By Wendy Murray
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints. (Ps. 85:8, ESV)
I have been pondering recently why evangelicals need to know the host of Christian champions who are commonly deemed “the saints.” This aspect of our devotion is largely neglected and I believe this lacuna is detrimental to our faith journeys and spiritual formation. In the next several “Gleanings” posts I will be writing about this — the reasons why we need the saints; how the whole concept of “sainthood” became what it is in the Catholic tradition; and how non-Catholics can embrace this element in the church in a meaningful and soul-expanding way. I will also, in due course, include short biographies of some spectacular saints.
I went through a dark and troubling faith crisis that found its underpinnings in disaffection from the evangelical church. The circumstances surrounding this crisis — my divorce and associated trauma — so damaged my trust in the evangelical community that for a very long time I scorned it. I found my way back, but not through the machinations of evangelicalism. I was rescued by a saint — Saint Francis of Assisi, to be specific — a saint who has saved many damaged souls before me and will yet save many more to come.
As a result of this unexpected and inexplicable encounter (for lack of a better way of putting it) I wrote a book about Saint Francis because writing books is how I process contradictory anomalies in the spiritual life. In the course of my research, during which time I moved to Francis’ hometown of Assisi, Italy, I learned and experienced much about the veneration of the saints in the Catholic tradition, some of which felt contrived and exaggerated. This sense was born out by a particular friar who was helping me with my research. When I asked him once, why they wrongly identify a particular image in the Basilica of St. Francis as that of being Saint Clare — when all experts and art historians clearly indicate the image is that of another female follower of Francis — this friar responded, “It is what the people want.” Despite the contrivances, my research also showed me however that when it comes to who Francis was, there was clearly something going on that was beyond the pale and extraordinary. His presence in that town is palpable and people’s lives are changed regularly.
If evangelicals believe, as the book of Hebrews attests, that we live our lives of faith under the eye of a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), we of all people are hard-pressed not to animate that belief with an honest reckoning of the role these little-known champions play and have played in the larger Faith Story. To dismiss the saints is a tragedy of our tradition. But worse than that, we ourselves are smaller and perhaps shallower within our spirits without the benefit of their silent, invisible, gentle and mighty influences. Despite the sometimes exaggerated misappropriation of their names by the Catholic Church, their outer lives and inner landscapes have left a sweet aroma over the testimony of the Christian church through the ages.
Wendy Murray is the author of A Mended and Broken Heart: The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi, Day of Reckoning: Columbine and the Search for America’s Soul, and Forgiveness & Reconciliation: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life, among other books. This post first appeared on her Patreon page, as the first in a series written for supporters.