I attended Vanderbilt for my MA. I was in the graduate school, but my classes were in Vanderbilt Divinity School. (Difference? I was going for an MA in Church History, not an M.Div – a professional degree. So, Graduate School, not Div School). Most of my classmates were being educated for ministry in some Protestant denomination, mostly Methodist (Vanderbilt being an historically Methodist school) or Lutheran.
One afternoon, I was talking to a friend, a woman who was a Lutheran seminarian. I cannot remember what seminar we were taking together, but the topic of our conversation was the paper for the course. What would we write about? We ran over topics, we mused, we discussed.
And what struck me, and what sticks in my mind almost 30 years (!) later – it’s so weird that I can remember even that we were standing in an office of some sort, talking – was her end of the conversation. As I said, I don’t remember which class this was, but every possible paper topic she considered had, of course, Martin Luther at the center. Luther’s views on……Whatever topic as seen through the prism of Luther’s thoughts…. Understanding X in the context of Luther’s writings on Galatians….
And I thought…
How boring to have your Christianity defined by the perspective of one theologian who lived in one tiny corner of Christian history.
I’ve thought of that often in the years since, as I’ve been grateful for the dynamic, if sometimes fraught diversity of Catholicism,which simply reflects the reality of what happens when the Word becomes Flesh. In the Catholic context, it’s most clearly seen, of course, in religious orders, all of which have different – sometimes radically different – charisms and spiritual sensibilities, but co-exist in the awareness that the body as many parts: Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Jesuits, Cistercians, active orders of women and men….etc.
So it has been over the past two years that I have marveled at some people’s insistence that Pope Francis, in his priorities and public expressions, defines – or is in the process of redefining Catholicism. What? Actually, that’s not supposed to be the way it is – Catholicism is supposed to define him, as is the case with all of us. Five tips for happiness from Pope Francis. How can bishops and priests be more like Pope Francis? Following Pope Francis this Lent…..Want to live like Pope Francis?
There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the particular charism and angle of a particular figure – of course! I certainly am! A particular figure can help us draw closer to Jesus and the Church, certainly – that person can be our grandmother, our friend, a pastor, a friend, a writer or mystic, an activist or the Pope. We can see something in that person that sparks us to take a closer look at Christ.
Just as is the case with religious orders, so it is with saints. As far as I’m concerned, children’s religious education could be totally designed around the lives and thoughts of the saints – you get it all – spiritual formation, history, theology, ecclesiology, liturgy. Boom.
So here are the major saints from this week’s calendar – a typical week, really, expressing the diversity of Christ’s Church and the generous way in which God’s grace permeates all of life, at every stage, in every walk of life and every type of person. We have men and women, clergy, secular rulers, mystics, martyrs and a fisherman.
These saints would certainly welcome you, advise you to the best of their ability, teach you, listen to you, pray with you and be glad that you were inspired by some element of their life and thinking, but would also be horrified to think that you might be defining your Christian faith by their particular spiritual path rather than that of Christ through His Church. Because, you know, that’s humility. Real humility, which understands when stuff is becoming to much about yourself and your personal vision and in humility – backs off.
In most of these images, the gaze of the saints is certainly fixed, and in their example, they invite us to look, not at them, but with them.
July 21: Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church
July 22: Mary Magdalene
July 23: Bridget of Sweden
July 24: Charbel Maklhouf
July 25: James, Apostle
Come back every day this week for a bit more on each of these saints.