A few days ago, I was at a graduation party for the son of a good friend. We were there to celebrate a fine young man raised by thoughtful and serious Catholics, and most of the other parents at the party were also intelligent and devout Catholics. While no graduation party of this sort is ever completely free of the stilted “Let me balance this brownie on my napkin and hold my plastic cup of lemonade while I think of something interesting to say to you” atmosphere, this one was more lively than most, and I found myself in conversation with a history teacher who had written his doctoral dissertation on capital punishment in nineteenth century Europe.
One conversational thing led to another, and somehow we moved from the date of France’s last execution by guillotine (surprisingly, 1977) to the English preference for displaying decapitated heads on spikes for all the town to see, to the execution of St. Paul. Unlike St. Peter (who was crucified in Rome), Paul was a Roman citizen and thus given the more “dignified” form of execution: he was beheaded outside the city walls. (For that reason, the Church dedicated to St. Paul is not in Rome Proper and is called “St. Paul Outside the Walls.”)
I was about to share a fact about St. Paul that endears him to me—that, while he was ready to die for his faith, he was frightened enough of the actual moment of death that he asked a woman at the side of the road if he could borrow her head covering. Knowing he was minutes away from being decapitated, Paul wanted to cover his own face so that he would not see the sword as it beheaded him. This is one of my favorite snapshots of St. Paul, because it reminds me that even he was afraid at a moment when I, too, would be deeply frightened.
However, St. Paul is not in general a fellow to whom I am naturally attracted. He has said things that grate on me, things that I find frankly baffling and even annoying. Thus it was that when I began to tell my story about St. Paul and the borrowed veil, I started out by saying that “I run hot and cold on St. Paul.” One of the other women in our small conversational group immediately gasped, “You are not allowed to say that!” A bit taken aback, I paused. “I know he is a saint,” I replied. “But I don’t have to like him.” The shocked woman looked at me as if I had grown two heads, and abruptly exited the conversation a few moments later.
That conversation stayed with me, and I found myself pondering it again the following day at Mass. The first reading for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time is from Jeremiah, where Jeremiah has a conversation with God about his own hopes for the future. This vision of his future includes a front row seat for Jeremiah when God vanquishes his enemies: “My persecutors will stumble, they will not prevail. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion. LORD of hosts, you test the just, you see mind and heart, Let me see the vengeance you take on them, for to you I have entrusted my cause.”
Hmm, I thought, while listening to this reading. I wonder what God thought of this request? Not much, I bet. The desire for revenge and vindication is one that I have wrestled with too. Hearing this great prophet wish for something so—inappropriate—was oddly comforting. If Jeremiah had such moments and made it to heaven nonetheless, then surely there is hope for me. We tend to think of the saints as if they were Mary Poppins—“practically perfect in every way”—but they were assuredly not perfect. They were perfectible, and they made great spiritual progress in their earthly lives, but they had foibles.
When the young people in my life receive the sacrament of confirmation, my gift to them is always a framed portrait of the saint whose name they took as their own. When looking for a suitable picture, I pass up the sort we typically see on holy cards or in pious books; I look for pictures that reveal these saints as the very human beings they were. We can look at a flawed, imperfect human being who is nonetheless now part of the communion of saints and say to ourselves, “I could do that.” Even the saints who are so often rendered in alabaster and pastels often lived gritty and difficult lives, and the difficulties they faced and overcame arose from their own weaknesses as well as from external foes.
This is true of prophets like Jeremiah, but it is also true of the Apostles and the early saints. Flannery O’Connor once pointed out that, when Christ founded his Church, he did not appoint sinless—or even necessarily intelligent—men. They were ordinary men with ordinary virtues and ordinary sins. At key moments in Jesus’ active ministry, when Jesus was doing or saying really important things, his apostles would invariably be paying scant attention to him because they were “discussing who among them was the greatest.” These men were devout Jews schooled in Torah, yet whenever Jesus mentioned some basic facts of their faith, like the coming of the Messiah or the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple, the apostles more often than not acted as if they had never heard this news before. Their reaction reminds me of my own college students, who will have information written on the syllabus and hear me repeat the information many times in class only to look at me with genuine bewilderment when I tell them their paper is due that day. “Paper? What paper? What is she talking about?” In the same way, there are more than a few moments when Jesus refers to an ancient prophecy or longstanding Jewish belief only to have the apostles say, “Um, what? What are you talking about?”
I have written elsewhere about St. Martha, who complained to Jesus about getting stuck doing all the work while her sister Mary just sat around being devout and who admonished him when he was late for her brother’ funeral. I don’t know of anyone who first reads about St. Martha and thinks, “What a selfless person!” And that is all right. Martha was a human being, with her own temperament, disposition, habits, virtues and vices. She is a saint, not because she eliminated her human (and therefore flawed) nature, but because she allowed God to perfect it.
St. Peter was the sort of fellow who starts out by saying “You will never wash MY feet, Lord!” only to move almost immediately to “Fine, then! Wash my whole body! Wash everything!” Peter will always be the man who loves God with every ounce of his being and yet was capable of doubting that he could walk on water and of denying Christ when he was in his darkest hour. The Apostles are the heroic men who proclaimed the word to all nations and were nearly all martyred—but they are also as the men who fell sound asleep—there had, after all, been wine at dinner—at the very moment that Jesus needed them most.
What does any of this have to do with St. Paul and a random conversation at a high school graduation party? A lot, I think. In this troubled world, we need more than ever before to know that we can turn to the saints and ask them to pray with and for us. We want our children to think of the saints as their extended family already in heaven, watching over them and praying for them and yes, rooting for them. But if we think of the saints as people who had no flaws or serious faults, if we insist that their sanctity means that they were never annoying, weak, afraid or unlikeable, we are losing something precious.
The veneration of the saints began because the early Christians felt so close to the early martyrs. These women and men were their friends and their family members, executed and buried in secret in tunnels, constant reminders of the costs and the joys of the faith they all shared. Tertullian was right when he said that the blood of these early saints was the seed of the Church. These women and men were living, breathing human beings with all the baggage that accompanies being human—and yet they are in heaven. So too may we be.
The imperfections of the saints gives us hope; if St. Paul can be a citizen of heaven when he was sometimes an annoying fellow, if St. Peter is in heaven despite being impulsive and cowardly, if Andrew and James and John can ascend from their ego and pride and selfishness to enter the Communion of Saints, if Martha can scold the Lord God and still be a Saint, why then there is hope for us as well.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Saint Paul” painted by Jan Lievens in 1627-29.