In response to my reference to the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Tony mentions that he has come across some references to the times in her life when she apparently felt that God was very far from her, and even may have doubted if He was there at all. What does this tell us?
Now I am going to a bit of edifice demolition in this entry, so if you don’t enjoy that kind of thing, you’re probably better off not reading any further.
The edifice I wish to demolish today is the false view of sainthood that I think many people of faith hold in their minds. There are many who seem to think that the saints were some kind of superhuman alien, not at all like us normal humans. Saints are perfect people who brush off the worst of temptations as you or I would brush off a fly, hardly ever eat, sleep or cough, And always know exactly the right thing to say and do. Yet, they can always be relied upon to tell you how weak, poor and sinful they are, (which is manifestly untrue, but acceptable because they are saints).“Did the martyrs actually feel any pain when they were tortured, or did God stop the pain for them?” Hmmmm. Divine anaesthetic?
I felt very disturbed by this image from a very young age. It was, unfortunately, the popular image that was being presented to youngsters when I was young. I do not think the servants who presented it meant in any way to give a false impression, and very likely they held this understanding of saints quite sincerely in their hearts. I recall one lovely servant even seriously asking the question,
I don’t think so.
It seems to me that consider to the saints as supermen/women actually does them a great disservice rather than honouring them, not to mention that it is untrue. They were normal human beings, just like you and me. One of the things I love about the Bible is it’s honesty. The Old Testament tells us about larger than life heroes like Abraham, Moses and David, but it gives us the complete picture, warts and all. And the New Testament follows suit, revealing to us the personality faults of the Disciples (eg Peter’s denials and Thomas’ doubts) as well as the disagreements between the Apostles (eg the falling out of Paul and Barnabas over John Mark). I wonder if we would be so honest today if we were writing an account of modern events?
If the saints were normal humans and yet rose to such great heights, doesn’t that mean so much more than if they were angels in human form in the first place? Does it not make them far more inspiring? It does not surprise me that a modern heroine like Mother Teresa should have passed through a period of grave doubts and shaky faith – she’s a human being after all, who has simply surrendered her life to God and allowed Him to do with her whatever He wished. That her surrender was complete and genuine is proved by the wonderful work she has done. But that is all that it proves. Her work does not make her immune to the frailties of humanity.
This view of the saints gives me great hope. When I look at their icons, necessarily idealised since we have no records of what most of them really looked like, I sometimes try to picture them as a real person. Perhaps, St Abanoub as a young boy on the verge of adolescence with bright eye and a cheeky smile – the kind of boy who’d run up to you and greet you with a laugh, yet just as easily tie your sandle straps together when you weren’t looking. Or maybe St Anthony, with a serene smile and a very sharp eye sparkling with intelligence and confidence in God. He’d be a great listener, a quiet man, but the kind you knew would not lose his head in a crisis, and could be depended on in an emergency, for nothing flusters him.
Of course, these descriptions are nothing more than imagination, but they help me to remember that these saints were flesh and blood as we are. They made mistakes and said the wrong thing at times. Sometimes they upset others, sometimes they got too wrapped up in their own troubles, and sometimes they just couldn’t be bothered. In a word, they were normal. What set them apart was not any particular excellence of character they were born with (many people with excellent gifts have turned incredibly evil!) No, what set them apart was simply this: they trusted God and they gave Him their life, each in his or her own unique way.
I have no doubt that they stumbled along the path, but again, the difference is, they never gave up. Not because they were blessed with miraculous tenacity, but because they trusted God. They trusted His love. They knew that this love, undeserved as it was, could overcome anything in this world, even their own weak human nature. They appreciated that, but they knew full well they could take no credit for it.
Do not think they floated through life on the wings of angels! When St Macarius refused to agree with the devil’s calls that he had reached perfection until he was safely in Paradise, that was not mere theatrics. He knew that until the last moment of his life, he could still fall back into his old sinful ways and lose everything. The message I get from this is that the same God who worked so marvellously in them is working in me, and you, and all of us.
That’s pretty neat.