Tuesday, November 01, 2005

All Saints' Day: On the Making of Saints

This semester we have been engaged in listening to one particular voice from the past, as we have considered the challenge of becoming a Christian community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was certainly a talented pastor and theologian. Scholars today suggest that he was ahead of his time in understanding how the challenges of 20th century modernity impacted the understanding of the gospel. But, typically, it is not Bonhoeffer’s ideas that are appealed to, but his example in being willing to live out those ideas. It was one thing to pen those immortal words, “Jesus bids us come and die,” in The Cost of Discipleship; it was quite another to strip off every stitch of clothing and die an ignominious death at the end of a noose for those convictions under a Nazi regime.

But Bonhoeffer didn’t wind up dying because of one big decision that he made. It was because of a long series of decisions made over a lifetime. And, as we think about those who seem larger than life to us today, we need to be careful lest we think that sainthood is something that happens overnight. Instead, those whom we most admire usually learn to embrace the cross over a lifetime of small decisions. They realize that each and every day they are called upon to make smaller choices that set the pattern for their lives. In Bonhoeffer’s case, many of those decisions came through what is oftentimes referred to in the classical Christian tradition as “the dark night of the soul”—barren times when God seems distant and when our spirits are dry.

One of my favorites is Thomas Cranmer, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, under Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. In his magisterial biography, Diarmaid MacCulloch traces Cranmer’s development from conservative Catholic, to fiery Protestant, to something in between the two. When it came time to respond to charges of heresy, the Archbishop recanted and tried to save his life. And then, reversing himself yet again, he rejected his own handwritten recantation. Set alight with dry faggots around his feet as can be seen in John Foxe’s memorable woodcut from his Acts and Monuments, the elderly Cranmer insisted on thrusting his right hand into the fire in an attempt to purify that portion of his anatomy which had committed the most perfidious act. The irony, of course, is that it is from that particular hand that we have today probably the greatest single liturgy in the English language—that which remains the essential skeleton for the Book of Common Prayer.

Cranmer is like so many of the characters that we have portrayed in the pages of the Scriptures—entirely human to the point of breaking at times, while also having that quality which allows Christ’s light to shine through. In fact, I would suggest, it is the quirks, the foibles, of our humanity which oftentimes endear us to one another and make us lifelike. When I hear students talking in hushed, almost reverent, tones about Henri Nouwen and his insightful writing on the journey of faith, I usually find myself chortling inside, remembering the little man who typically came huffing and puffing into a room, hair askew, only half-wrapped up against the Canadian winter winds, looking for his glasses while someone brought him a glass of wine to warm him from the chill outside. Invariably, he would forget where the glass was placed and oftentimes wind up knocking it to the floor, only to say something like, “O, damn. I’ve done it again!” Of such clay are saints oftentimes made.