The only thing I learned about saints growing up Baptist in the American South was that one-day they were going to “come marching in” and I apparently wanted “to be in that number.” More than two decades later, I still don’t know what the heck that means.
Seriously, we Baptists were like most Protestants in that we didn’t think much about saints. I thumbed through a lost-and-found Bible once that added the title to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And I remember a Sunday School teacher commenting that saints were just a way Catholics engaged in idol worship. But that was pretty much it.
A few weeks ago, however, I decided to dig into the stories of these mysterious men and women some call “saints.” I’ve concluded that we Protestants could use a few saints of our own.
Christians throughout history have interacted with saints in various ways. Eastern Orthodox believers gaze at them through icons and pass down their stories via hagiographies. Some Roman Catholics pray to them and ask for their help interceding with God. While such practices might make a good Protestant squirm, we can all benefit from viewing saints like Jacques Douillet, as “those who march in front and give the example.”[tweetable]Conduct even a cursory review of the saints and you’ll stumble over scores of misfits and outcasts.[/tweetable] They were not considered balanced or stable or completely sane by all in their respective communities. Instead, this throng of oddballs was bold and countercultural and unashamed. Saints embody what it means to follow Jesus when we are tempted to play it safe or go with the flow or opt for acceptability over conviction and commitment and passion.
Saints are, in the words of Episcopal writer Barbara Brown Taylor, “eccentric, lopsidedly love-drunk people.”
St. Christiana was a medieval woman who had a weak stomach and got nauseous at the smell of unpleasant body odors. She felt God called her to minister to low-class peasants who were known for poor hygiene. While caring for them, she’d often have to rush outside for fresh air to avoid vomiting.
St. Philip Neri, who he claimed a globe of fire entered his mouth and caused his heart to swell at Pentecost in 1544. For the rest of his life, spiritual emotion caused him great heart palpitations. Philips was peculiar, he became known as “God’s clown.”
St. Basil, who enraged the religious aristocracy by throwing stones at the homes of rich people who ignored the poor and bathing the feet of prostitutes. He was called yurodivi or “holy fool.”
St. Francis gave away all of his possessions and walked barefoot, kissing lepers and caring for those in need. He chose to live a life of poverty and renounced his father’s inheritance. He would often reemerge from days of prayer and fasting so disheveled that people would snicker and question his sanity. He was known throughout Italy as Pazzo…or “madman.”
Modern-day Protestants often lionize those who’ve lived “purpose-driven” existences or have laid hold of their “best life now.” How unlike the saints of old. How divergent from those nonconformists who dreamed dreams and saw visions, who claimed to have heard Christ whisper in their ears.
The Apostle Paul once said “Our dedication to Christ will make us look like fools.” Spoken like a true saint.
Saints are people whose stories speak to us from beneath and behind us and say, “It’s ok that you’re a little crazy.” They are reminders that if you follow Jesus, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you strange.”
Protestants could benefit from a few more of those kinds of reminders if you ask me.