When Pope John Paul died, thousands and thousands of people came to pay their respects. I remember seeing an aerial photograph of Rome with this long line of people waiting to pass by to honor this man. Around St Peter’s, multitudes gathered in love and grief, many of them holding signs that read “Santo Subito:” santo – saint; and subito – immediately, or for you musicians, suddenly. Santo subito: make him a saint immediately. Whatever the Church’s process, the people believed that in God’s eyes, he was already a saint.
So what is sainthood? What makes John Paul – or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or anybody, or that matter – a saint?
Meister Eckhart, an ancient holy man, a saint himself, once said this: The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. Maybe a saint is one who know that, and then goes the next step of seeing the world through the eye of God. How does the world look when you do that – when you take a long loving look at the real?
Consider for a moment at two women, Ruth and Benita, who founded a non-profit fair trade organization that links the world’s most rural and economically-disadvantaged cooperatives to the U.S. market. Their company, called Mercado Global, provides both fair wages and investments in the long-term development of communities in developing nations. How did Ruth and Benita get started? While they were in college, they spent nine months in Guatemala’s western highlands working with rural women’s cooperatives that struggled to find domestic markets for their traditional handicrafts. Returning to the U.S., Benita and Ruth held fair trade crafts sales on their campus. They made enough money doing that to make a difference, and decided to make that part of their life’s work. Ruth and Benita are Yale College graduates, class of 2004.
And then there is Daisy. When she was six years old, she went to first grade in an elementary school in a very poor part of the rural United States. She was so fragile and tiny that she looked as though she would break into pieces if you touched here.
Daisy loved school. It was the best thing that had ever happened to her. And her favorite part of school was the cafeteria. It was a big room, linoleum floors and cinderblock walls, a kind of sterile place, but Daisy loved it, because there was food there: breakfast and lunch, and often a snack, too. And the only thing she got to eat was at that school. She tried to eat as much as she could, but it was never quite enough. And so she starting going through the trash cans, gathering up the food that had been thrown away- fruit hat someone had not eaten, unopened boxes of cereal or cartons of milk. Fridays were really hard, because she would most likely not have anything to eat after she left school until she got back on Monday morning. The cafeteria manager, a by-the-book kind of person, saw her doing this one morning after breakfast and ran out and yanked her away. “You can’t do that, you can’t have that food. And besides you already had your breakfast.” A teacher’s aide was watching this and lit into the cafeteria manager. And then she helped that little starving girl get together enough to eat. The cafeteria manager was just following the rules, and it would be good to get the rules changed, but that takes time and effort. And in the meantime, a child was starving and there was someone there to do what needed to be done.
I don’t know if Ruth and Benita are people of faith. I don’t know if Daisy goes to church or not. But they are saints, aren’t they? And so is that teacher’s aide who saw an injustice and did something about it.
Is that what saintliness is all about: seeing the wrong in the world and doing what you can to make it right? If it is, then the first step is the seeing. But why doesn’t everyone see the same thing? What is that clouds our vision?
I was in Washington DC for the past few weeks and I spent part of a Sunday afternoon walking around Georgetown. If you have ever been there, you know that it is a lovely place, full of expensive houses, very nice restaurants, and upscale shops. And there are a lot of homeless people, too – more so than it seems there are in New Haven. And then I wondered if I had just gotten used to the street people here, that they are just part of my daily routine, and so I don’t even see them anymore. I don’t know. I wondered if my life of privilege makes me blind to the pain around me.
And suddenly, it is as though I hear Jesus saying:
Blessed are you who are poor – women of Guatemala and homeless people in New Haven -- for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now – Daisy -- for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now at the injustice of it all – Ruth and Benita and that teacher’s aide --- for you will laugh.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, all the way to the bank, for you will mourn and weep.
There is a great reversal here. The blessing, the sainthood, goes to the poor and the hungry. The blessing, the sainthood goes to those who are grief-stricken by injustice, who see the world with God’s eye, who are not blinded by pride position or power. The saints are those who see with the eyes of their hearts enlightened. And where are we in all this?
In a short story titled “Revelation,” the gifted Southern writer Flannery O’Connor gives us a glimpse of what this might be like, this seeing with an enlightened heart. (Everything That Rises Must Converge. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1975)
The story begins in a doctor’s waiting room, where Mrs. Ruby Turpin has an encounter with a girl who is, in Mrs. Turpin’s view, the wrong kind – ugly to look at, fat with bad skin, common, white trash. As it turns out, the girl, who is named Mary Grace, goes to Wellesley College, but clearly Mrs. Turpin is better than she is. In fact, she considers herself better than a great many folks.
She despises Mary Grace, and the girl knows that, but she also knows Mrs. Turpin in some deep and frightening way, “in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition” (page 207). Pushed to her limit by the woman’s sense of superiority, Mary Grace finally throws a book at her and tries to choke her.
“What you got to say to me?” Mrs. Turpin asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” [the girl] whispered.” (page 207)
The girl’s message stirs up a fierce anger in Mrs. Turpin. Later, back home, out by the pig pen, she gives vent to her anger before God.
“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me too? How am I saved and from hell too? . . . “Why me?” She rumbled. “It’s no trash around here black or white, that I haven’t given to, and break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” … “Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”…
A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?”
The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. … She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it. … Mrs. Turpin stood there. … Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there… as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.
At last she lifted her head. … A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of the sunset] as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast hoard of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself …, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.
She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and responsible behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” (pages 215-218)
And so shall it be with us. And so it is already. We are in that holy procession, even if we are bringing up the rear. And when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened to see the world -- and ourselves – as God sees, then we will be able see our place in that great company. Santo Subito!
© Martha C. Highsmith