the well known traditional ones, but also persons whose lives exhibited something especially worthwhile as evidence of Christ’s presence in their own time and place.  They’re not required to perform miracles to be recognized, and they’re recognized not canonized in the Roman sense.  They are not the same in every country, and their place on the list is not permanent.  Moreover, their sainthood is not a rank in the hierarchy of the heavenly host.  They’re simply the known among the host of unknowns.

So is it worth the trouble to ask a saint for help?  Is that idolatry?  As a pastor, I get many requests for prayer from people in need.  But that was also true when I was a lay person.  The prayers we offer for one another are powerful conduits of God’s blessing that, I think, don’t flow so much from us to God, but from God through us into the lives of others.  How is that different from asking a saint to do the same?  As Christians, is there anything wrong or odd about asking a deceased friend or loved one to pray for us, just as we might have asked them when they were alive on earth?  

If it’s OK, does the Roman Catholic Church have the only phone numbers, and only for the saints it designates?  Probably not, although I’ve met some old time Catholics who truly believe it’s the one and only legitimate representative of God’s presence on earth.  On the other hand, I’ve met a few Baptists, Adventists, and the occasional dry Methodist who has thought the same about their denominations.  We Episcopalians are more inclined to sit back in smug self confidence, enigmatically smiling in condescending tolerance.  

But what about the practice of delegating patronal authority to saints?  St. Elmo, for instance, might he be a little ticklish about having responsibility for sailors thrust upon him?  He didn’t ask for it.  As far as we know, God didn’t assign it to him.  It was all our idea.  Did he have to take the job?  I was wondering about that while reading a Brother Cadfael mystery set in 12th century Shrewsbury where the local abbey is protected by the loving oversight of St. Winifred.  Her revered reliquary sits on its own altar, and the monks trust her to look after them and the local townspeople.  They worship God, but trust Winifred to do the work.  Winifred, however, preferred her native Welsh soil, and was not actually in the reliquary.  She had never agreed to be the patron of Shrewsbury.  She was saddled with it.  Everybody in Shrewsbury believed it, and apparently that was enough to encourage her to do what she could for them.

My patron saint is Matthias, about whom absolutely nothing is known except that a role of the dice made him a disciple in place of Judas.  His brief appearance left no trace.  What am I to do, he’s the Sean Spicer of saints?  He has no reputation for doing anything for anyone, although he is said to be the patron of carpenters and alcoholics.  Where did that come from?  My wife, finder of lost things, has St. Andrew for hers.  Now that’s a saint.  One of the original twelve, Peter’s brother, someone known for bringing others to Jesus.  Is she better protected, has a more direct line to God, is that why she can find things?  One wonders.

God certainly doesn’t need a staff of saints to oversee various aspects of life, but I can understand how it came to be that we created one for him/her.  In the Middle Ages, when so much of this came into being, the feudal system and nascent nation states were understood to be structured according to divine will.  If temporal authority was divinely portioned out to kings, dukes and earls, why not spiritual authority to saints?  And since temporal authorities couldn’t be relied on to faithfully execute their duties, why not give the saints the added job of intervening when needed to keep people safe?  As long as we were at it, since so much of nature was unknown and uncontrollable, why not ask the saints to lend a hand there as well?  And so it goes.

Those centuries lie far behind, but some of what they bequeathed to us has stuck, and saintly patronage is one of them.  Most Protestants, of course, deny all of it.  Jesus is the only mediator they need between them and God.  Look only to Jesus for help, and forget this patronage stuff.  But as we know, Protestant, Catholic, and even agnostics ask each other for prayer on their behalf. They ask each other for blessings.  They ask each other for help with questions of faith.  In other words, they ask the saints for help and intercession.  They just don’t call them saints. 

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