Friday, November 1, 2013

I Didn't Grow Up With Saints

saint, julian, norwich, icon, painting
by Ben Howard

“Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” 

I didn't grow up with saints.

Actually, that's only half-true. I grew up in a world full of saints, but they were relegated to hospitals, football teams, and large cities in Missouri. The only time saints ever came into contact with religion in my world was when their monikers graced the signage of what I could only presume were empty and decaying churches, built during the age before we figured out the Bible and found history to be a useless addendum.

As I grew older, my naivete lessened enough for me to connect the dots a little better. It finally dawned on me that the St. Mary's University that I watched play basketball was named after Jesus' mother Mary and that St. Louis was, presumably, named after a gentleman named Louis who was somehow especially holy.

saint, pope, gregory, great, iconHowever, even this realization didn't fully resonate. The names, even the concept of sainthood, felt like a relic from another time. The idea of someone being a “saint” felt about as real to me as the concept of someone being a “king.” In my world, these were the words of a quasi-Arthurian time, a time distant, mystical, and perhaps even fictional. In my mind, saints were little more than the church's version of superheroes, before they started wearing tights and being cool.

I don't remember exactly when all this changed. I wish I knew the moment when the past went from being a fiction to an omnipresent reality. But mine isn't a story of “Aha” moments, it's a story of slow progressions that only seem clear in retrospect.

Somewhere along the way, in the midst of conversations and books and college history classes and hours of research about topics I've long since forgotten, the world began to move and reality began to shift. Megachurches morphed into cathedrals, praise bands transformed into prayer books, and the words and lives of those who had died more than a millennium before I was born began to resonate within me.

I am not the perfect person to write this. I'm not a mystic. I have no icons or candles or crosses decorating my room. I'm terrible at prayer and I can barely sit still for ten minutes. I am no one's idea of a saint.

saint, athanasius, icon, painting, trinityBut none of that keeps the saints from speaking to me or even, dare I say, being with me. St. Julian reminds me of peace, hope and the breadth of God's love. St. Gregory tells me to be humble and to help those in need. St. Athanasius helps me recall not only that God made himself human, but that it was done so we could become like God.

I don't know if this is how saints are supposed to work. I've never been particularly adept at the mechanics of orthodoxy. Remember, I didn't grow up with saints.

But then again, that's only half true; I may not have been looking at them, but they were always there waiting for me.

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.  

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