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My neighbor the saint.

When I was 12 or 13, my parents had a friend named Wilber who was a theologian. One day as I passed Wilber on the sidewalk in front of the corner market he greeted me, "Hello, Saint LaVonne." Wilber was a delightful man who took my adolescent angst seriously, so I said nothing even though I knew he had made a mistake: a saint is a dead holy person. But when he called my mother "Saint Blanche," she took offense--privately, because she was fond of Wilber. "I think he is being sacrilegious," she said to my father. "No," he replied, "Wilber is right. In the Bible, a saint is just one of God's people, a Christian, a baptized person. Everyone in the church is a saint, according to Saint Paul."

My mother, who preferred that words have only one meaning, was unconvinced. She and I might have been less surprised by Wilber's greetings if we had grown up with the English children's hymn "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God." Set to a rollicking tune, it speaks of meeting saints "in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea." It celebrates martyrs, but not Saints Justin or Perpetua; royalty, but not Saints Margaret of Scotland or Louis of France; clergy, but not Saints Augustine or Gregory; military, but not Saints Ignatius Loyola or Saint Martin of Tours. As the third verse says, the saints "lived not only in ages past-there are hundreds of thousands still.... The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too."

Even my mother, however, believed that her best friend Mary Jane was a saint. Mary Jane, a librarian, married at 30, had a daughter at 32, and learned that Bob, her husband, had multiple sclerosis at 35. This was in 1950, when married women did not usually have careers, and families depended solely on Dad for financial support. What could Mary Jane do? She was bright: she could get a master's degree in library science from Catholic University. She was hard-working: she could get an increasingly responsible but abysmally paid (remember, she was a woman) job with a university library, all the while caring for a child and an ailing and sometimes difficult husband, both of whom she adored.

For 40 years Mary Jane's life was like this: After a long day at the library, she would come home to a long evening of meeting her husband's increasing needs, which eventually involved feeding, bathing, grooming, changing sheets, emptying various tubes and pans--and talking with him, because they continued to be close companions. For much of that time she also did what mothers do: chauffeured, shopped, entertained housefuls of teenagers, worried. In addition, she kept an attractive house, entertained her own friends, faithfully went to church, and wondered how she would ever make ends meet. My strongest memory of Mary Jane is that she was exhausted. With such excellent care, Bob lived past 80.

Sometime after his death I told Mary Jane that she is, for me, an example of sainthood. She laughed dismissively. "I loved Bob very much," she said. "I only did what I had to do." That is exactly how a saint would answer.

Hanging on my office wall is a framed card I picked up at a cathedral bookstore. No author is given, but it was obviously written by somebody who understood saints. "Why were the saints saints?" it asks. "Because they were cheerful when it was difficult to be cheerful; patient when it was difficult to be patient; pushed on when they wanted to stand still; kept silent when they wanted to talk; and were agreeable when they wanted to be disagreeable. That was all. It was quite simple and always will be."

That certainly describes Mary Jane, but is it really sainthood? Saints, according to scripture, are simply people whom God has chosen for holiness. "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation," God told Israel at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:6). The New Testament takes up that theme: "You are a 'chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises' of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9). All Christians, according to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, "are called to holiness" (2013). Paul, writing to the Christians in Corinth, addressed his letter "to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2).

When Wilber called my mother Saint Blanche, he was being orthodox. God's invitation to holiness is an invitation to sainthood, because the term holy one and the word saint actually mean the same thing. A saint is a holy person; another word for holiness is sanctity; and the theological word for the process of becoming holy is sanctification. In the New American Bible translation, Paul calls people to be holy; in the New Revised Standard Version, he calls them to be saints.

A saint, then, is not someone God rewards for exceptional goodness, but rather someone God chooses. When most of us think of saints, though, we think of people that the church has officially recognized as outstanding examples of holiness--people that I, for one, am definitely unlike. Some are bruised and bloody. Some have arrows stuck in them until they look like porcupines. Some, oblivious to the world, are lost in rapturous prayer. All of them are dead. What do these certified saints have in common with Mary Jane, me, or the rest of the People of God? The key word, I think, is faithfulness. Throughout our lives, God repeatedly calls us to be faithful--to keep the promises our parents and godparents made on our behalf when we were baptized, to reject sin, to believe in and follow Jesus Christ. For Saint Hippolytus of Rome, this meant dying in exile. For Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, it meant being burned at the stake at age 86. For Saint Teresa of Avila, it meant standing up to bishops and inquisitors.

Faithfulness, however, is normally not that dramatic. For my father, Saint Norval of Wheaton, it meant continuing to pray, serve, and rejoice even when so stricken by Alzheimer's that he no longer recognized my mother. For my friend Saint Lucy of Los Angeles, it means patiently teaching inner-city junior-high students, loving them, and listening to them day after day without ever telling them that a rare neurological disorder could at any moment rob her of her mind or her life. For my children Saints Byron and Molly of Houston, it means eight hours or more a day of work they do not especially like so that they can support the children they love very much--and then spending time with those children in the evening, when their energy is nearly used up. For my former student Saint Betty of Redlands, it means daily visits to her stroke-impaired father in a nursing home, even though her day job and her musical involvements leave her almost no discretionary time. Sainthood means faithfully doing what has to be done.

But sainthood is more than dogged determination. Saints are faithful because they are in love. "It is not being virtuous that makes a saint," wrote the late Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. "The Pharisees were very virtuous, and they and their virtues needed conversion. It is not doing good that makes a saint: he often does do good, but so do many people whom we would never call saints. It is not the practice of religion which makes a saint. I expect you and I are pretty religious, but our religion, like every part of us, needs converting. No, the saint is one who has a strange nearness to God, and makes God real and near to other people."

It sounds like a description of that holiest of all persons, our Lord, or some of his most famous followers such as Saints Francis of Assisi or Therese of Lisieux. But it also reminds me of my 23-year-old friend Saint Kirsten of New Orleans, who did not ignore the gaunt woman in the French Quarter begging for money, nor did she toss her a quarter and keep going. Instead she stopped, looked at her, talked with her, bought her some chips and dip, went to her home, shared a beer--and returned to her own apartment shaken to the core. In an hour's time a young exsuburbanite had come face-to-face with alcoholism, poverty, mental illness, and a police line. She did not feel like a saint, or even especially close to God. But she had spent the kind of evening Jesus was known for spending, with the kind of people he especially loves.

All baptized Christians have saint potential. A saint is faithful to God and humans, because a saint knows how to love. Paradoxically a saint is the last person to recognize his or her sainthood. Wilber was right: My mother and father were saints set apart for God. So are all those people I go to church with--not only the pastor and the deacon and the woman who volunteers for everything, but very possibly the snoring bag lady, the cantor who loses the tune, the 2-year-old who shouts "And also with you!" And, in the words of the English children's hymn, "There's not any reason--no, not the least--why I shouldn't be one too."
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Neff, LaVonne
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Words:1607
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