417: In tough times, can we be saints? Here’s a “trio” on Saints and Sages!

Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
    (Dorothy Day, peace activist and advocate for the poor who many do consider a saint)

“There is an authentic hungering for God, for the spiritual life … How can we be saints?”
    (Dr. Michael Plekon, Orthodox theologian and sociologist)

Right now, millions of us are living somewhere between Dorothy Day’s disdain for plaster-and-paint “saints” and Michael Plekon’s call for modern models of sainthood in his new book, “Hidden Holiness.”
    These are tough times and millions of us are rolling through turbulent changes in all phases of life from the nature of employment to what it means to own a home, from the definition of individual success to the meaning of family relationships.
    As Plekon points out in his new book, in such an uncertain era, “There has been an explosion of interest in saints.”
    TODAY, we’re kicking off a week on rediscovering mystical practices (the highlight will be a Conversation With Scot McKnight on Wednesday about the rediscovery of “fasting”). We’re starting with “saints” and “sages,” today, because that’s where many of us begin in our spiritual journeys.
    We look for someone to serve as a model—someone to admire, to give us hope, to show us the pilgrim’s pathway.
    So, today, we’re giving you a “trio” of great starting points: 2 books and 1 DVD. Also, we welcome your thoughts about saints who are meaningful in your life. Please, we’d really like to spark a lively conversation—or at least glean a few inspiring ideas from readers—about how saints can help us in our daily lives.


EARLIER, we recommended the book, “My Life with the Saints,” by James Martin, SJ. Today, we’re recommending a new DVD by Loyola Productions that is a terrific companion to that earlier book. Martin is as engaging in person as he is in prose. He’s got a great sense of humor and, more importantly, an astute awareness of the challenges we face in daily life.
    Martin starts with Dorothy Day in this series of 12 short video clips about the saints he explores in his book—saints who’ve made a difference is own life. He chooses Dorothy Day, the world-famous peace activist and advocate for the poor, precisely because her life was marred by so many personal failures. As a young woman, she lived a wild life, including one love affair that ended in pregnancy and abortion—plus another affair that produced a daughter. Through it all, Dorothy remained a single Mom. There’s no easy way to “reduce” Dorothy Day to a two-dimensional, pastel-colored image of a saint whose feet barely touched the ground, Martin argues.
    In each of these short films, which are perfect for use in small discussion groups, Martin tells about a saint, shows us photographs or paintings related to the saint’s life and sometimes adds real-life imagery of the places these saints lived. With someone like Dorothy Day, he’s got lots of historic photos to display. Much of the time, however, he appears on camera himself explaining why these often quirky individuals are important today.
    He argues passionately that “saints” should not be remembered as “boring plaster statues and banal stained glass windows.” Rather, Martin says he is starting with Dorothy Day to point out that anyone can turn toward sainthood at any point in life. Nothing we do is “unforgivable.” No one is “too damaged” to turn toward sainthood, Martin argues.
    He includes Joan of Arc to further emphasize these points. “If St. Joan came back today, people would think she wasn’t just holy—they’d think she was crazy!”
    In other words, Martin says, just as we shouldn’t waste time judging who we think is a sinner—we also ought to be wary of deciding who is—and who isn’t—a saint for our times.
    There’s a lot of spiritual strength we can discover even in an unlikely life like that of Joan of Arc. She wasn’t perfect—far from it, Martin says, which is why even the
poorest of us in the toughest situations in the world today have the
potential to become saints, he says.
    Over and over again, he pierces hot-air assumptions about saints (or people who are widely regarded as saintly even if they have not been officially canonized by the Vatican). He includes Pope John XXIII to point out that John XXIII had an infamous sense of humor.
    Martin says: “He once was asked by a visitor, ‘How many people work at the Vatican?’
    “And he said, ‘Oh, about half of them.'”
    Nevertheless, in 2000, John XXIII was beatified by the Vatican and, in addition, he is honored each year by many Lutherans and Anglicans for his work in opening up the doors of the Catholic church.


THE IMPORTANCE of Michael Plekon’s new book is underscored in the Foreword contributed by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams writes, in part: Plekon “challenges us to accept the fact that the light of the infinite gift shines in unlikely … places, and by doing so he deepens our sense of what that gift is and means for the human race.”
    This is a heavy book. Not only is it heavy for a paperback with an intriguing photo section bound into the book—but its subject matter is weighty as well.
    If you’re leading a small group in your congregation, whether Protestant or Catholic, you’ll have a ball with Father Martin’s video. Even if your group members don’t like to do much reading, the lively videos will touch off spirited discussion.
    To dig into Plekon’s prose, however, you have to work harder. Nevertheless, this is by far the more intriguing book. That’s not to say Plekon is competing with Martin. On the contrary, Plekon praises Martin’s efforts in his own new book. It’s all part of helping people to rediscover the spiritual treasury right in front of their noses, Plekon argues.
    Here’s where Plekon goes deep—and why people who really enjoy this area of spiritual life will want to ponder “Hidden Holiness.” Plekon’s book is a 200-page look at who else should be regarded as an important saint today. That’s true, he argues, even if their lives are somewhat controversial—and even if their lives are all but hidden in the pages of history.
    The traditional Catholic pathway to canonization depends upon popularity. Signs of widespread devotions surrounding a possible saint, followed by tangible experiences like miracles and healings, remain the keys to widespread celebration of a saint.
    Plekon doesn’t explore the canonization process in detail. He recommends other good books on that topic. But he does argue that the basic connection between sainthood and popularity may be eliminating some important saintly figures from our spiritual radar.

    At ReadTheSpirit, we appreciate such thinking. In fact, in our Interfaith Heroes project, we celebrate men and women we call “heroes,” because that term is inclusive around the world. But, we’re really talking about honoring new kinds of “saints” as well.
    I was fascinated to find Plekon profiling a number of people who Dr. Daniel Buttry, author of our “Interfaith Heroes” books also has profiled.
    For example, Plekon urges people to explore the life of Etty Hillesum, who Buttry profiled in the first volume of “Interfaith Heroes.” A young Jewish mystic who died in Auschwitz and whose spiritual life survives through her diaries and letters, “Hillesum does not fit the pattern of ordinary religiosity much less sainthood. She is a volatile, passionate woman, torn by depression and career frustration but also ablaze with compassion for her friends and the desire to be in contact with God. All of this in less than 30 years of life!” Plekon writes.


OUR FINAL RECOMMENDATION TODAY—our third great choice in this “trio”—is “Life’s Daily Blessings: Inspiring Reflections on Gratitude and Joy for Every Day, Based on Jewish Wisdom,” a new book from Jewish Lights Publishing.
    A lot of baggage comes along with the term “saint.” Plekon argues eloquently for a fresh interpretation and expansion of the term, but the truth is—there’s a lot of specific Christian baggage with the term “saint.” That’s one reason our own Interfaith Heroes are “heroes” and not “saints.”
    Another helpful term—at least a first cousin to the idea of sainthood—is “sage.”
    Jewish Lights specializes in publishing books that connect spiritual treasures of Judaism with grassroots, daily living. This cozy little volume, perfectly designed to fit into an overcoat or briefcase pocket, serves up daily gems by dozens of Jewish sages from ancient times to today. Our guide through these insights is Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, author of earlier day-by-day inspirational books. As a sturdy sage himself, Rabbi Olitzky offers snippets from scripture and from the writings of wise voices like Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whose work already is familiar to ReadTheSpirit regulars.



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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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