Modern Saints Trending?

beth_may tweeted an interesting thought earlier today:

Well, the @LentMadness 8 seem to support @haligweorc HWHM research that modern Episcopalians now mostly prefer only modern saints

Since I’ve been mostly offline for Lent (more by happenstance than as a discipline…) I actually haven’t been following the brackets very closely. But she’s certainly identified a trend

What are your thoughts on this?

One of the things my work on HWHM has done for me is that it’s made me stop and think about what I look for in a saint. That is, I’ve been spending more time considering what is “saintly” and how the saints function in my faith. A big piece of it for me is that the saints are those people who lead me into the numinous presence of God. I have an Ottonian (following Rudolph Otto, not the Carolingian monarch) notion of holiness that has far less to do with ethics and far more with the in-breaking awesome presence of that which is fundamentally non-rational and non-material into our direct experience. I get that with folks like Benedict or Bride or Cuthbert. I don’t get that so much with Frances Perkins or Harriet Tubman.

I’m not saying that these people aren’t saints because they don’t engage my imagination the way I want them to—that’s not my point. What is the role of the mystical and mysterious in our current experience and appropriation of sanctity? Modern Anglican churches have never used miracles as a criterion for sanctity—and that’s probably not a bad thing—but what a reference to miracles does keep in the conversation is a sense of eschatological power. That those who are plugged deeply into the life of God express that power in their interactions almost as a by-product of who and what they are. Have we lost that section of the conversation in our criteria for sanctity?

Conversely, I wonder if my hesitation at so many of the modern candidates is at them or the ways that we choose to tell their stories. To what degree is that otherness, that holiness absent—or to what degree has it been edited out?

22 Replies to “Modern Saints Trending?”

  1. You know, Lent Madness is a lot of fun, and so delightfully arbitrary by design in many ways, and I’m sure that the SEC would have every right to tweak me for trying to make any serious points based on the voting. This is the first year I’ve played, and I’m having a ball with it. But I have been a bit shocked at how consistently “older” saints are losing. And the only 2 older ones left, Hilda and Luke, themselves are saints who are often narrated in today’s atmosphere without invoking too much otherness and eschatological power.

    In addition to your theological point which I think is quite a propos, one thing I would add here is that I and a couple other conversation partners of mine have been struck in reading comments on the daily match-up postings that just evidence a general lack of sympathy with any perspective other than a contemporary Western one. I almost get the sense that we Episcopalians must have been fostering a culture of evaluating the saints (or Christian history in general) mostly in terms of how much they line up with Christian themes that are in fashion *now*, and this seems fairly short-sighted and parochial to me.

    IMHO, it’s important that we not lose the ability to imagine that the imagery and aspirations and values of people in, e.g., the 14th century make sense in their own time and have things to teach us, even when they clash strongly with 21st c sensibilities.

    Anyway thanks for the shout-out. May’s not my name, btw: beth_may is my twitter handle. Because I may, or then again, I may not. :)

  2. Honestly, I do tend to vote for more modern saints. Yeah, I learn a lot from the saints in other centuries (Dame Julian is my homegirl) but I’m trying to live faithfully in the 21st century, I need to see how others who lived in an industrial, pluralistic, capitalist society managed to follow Christ without being, you know, the 11th century equivalent of the 1% (I’m looking at you, St. Elizabeth of Hungary).

    I’m pulling for Frances today, us bureaucrats need to stick together.

  3. That last thing is an interesting point – about “telling saints’ stories” in a certain way. This seems important, to me, and I think that a Janani Luwuum or a Jonathan Daniels – both moderns – might have many things to say about the numinous. In fact, I learned from the bios that Daniels was prompted to go to Mississippi by listening to the Magnificat at Evensong! So that stuff is certainly there. Dorothy Day also had things to say about this sort of experience.

    What’s interesting about each of these folks, in fact, is that they are all converts, at heart. Perhaps this is why they are able to speak more easily in the language of the numinous and of the “awesome inbreaking power of God” – and perhaps that’s why you’re more plugged in to some of the older saints, too. Many of them were converts, too, after all.

    So, I agree with you about the telling of stories there – probably that’s a really important thing, and perhaps the language of the numinous simply gets lost in the emphasis on ethics and/or politics. I think what’s at issue is the idea of “conversion,” actually….

  4. I noticed that as well. In addition to Episcopalian (and other mainliners’) difficulty with holiness and eschatology, I think the trend points to two expressions of another issue.

    One, that modern saints are somehow more “real” because we have their photos. I know that sounds petty but in a celebrity/media culture face time matters. So does currency, and the ability to identify one’s own life in the life of the saint (as opposed to being able to identify Christ’s life in the life of the saint). Photos help establish that connection. So “realness” is one aspect.

    The other, I think, is what Beth mentions – how well the saint in question agrees with our own theological politics. (I read a comment recently that someone had rejected a saint because St. Augustine had commended her – talk about irrational party affiliation.) This is, obviously, going to be more likely with a modern saint who lived in a cultural context closer to our own. It also gives us the liberal feel-goods, since most modern saints are, rightly, revered for work and witness in social justice. When we DO celebrate ancient saints we do so through our modern lens. Hence, Francis (so recently given a PR boost in the modern imagination) is turned into an environmentalist first, a Christian second, and a church reformer only by people who’ve bothered to actually read about him.

    In both of these I fear we’re mistaking to whom the saints point. We’re essentially hoping for iSaint, a saint who points to us rather than to Christ. Mind, a saint can do both. I just celebrated St. Joseph, patron saint of fathers (among other things) and found deep comfort and inspiration for my own work as a papa. Yet the ultimate call of the saints is to look beyond ourselves and beyond the cloud of witnesses to the One whose glory they (partly) reveal. I doubt that Harriet Tubman would be any happier than Mary or Polycarp or Margaret of Scotland or Ignatius of Loyola to be put in the place of Christ. She, and all who deserve to be called saints, would direct us to Christ.

    Is it easier to find that direction when the saint is closer to us? Is it easier to find the triangulation from us, to them to Christ? It’s certainly easier for me to find that direction from other white, middle class, university-educated North Americans (preferably male Anglican priests from the 20th and 21st century) because I can more easily find their starting point. It’s not healthy or nourishing for my building up in faith, but it’s easier. Quicker, easier, more seductive, as Yoda would put it. But not better for me, in the long run. It tends to make a spiritual gated community, in which I only see God in my own terms. Far better for me to include in my spiritual diet saints from all over the world, from the spectrum of history. Yes, with a dose of those close to me – one likes to feel included – but also with many different from me, saints whose locus forces me to see the universality of God and whose politics and theology challenge my own assumptions.

    Of course, this is a lot of weight to place on a lighthearted web game.

  5. Agreed. And not to bring up that tired old soapbox from _The Cloud of Unknowing_, but it seems that most of the winners have been active and not contemplative.

    Speaking of, can anyone think of any modern contemplative saints in _Holy Women, Holy Men_?

  6. One of the reasons I agreed to work with the SEC on Lent Madness over the last two years (and spend a great deal of my free time learning and writing about “my” saints) is because this isn’t simply a silly game. Any occasion to draw someone who hasn’t thought much about God in a long time is a holy opportunity. Who can know what the Spirit will say to that person (a student at Mount Holyoke or Virginia Military Institute or an employee of the U.S. Dept. of Labor) in the experience of reading about the saints, ancient OR contemporary? Who can know where how that touchstone will to the next along their spiritual path? I tend to think the contemporary saints have more draw for people who wouldn’t otherwise know about this kind of insider baseball. Seductive? Yeah. “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”

  7. Charles de Foucauld or Bother Charles of Jesus is recognized on December 1 and Thomas Merton is recognized on December 10 in Holy Women, Holy Men. They are the only modern/contemporary “contemplatives” that I have found in HWHM.

  8. I’ve been struck by how the voting has gone as well, but it’s been the strong social justice orientation that’s struck me more than the preference for moderns.

    I feel I should also point out that I don’t mean this as a criticism of Lent Madness. It’s a fun game and it’s an interesting way to expose more people to the saints.

  9. Thank you so much, Heidi, for your work and all the other hours of volunteer time put in by the celebrity bloggers, not to mention the SEC. What a gift you guys are giving, and very broadly. Your comment highlights a key aspect of why Lent Madness is such a great idea. The fact that inside baseball behavior around it chimes intriguingly with Derek’s research about some other inside baseball stuff is also a nice bonus piece of data for people interested in inside baseball, I think.

  10. I noticed the exact same thing. I wonder though if there might not be a bit of nationalism at play too. The setup of a sports-like faceoff had me automatically voting for the American saints just like how I vote for my hometown heroes in online all-star balloting.

  11. Conversion is an interesting point. Perhaps that’s part of it—the saints demonstrate the conversion of life that Benedict talks about in the Rule, a reorientation of life towards/around God. And I have to say, that’s always my struggle around those who appear to be included solely on the strength of their social-justice work—does this work flow out of a dedication to serve Christ and embody his message. Conversely, does that matter in the grand scheme of things or is it sufficient that they are working in line with the will of the Father?

  12. I do think we gravitate towards those saints with whom we share some significant overlap; I know I do. But, yes, that is short-sighted in the long run. I wish we did a better job of naming the virtues of Christ that we see present in the life and work of the saints…

  13. It would be interesting to look at an active/contemplative breakdown. Again—one of the functions of a sanctoral kalendar is to show in concrete form the values that we privilege…

  14. I totally agree with you, Heidi—I think it’s a great light-hearted way to introduce a lot of people to the stories of the saints. And to show a side of church that’s willing to have fun and not take itself too seriously.

  15. Again, I’m not trying to slam Lent Madness here. I like it, and think it’s a great idea. Some may be put off by the goofy tone, but for those folks for whom Church means arrogance and pomposity, I rather err on the goofy than the stuffy side.

    I fully recognize that, church-wise, I live in an Anglo-Catholic ghetto of sorts. Lent Madness helps me get a sense of where more “regular” people are in their thinking on the saints. And yes, modern, social justice folks who seem to be a close fit to modern liberal conceptions seem to be the favorites. That gives me some important data points about the mood of the church beyond my usual circles.

  16. I’m trying to get a handle on this discussion and find it rather problematic. I’m Eastern Orthodox, converted from an Anglo-Catholic background 20+ years ago. We look to the saints glorified by the church as intercessors and exemplars, as they are seen as truly united to Jesus Christ (our word is ‘theosis’ united to God). I have two questions here, perhaps?
    1. What is the ‘official Anglican’ usage of saints? what are they for? what do they do?
    2. If ‘saints’ who are not Anglican, or even in some cases not even perhaps ‘christian’, why are they remembered in Anglican venues? How do these persons promote an Anglican understanding of holiness, sainthood?
    Perhaps I’m seen here as a bit snarky but I don’t intend my query as such, only an attempt at understanding.

    Orthodox honor the saints, celebrate their feasts with special hymns praising them, read their lives, kiss their icons (which promote their prototypes–their presence in heaven with the Lord) and ask their intercession on our path to the Kingdom. I hope you do some or much of the same, for their intercession and your salvation.

    Looking for your answers, and yes, I’ve been following this blog without comment for some time now, trying to understand my own ‘Anglican heritage’ which led me to the Orthodox church.
    Also, the Mother of God, Mary Virgin mother of Christ has a big part in our devotion. Almost every hymn we sing has a verse directed to her. We think that Anglicans mostly ignore her. Why is that?

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