The word saint comes from the apostle Paul. Just as Paul became the architect of the word love in his first letter to the Corinthians he also developed the first Christian understanding of holiness and sainthood throughout his epistles. As Notre Dame professor Lawrence Cunningham explains in his succinct but exceptional guide, A Brief History of Saints, Paul’s frequent use of the Greek word agios as a generic term for members of the early Christian communities was a way of saying, “by their identification with God, through the saving works of Christ, they have become linked to and identified with God and, in this sense, are saints.”
Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page
I want to share this email exchange with you. It is an exchange I just had with a reader of my book, Strange Heaven, about the Virgin Mary…
Dear Mr. Sweeney,
I have written to you before and we discussed whether I could go back to the Catholic church if I didn’t totally agree with everything, chiefly Mary doctrine, and you said you thought that I could. Well, I have and for the most part I’ve been pretty happy about it.
I’ve continued to struggle with the Mary issue, however. I constantly read the Saints and virtually every one of them is way gone on this Mary thing, giving her attributes I don’t see any Biblical support for, etc. I began to wonder, could all these Saints, over so many years, be so wise and so right about so many things, be so wrong about Mary?? So, I was kind of trying to see it their way, but, after reading your book, Strange Heaven, it brought me back to an unfortunate truth, the answer to the question is, sadly, yes, they were so right and so wise about so many things, and just flat wrong about Mary. Many of them plainly say that she takes away our sins and that she is our mediator to God. This is the exact opposite of what Jesus said…..please, can you tell me why they do it? Why are they so insistent upon it, insistent on putting her as a necessary mediator between us and Jesus? I know you said that they see Jesus as kind of a scary
judge and her as sweet and loving, but Jesus was sweet and loving…I just want to know why they did it then and still continue to do it?
It makes me very disappointed in the Church and maybe, a little bit wondering if I made the right choice. It makes me wonder, if they could fabricate this fictional role for Mary, what else did they fabricate? Anyway, I thought the book was great, one of the most unbiased, objective and truthful books I’ve read on the subject that was also respectful. I’m confused but determined to stay with the Church. I won’t let one error, even if it was a big one over hundreds of years, stop me. There is a lot of error in the Protestant churches, too, but it does disappoint me. Any thoughts?
Thanks for your note.
I understand what you write about Mary, and frustration with the way that some Catholics in history have elevated her position etc. My best answer is to say that the devout in every tradition have ways of getting carried away with their enthusiasm for how to be holy and good and in the Catholic strain of things Mary has taken on a lot of wishful thinking over the centuries. Many people look for exemplars to point towards, and Mary is chief of them all. I don’t see these excesses much today, but primarily in centuries past.
Still–I find that Mary was the first disciple of Jesus, the first who believed in him, and I believe that she taught him things that we do not hear much about in the actual pages of scripture. (Speculating on this last point is popular among some of those medieval saints that are also prone to the previously mentioned excesses; I love them for the first, but usually look quickly past/beyond the second.)
As woman, mother, disciple, and advocate — I look to Mary. As for the rest, that’s the nature of religion — for good and for bad.
One of my favorite stories from the Desert Fathers explains why I do spiritual things. A young monk approached an older, adept one and asked him, “Father, I am having trouble remembering the instructions that I have been given about living the spiritual life. I ask questions; I listen to the answers; and I do what is asked of me; but then, I almost just as quickly forget what I’ve been told! What is the point to trying to learn if I am so simple-minded? Should I just not bother and return to my worldly life?”
It sounds a bit like a set-up to a saccharine or simple answer, doesn’t it? A good occasion to say to the youngster, “Buck up! Try harder. Be diligent,” that sort of thing. But the old monk doesn’t give the sort of answer one might suspect. Like a Zen master, he asks the young man to do something in order to discover the answer to his questions. The old man points to two empty bottles on a nearby table.
“Take two empty bottles and fill one of them completely with the oil that we use for our lampstands. As for the other bottle, leave it empty, as it was.”
The youngster did as he was told.
The old monk went on, “Now, as for the full bottle, I want you to pour the oil back where it was.”
The youngster did as he was told.
The old monk told him to do the same thing again—to fill the same bottle that he had filled before, once again with oil. And again he told him to empty the bottle. This went on for more than an hour. With patience, the young man did as he was told.
Now, it happened to be that this young novice’s job in the community of monks was to clean the bottles that were used for holding lamp oil. The old monk said to him, “Tell me, son, about these two bottles.”
The novice answered, “The bottle that has not held any oil is only dusty and dry. But the bottle that has been filled and unfilled of oil many times is clean and coated with fragrance.”
“In the same way,” said the old man, “you benefit from asking and learning and pondering these spiritual things, even if they later pass from your mind. They change and fragrance you.”
Saints like Catherine of Siena would commonly afflict their bodies as a devotion to God. Extreme fasting, wearing scant clothing in winter, the use of hairshirts (really uncomfortable undergarments), and more athletic feats like standing in one place for hours on end, were all used to subdue the body for the sake of the soul.
This aspect of medieval spirituality troubles many people, today, and not without good reason. Still, it is important to understand where it originated: the gospels tell of Christ himself denying himself, enduring times of hunger and thirst. It should also be noted that late medieval people didn’t view things like flagellation and burning at the stake with the horror that we do, today. These were people who believed – first of all, that the soul undeniably exists. Second, they believed that the soul was clearly more important than the body.
These beliefs don’t justify certain atrocities, but they do put them into some proper perspective. For example, many of the same people in the Middle Ages who were willing to burn heretics at the stake (and do other such awful things to their bodies), were also active in punishing their own bodies as a spiritual practice.