Sunday, February 07, 2010

Hangin' With the Saints

Since I began our church blog, one of the regular features I've established is Saints Alive -- little hagiographies of the people who show up in the ELCA and TEC calendar of commemorations. I began by sprinkling our usual weekly rota of features with a bio on that individual's commemoration day, but recently switched to giving the saints their own day on the schedule.

Like most Lutherans, my knowledge of the saints was pretty spotty before embarking on this project. The names were recognizeable, sure; but I couldn't have told you anything of substance about most of them. And, deep down, I suppose I held the sort of knee-jerk inherited reservations about paying too much attention to the sainted faithful: that much of their actual stories have been obscured by imaginative embellishment; that they themselves would say, "Don't pay attention to me; pay attention to Christ"; that focusing on extraordinary, rock-star Christians takes away from the quiet, faithful everyday discipleship of the majority of believers; that -- oh, dear -- celebrating the lives of the saints might make one favorably disposed to a theology of [shudder] works-righteousness.

But after several months of laying aside my enculturated skepticism I've got to tell you all -- I love these people. I look forward each week to learning more about them; especially the less celebrated among them.

Just this week, for instance, I learned about Ansgar of Hamburg, the patron saint of of the ironies of Christian history, since both Denmark and Sweden proved almost impossible missionary nuts to crack for this poor man. He just couldn't catch a break. He toiled for decades to spread the Gospel in the Scandinavian countries, but with little success -- and wound up losing his own diocese to war and the vagaries of politics. After he died, much of the Scandinavian missionary effort fell apart and stayed that way for two more centuries. Ansgar should be the patron saint of every failed mission startup, every pastor who's had to oversee the dissolution of a congregation, everyone whose ever had a great idea for following the Great Commission that's completely blown up in their faces.

Gladys Aylward: another great saint, of modern times (who became the subject of a very good movie, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman). Here was an English parlor maid with no means or education, who after attending a revival meeting was struck with a sudden conviction that she needed to go to China as a missionary. Rebuffed repeatedly by various missionary societies as being an unacceptable candidate, she persisted in this dream until she finally wheedled her way into a job helping an elderly missionary in China; she took her whole life savings, leveraged it into train fare and rode through Asia to get to this remote outpost. Aylward eventually took over the mission, won the trust and affection of her neighbors, eventually founded an orphanage, and during the Japanese invasion of World War II helped save 200 orphans from almost certain death by leading them on an arduous trek through the mountains to safety. And those are just the highlights of a remarkable career. When Inn of the Sixth Happiness came out the Newsweek film critic, apparently not understanding that it was based on a true story, panned the movie as being too fantastical to be compelling -- when in actuality the movie wasn't real enough in terms of adequately portraying Aylward's life.

And -- speaking as a feminist who isn't afraid to use the F word -- how can one not be impressed by the witness of such strong women of history? -- women who usually had to contend against the institutionalized sexism and vocational limitations imposed on them by the very Church that now celebrates them as exemplars of Christian life? I am constantly amazed by the courage, persistence and tough-mindedness of the women who've wound up in the Church's saints' days and commemorations.

It makes me wonder what we Lutherans have lost, in terms of inculcating a sense of identity and aspiration, by more or less kicking the saints of the Church to the curb. And our odd treatment of God's people in history -- our focusing almost solely on Bible stories, then ignoring the next thousand-and-some years of Christian history to fast-forward, sans context, to Luther nailing his theses to the church door 'n' stuff, then fast-forwarding again to the present day and telling one another and our kids, "We're all saints! Yay, team!" -- sorry, but if my kid came home from a history class with that kind of syllabus, I'd be having A.Talk.With.The.Teacher.

But, anyway...I am having a wonderful time hangin' with the saints, old and new. And as the famous hymn says, "I mean to be one too."


Auntie Knickers said...

We used to have a sort of comic book about St. Ansgar, "The Man Who Did Something About the Vikings." (My in-laws were staunch Grundtvigian Lutherans). A Lutheran church not far from here is named St. Ansgar's.
And I only saw Inn of the Sixth Happiness a year or so ago, I loved it!
And that hymn has been a favorite since we sang it at my son's baptism.

angela said...

I love this effort to see the saints of history. Our church sometimes makes us feel as though we were living in a vacuum. If I were a teacher, I'd say, that would make a good bulletin board.

Jan said...

Just clicked over from SoF. I was privileged to hear Gladys Aylward in person at Sydney University in the 60s. Had forgotten all about her. She had been sponsored by the Aussie equivalent of the Christian Union, but many hundreds turned up to hear and to heckle. What they got stopped them in their tracks. A tiny little old lady who spoke for the best part of an hour to an audience much quieter than was normally in that large lecture theatre. At the end she was given a huge ovation.

I've forgotten what she said but I remember the effect she had on the audience of fairly hardbitten Sydney Uni students who usually enjoyed jeering at the local Christian students.

Anonymous said...

I was glad to read this entry; I am also a cradle Lutheran (now Episco-Lutheran), and the saints, except for the disciples and Paul, were never mentioned in Sunday School or church while I was growing up. Church history then zoomed from about AD 100 to Martin Luther's immediate predecessors, as though nothing of interest happened in between. When I joined a "high-church" Lutheran congregation, one of the first sermons I heard focused on St. Francis of Assisi; another sermon told the story of Ambrose of Milan ("What? You want me to be your bishop? But I haven't even been baptized yet!") In graduate school, I translated some stories of the Desert Fathers and did more reading to prepare for a class I was teaching.
I think we lose a lot when we neglect the saints. (I tease my Catholic friends, telling them that they've got all the best stories.) And the ludicrous fear of "works-righteousness" is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the practice of Christianity. What is a Christian who sneers at the poor and refuses to give to charity? You miss too many practices, you may get kicked off the team!
I'd also like to recommend a couple of good books: Saint-Watching by Phyllis McGinley and All Saints by Robert Ellsberg. These are good devotional reading, and McGinley's book is also quite humorous.