In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with courage and self-restraint. To be a saint is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.
-Frederick Buechner, from The Magnificent Defeat
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.
Vessels of grace/lights of our generation
The last few days provided ample opportunity to think about saints. All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween, a.k.a., sugarfest) led to All Saints’ Day (Thursday), then on Friday, All Souls’ Day, bringing us to Sunday, and one more turn at the Feast of All Saints, observed in church with great fanfare and some of the greatest hymns of our tradition, IMHO.
All of it made me think about what makes a saint, and whether I in fact want to be one too. Religious leaders at the helm of religious institutions are not distinguishing themselves in recent days (Understatement alert). It’s no wonder that “nones” and “dones” are among the fastest growing group of folks in terms of religious affiliation. When people say “I’m no saint,” it may not bespeak humility as much as disclaimer. “Don’t accuse me of being one of those religious types. Don’t link me with that hypocritical or judgmental or puritanical streak.” It brings to mind the wisdom of H.L. Mencken who noted that a puritan is someone who is unhappy because somebody somewhere is having a good time.
Thoughts about saints took me to the Prayer Book and one of the prayers which can be included in the eucharist when we remember a saint. Here’s how the Prayer Book describes a saint, They are vessels of grace and lights in their generations.
So think with me about what it means to be a vessel of grace. Someone at least familiar with grace? Someone who holds or carries grace with them? Someone brimming, maybe overflowing with grace? Who do you know who fills that bill, who lives life in the conviction that all is gift? Give thanks for that person in your life. And then listen to your own life. What kind of vessel are you, am I?
With this image of vessel in mind, sainthood does not come as moral accomplishment, a spiritual A+. Sainthood comes as gift, as grace, as we allow ourselves to be filled with the unconditional love of God, as we remove obstacles to that kind of inspiration. Are we open to being that kind of vessel, being that kind of instrument?
As I toyed with that question, it got me thinking about what kind of vessel I might be. It’s a mixed bag at best. If I’m not a vessel of grace, what else is going on? A vessel for righteous certitude and moral superiority, in terms of theology, ethics, politics, fashion, table manners? A vessel for resentment? A vessel for ego? A vessel for indifference or complacency? The bottom line: I suspect we all are vessels for something. It might as well be grace.
But that’s not all the Prayer Book says about sainthood. It claims that grace is not just for our own enjoyment. A saint is not only a vessel of grace. Saints also serve as lights in their generations. Sainthood is intended to make a difference in the world. The toxicity of discourse in our current political season shows the need for less of that heat and more of saintly light. How do we let that light shine? If I’m not shining a light on my generation, am I adding to the darkness? Am I fogging things up? Do I obscure God’s graceful presence in the world? Sometimes, way too often, I suspect that I do, wittingly and unwittingly.
I end up with a pretty expansive view of sainthood. Sainthood is open to anyone who will be a vessel of grace, and a light in their generation. And that happens Monday by Monday. How will you and I be such a vessel this day, this week? How will you and I be a light to our generation?