You may not know it, but this week sees the church remembering and celebrating the life and example of Saints Barnabas, Ephrem of Syria, Ini Kpouria (founder of the Melanesian Brotherhood), Thomas Ken, and of course our beloved Columba, today – to name but a few. Saints come in all shapes and sizes. Granted, it is easy to get to be humorous with hagiology – the study of Saints. There are saints for travellers, sore throats, children, pets and television. Their benefaction leaves nothing untouched. Yet to focus on their patronage misses their point. Saints serve a far more serious purpose in life, and we ignore their function at our peril. On a cautious note, society seems to need Saints as much as it needs Sinners: people to praise, people to blame.
When I was first ordained we lived in Bedford, at St Minver Road. St Minver was the daughter of a Welsh Prince (8th Century), and the only story attached to her is that whilst brushing her hair one day, staring at her reflection in a well, the devil appeared to her in the ‘mirror’ of the water. Quick as a flash, she threw her hairbrush at him, and knocked him down the well: game, set and match.
Another of my favourites is Wilgefortis, Patron Saint of unhappily married women. A Portuguese Christian martyr, her story is that she prayed to become unattractive rather than be married off to a pagan king in Sicily. Legend has it that she duly grew a moustache, and her suitor withdrew. (Odd, really, since facial hair is hardly grounds for divorce). She rejoiced that her virginity was still intact and she could now devote her life to prayer. Alas, her father was not so pleased, and had her crucified. Whilst on the cross, so the tradition claims, she prayed that her suffering would somehow liberate all who were ‘encumbered’.
Her cult spread to England. Thomas More complained about the devotion to her (by now known as St Uncumber), which for reasons that should perhaps best not be explored, was especially concentrated in East Anglia. The local custom was to leave a ‘peck’ of oats at her statue by Dusk, on the basis that the Devil would be sure to be riding through the village that night. The oats would tempt the Devil’s horse to stop for refreshment, giving Satan a five minute break during which he could apprehend the errant husband. One statue to her survives – in Westminster Abbey.
Saints can be extraordinary people. A popular story from World War Two tells of a Romanian Christian who found himself imprisoned at Belsen, and deprived of all he needed to sustain his faith: no crucifix, bible, icons, devotional books, corporate worship or knotted prayer beads. So he prayed in secret – that he might respond to the call of love. He found himself spending time in the camp with the sick, the starving, the diseased, the dying and the betrayers – all those who were shunned by others. One day, as the camp drew close to liberation, an atheist – a priest, in fact, who had his faith shattered by the experience of war – came to see the Romanian and said, ‘I see how you live here. Tell me about the God you worship’. And the Romanian replied: ‘He is like me’.
I wonder which of us could reply: ‘he is like me’? As the gospels regularly hint, it’s the example that makes the difference, not the ideas; the praxis, not the theories. The call to discipleship remains compelling simple: to be like him. And yet we often miss Saints when they are right under our noses. Because they can be very ordinary people, just like you and I. Not long after I moved to Sheffield, a near-neighbour of mine died. I had never met him, but his obituary was carried in The Independent. The Revd Kenneth Hayes was a rather unremarkable man. He had been a pastor in a small mining village in Wales, which no-one would ever have heard of but for the name of Aberfan.
It was Hayes who, on October 21st 1966, had been shaken that morning by a terrible sound followed by an even more terrible silence. The coal slurry, heaped up into big mountains, and after days of rain, had all fallen on the infant school. Hundreds of children were killed. It was he who had opened up his chapel, organised the relief work. It was he who kept the community afloat in the months ahead, organising appeals for toys, arguing for compensation, and taking Aberfan to Downing Street.
But it was also he, a 36-year-old clergyman, who on that morning, had lost his own son somewhere under the silt and slurry. In spite of his loss, he had worked for his community, holding everyone up when he should have been breaking down. In all of that unbearable anguish, he had still bestowed a calm sincerity and spirituality to a community searching for meaning in the midst of unimaginable grief. He is a kind of saint. He fought the government and Coal Board for Aberfan when many would have given up. He pushed Harold Wilson hard for compensation, but only won a partial victory. The Coal Board refused to move its tips unless it was compensated for this, so the Aberfan Disaster Fund was compelled to dig into its own disaster fund and makeover, in 1966, £150,000 back to the Coal Board, so it could make Aberfan ‘safe’.
Up until the last minute, it had demanded £235,000. The negligence that killed 100 children cost the Coal Board virtually nothing. They paid £500 to each bereaved family, and £160,000 to the village, but then got most of it back from the coerced donation. It would be churlish to call Kenneth Hayes a ‘Saint’ in the way that the Anglican or Catholic churches might mean it. Hayes was a Baptist. Yet there was something extraordinarily saintly about his conduct throughout life, a stature that meant that he became an icon for his community, a beacon of hope in a dark place. Saints are like that: they stand out in communities, and in the midst of disaster, pain or persecution, they stand up, and are counted.
According to one Jewish tradition, we are all in the hands of God. But it is the righteous souls – the Saints – who ‘glow like sparks in the stubble’. It is an enchanting image. Saints, rather like the embers of a fire, continue to give off light and heat, and may still illuminate life. But they are also thrown out of the fire into the world. They are on loan there, sitting light to life, but illuminating us with their wisdom and holiness. Although they are dead, it is because of their deeds that they are not forgotten. But their lives – sacred, selfless and sacrificial – still speak to us today, and ask us what we think life is really worth living for?
So my question is this: what kind of Saint are you? Who or what on earth are you for? What random and costly acts of kindness and generosity will you perform today? And tomorrow? Can you love and serve others – putting all before your self – and yet not count the cost? Can you, at the same time, radiate warmth, peace, openness and hospitality. To be a beam of God’s light and warmth in a world that is sometimes dark and cold? Can your friends and colleagues say, hand on heart, that to know you is to somehow have been touched by the presence of God?
It’s a big ask, I know. But all saints are basically normal folk. They just give their lives over to God, and watch God make the ordinary into the extraordinary. There is no better way to live. As one Eastern Orthodox prayer puts it: ‘Set our hearts on fire with love for thee O Christ, that in that flame we may love thee and our neighbours as ourselves.’