I have been thinking lately about saints — individuals whom the Catholic Church has designated as people of great spirituality who are held up to us as role models. When I was young, I viewed them as perfect and, knowing that I was not, believed that sainthood was beyond my reach. Nonetheless, certain saints were of help and inspiration. Dismas the Good Thief reassures me that, even when I am at my lowest, Jesus can be there for me. Thomas the Apostle helps me accept my doubts. John XXIII reassures me that it is OK to throw open the windows of my faith and let in fresh air. There are others of great spiritual power who should be designated as saints and whom I particularly embrace because of their humanness. Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen come to mind. Ironically, though, their very humanness may work against them being designated as saints.
But suppose there are saints around us. People of extraordinary spiritual strength whose life journeys can inspire us and give us hope. Upon my retirement from clinical practice, I have been thinking about various folks who shared their journeys with me. Some of them were saints.
I think of two men I knew, both of whom died of AIDS. When I asked one man how he wanted to face death, he said simply “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” He never gave in to anger or despair and instead maintained a faith perspective to the end. Another man wrote beautifully of how, in the next life, he knew what he was doing. He would be singing! He then encouraged us to find our own song
I think of a young woman dying of cancer who had the courage to meet with a priest for confession years after stopping church attendance and fearful of judgment for the abortion she had undergone. Yet she went and received some beautiful healing.
I think of another young woman dying of cancer who courageously allowed anger with God when a bone marrow transplant had failed.
I think of a man facing Gehrig’s disease, confident that God would watch over his family after he was gone.
I think of a veteran struggling to heal from the traumas of war who, when I expressed concern, said simply “As long as I have my Bible and a friend to listen to me, I’ll be OK”.
I think of a woman who had the courage and faith to greet her ex-husband and his new wife and to pronounce a blessing over their newborn child.
I think of a priest who had been a missionary and had also worked with coal miners in Kentucky, helping them to unionize.
Theses and many others drew upon their faith to endure life’s challenges and tragedies. None of these people saw themselves as saints. Quite the opposite. They would judge themselves as failing because of various bits of humanness in their lives. I am very grateful that their paths crossed mine.
Reflection: Have you met any saints on your journey?
I spent my childhood in Hawaii (then adolescence and early adulthood in Texas). While in Hawaii I attended a Catholic school and we were often taught about Father Damien who worked with the lepers on the neighbor island of Molokai. None of us knew that he would later be canonized. We always realized he was an extraordinary man. I thought a lot about him as a child because lepers were outcasts, literally physically isolated from everyone else. They were also considered to be unclean. Nonetheless he worked hard for them and ultimately became a leper himself because the disease is contagious and there was no cure at the time. I think of him because I most likely will not make much of a profit ever again in my work. Then I think of Father Damien (Saint Damien) and I feel encouraged. He didn’t make a profit, but he changed the world, at least for those lepers.