When I was a pious young Lutheran lad, some elderly person at our church gave away their library piece-meal. They’d leave books on a table to be picked through and taken by anyone who wanted them. Through this means, my parents inherited a whole bunch of books that they likely never expected to have…
One of the treasures that I scavenged was The Lives of the Saints by Omer Englebert, a work that fed into my growing interest in the medieval Church and pre-Lutheran Christianity that would eventually take me down the Canterbury Trail. Organized by day, this book introduced me to a whole host of figures I had never heard of who lived in ways that were utterly unfamiliar to a 20th century suburban protestant.
I would dip into the book every once in a while, look up the day’s date and see what saints were listed there, reading about them and wondering at them. Even now after who knows how many moves around the country, it’s still one of the books on my bookshelf—one quite close to my computer in fact. (The value/utility quotient of books in my office can be directly calculated by their distance from my computer…)
Looking back at this book from where I stand now, most of the saints in the book fall within a fairly defined set of strata. There is an Early Martyr strata. These were the martyrs of the 1st through the 4th centuries who were persecuted, tortured, and executed by the state—usually the Roman state. There are literally several of these provided for every day of the year.
Then there is an Ascetic strata. There’s a band of folks who fell from around the 5th century to the 11th century who were mostly monks, hermits, or founders of monastic orders. You get some ascetic bishops sprinkled in there too. You usually see at least one of these a day.
Then there’s the Teachers strata. From the 12th through the 15th centuries there are theologians and mystics of various sorts. They tend to pop up a few every week.
Last, and most sparsely, you have the Counter-Reformers. These are folks from the 16th and 17th centuries who were Jesuits or something similar who fought the spread of the Reformation in various ways. You get one or two of these a week.
I gained a sense of the scope of the Church Catholic from this book, and I think it’s one that still shapes me today. First, what I learned from this book is that you can’t talk about the history of the Church or its past without stumbling over the bones of martyrs. Before anything else is said and done, there are multiple martyrs every day of the year: that’s a basic reality of who the church is (as sketched by this book…). The perennial drumbeat that underscored every reading for every day is that the faith was worth dying for—and there were the names and dates to prove it.
Second, another daily reminder was that faith in the gospel led lots and lots of people to embrace a kind of life that I couldn’t even contemplate. A young suburbanite couldn’t comprehend the life of a hermit; it wasn’t on the radar for me. But the fact that so many people chose it as a means of expressing the gospel in their lives made me sit up and take notice: truly engaging this gospel thing made people make some really hard and uncomfortable decisions. Fidelity to the gospel takes precedence over creature comforts.
Martyrs and hermits are not part of contemporary American life. However, encountering them so frequently in this book put them into my mental map and, in doing so, taught me some very important things about the Church and about the demands of the Gospel.
Turning from this kalendar, then, to something like Holy Women, Holy Men or the soon-to-be-issued A Great Cloud of Witnesses gives me something of a sense of spiritual whiplash. There are a whole lot fewer martyrs and not terribly many hermits. A whole different set of strata appear here. More “19th century founders of Dioceses” and “Progressive Pioneers.”
I’m not judging—I’m just noticing.
One of the drivers of recent kalendar revisions in the Episcopal Church is something that I’ll call “relatability.” You won’t find this in the official list of criteria, but it’s the notion that there should be sufficient people in the sanctoral kalendar who act and live like me. Martyrs and hermits may be great and all, but what about doctors and lawyers and professionals? Accordingly, the single greatest influx of people into a trial kalendar was the add of 2009 that introduced 117 new individuals. In line with the “relatability” criterion, 79 were from the 19th and 20th centuries. To be completely clear, over half of these (42) were clergy falling either into the “missionary” or “pastor” categories, but it also added 11 “prophetic witnesses,” 8 “artist/writers,” and 5 unallocated “saints.” Accordingly we now have modern doctors and teachers and bureaucrats in the collection. (I haven’t seen any secretaries or construction workers or cooks or janitors.)
One of the central functions of a sanctoral kalendar is the notion of social memory. Social memory is the phenomenon by which a group’s present social identity is shaped by the way that it chooses to remember the past. It’s like Collective memory as described here, but this entry doesn’t make the clear connection to how this memory is linked to present identity formation and identity politics. My thinking around this issue was sparked by Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making by Elizabeth Castelli (who argues that the Early Church talked more about martyrdom than practiced it).
One of the criticisms that I heard of Holy Women, Holy Men when we were rethinking it and working towards A Great Cloud of Witnesses was that it was engaging in identity politics. I do think that’s true. I also think that it’s completely unavoidable. All kalendars are engaged in identity politics. That’s what social memory is about: leveraging the past to talk abut our present identity. There is no way to disentangle identity politics from a kalendar. Some kalendars are more aware of it than others, perhaps. Some are more overt about it than others.
Creating, maintaining, and using a sanctoral kalendar is a formal act of social memory. Putting together a list of people from the past says something about us now, about who we look up to, about what kinds of qualities, characteristics, and charisms we think are important. My old Lives of the Saints does that in one way; I think that A Great Cloud of Witnesses does it in a rather different way.
Or, rather, they hit us in different directions. They approach the goal from different paths. Lives of the Saints takes a “volume” approach. That is, I learned about the shape of sanctity and gospel fidelity by the sheer number of examples of certain kinds of witnesses. A Great Cloud of Witnesses takes a more “individual” approach—look here’s a person we remember.
Again, I’m not advocating one way or the other at the moment, I’m noticing.