Who are the saints? What are they like?
I recently heard a priest explain, “saints are like stained glass—they let the light in.” I have had ample opportunity to reflect upon this beautiful image while living at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City this summer, which is adorned with several, striking stained glass windows. Indeed, without these windows, the church would be very dark inside, and so would human history without Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world, reflected in the lives of the saints. They let the light of Christ in.
Unfortunately, we sometimes think of saints as mere archetypes of heroic Christian virtue. Like beautiful Greek statues their beauty is in the abstracted form—excellent, but generic. Yet the true glory of the saints lies in their reflection of God’s glory, and their luminescence comes from the way in which God’s grace perfects them as unique persons. As St. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” The fully-alive saints make manifest the light of God’s greatness not like perfectly standardized windows, of the uniformly bland kind seen in so many office fronts, but as the handcrafted stained glass windows of a church. Just as God knit us together in our mother’s womb—something common to all of us and yet also unique in a way for each individual—he also forms us throughout our lives, by grace, into the image of Jesus Christ. And yet each Christian and especially every saint is a unique living image.
It is right that we remember saints as heroes in the faith, for in this way they most fully manifest the Imago Dei. But this emphasis, combined with the stories of their greatest actions, such as the conversion of thousands of people at a time, miraculous healings, and even raising the dead, can also leave us feeling a bit disconnected. Watching the ESPN highlight reels of all-stars is inspirational for every young, aspiring athlete. But no one is born an all-star, so it’s also important to hear that Michael Jordan didn’t make the cut for his high school basketball team and to remember the stories of struggle, hard work, perseverance, and the ups and downs along the way.
None of us is born a saint, and so we similarly find great encouragement in the conversion stories in the lives of the saints as well as people we know. I especially enjoy the way in which the Jesus of Nazareth series, which is usually televised each year before Easter, shows the fallen humanity of the Apostles when Jesus begins his work of forming them. Before they were pillars of the Church, they certainly appeared to be rather poor clay. All persons are wounded by sin, but this affects us in different ways. Sin affected Peter’s temper, Matthew’s honesty, and Thomas’s faith. Yet for each of the saints this is where Jesus met them, and this is where Jesus meets us, right where we need him most.
Each saint has a unique life story with particular struggles and also many unique moments of conversion, some hidden and gradual, others public and spectacular. In the extended interview Salt of the Earth, Cardinal Ratzinger (before he was Pope Benedict) was asked, “how many ways are there to God?” He replied,
As many ways as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one. In that respect there is ultimately one way, and everyone who is on the way to God is therefore in some sense also on the way to Jesus Christ. But this does not mean that all ways are identical in terms of consciousness and will but on the contrary, the one way is so big that it becomes a personal way for each man.
Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and man, is the one path to God. As he told the Apostles, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Yet, the saints, through their incredibly diverse lives, show us that the redemption offered in Jesus Christ is a unique path for each of us. While, as Lumen Gentium states, the call to holiness is universal, this holiness will reflect God’s glory in as many ways as there are people, and this more fully manifests God’s glory.
God calls us to holiness in Jesus Christ and wills to make each of his unique children saints. May we strive to respond to his call and cooperate with his grace so that we may let his light into our lives and into our world in the unique way God has in store for each of us.
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., Window at St. Mary Abbot’s in London