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The weather is mocking me: After three days of rain, only the most tentative flicker of sunshine. It’s enough to make a person lose hope. And I have lost it, especially of late. I’ve lost hope in the Sisterhood (you know, that wild idea that women might work together for our own good), in men, in the Church, and in the bright, shiny promise of Democracy. I’ve lost hope that somehow we’re going to pull it together before the effects of global warming smack us in the face with a cataclysmic shout of “too late!”

But it’s okay. Because at the bottom of my Pandora’s box remains one thing — faith in God. And because of this, I can’t lose hope entirely. I have to still believe in the Sisterhood, in men, in the Church, in the bright, shiny promise of Democracy. I even have to believe that maybe we’ll save the planet before it’s too late. But only because I believe in God.

I don’t have to believe that human beings are capable of being fair or loving or vigilant, because God demonstrates over and over that God can work a miracle through the unlikeliest of people. Most saints are saints despite themselves. They are saints because God worked through them. And God can work through any of us.

So while I might be experiencing a dark night of the soul, there’s still some sunlight left in my inventory. And that is the idea of God’s infinite possibility. If you can believe in that, you can never lose hope. Good thing, too, because a life without hope is no life at all.

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When Jeannie says it, she means saints, a concept new to her; in her Protestant experience, prayer is “you and Jesus, no one else.” But a brush with Catholicism brought with it the idea of saints as intercessors, friends who sit on your shoulder and pray alongside you. Now Jeannie asks for a few good words every now and again from her new friend, St. Mother Theodore Guerin. But the way she expressed her good fortune (see title above) provoked, yes, a poem.

How do you acquire them
and where do they perch?
Do you feel them as a brush of wings
against your shoulder, or as a rush of wind,
hot, like breath, and intimate? Have they
set up shop (prayers, five cents each, like
a comic strip psychiatry stand) or —
are your insistent wishes just a blip in their routine,
something to do on the way to the fishing hole,
the café, the clean white shops of heaven?
Whatever. The machinery of it is unimportant.
What counts is the concern, unfathomable,
laughable, even, of a child, a nun, a martyr,
of those who burned or hung, lay with lepers
or led armies into battle, who died in perfect faith,
reaching across immeasurable time, to chime in
a single good word: Amen. I thank them for their
affirmation; I hope to join the chorus one day.

A [choose one: a) genie b) fairy c) angel d) pink unicorn] suddenly appears right in front of you and asks, “If you could be anything, what would you be?” I imagine most people would choose a word like “rich” or “powerful,” or more specific words like “a pro football player” or “a rock star.” Who on earth would pick a word like “holy”?

Holiness gets a bum rap, mostly because few of us understand it. Holiness doesn’t separate a person from others; it draws people together. Holiness doesn’t demand complete self-abandonment. Holiness empowers total self-integration. To be holy is to be whole.

Imagine being wholly yourself — using all of your gifts to their fullest extent, allowing your personality to fully bloom, pursuing your passions utterly. That’s all part of being holy. Holy people aren’t partial people; they are the complete package. They know themselves, yet push themselves to always be more. When you meet a holy person — and so few of us do — you know it.

But holy people also embrace their holey-ness, that is, their brokenness. They know where they are lacking in physical and spiritual gifts. What they can work on, they do. But what cannot be changed, what is innately “holey” in them, they know to nurture. They love themselves, warts and all, as God loves them…and they extend the same love to other “holey” people. And let’s face it — we’re all holey.

If you’d asked me, back when I was a kid, what being holy looked like, you would have got a rather bland picture: Someone looking terribly serious, saintly and silent. I no longer think that. To be truly holy, one must constantly reach for action verbs — words like share, give, work, labor, protect, bless, and love. In other words, holiness is hard work. That may be the reason so few of us bother with it.

I am blessed to know a few truly holy people. They are the kind of people you want to be around. They seem at peace. They are attuned to others but don’t neglect themselves. People naturally gravitate toward them. And with good reason. Holy people are remembered, even centuries after their lives, not because they were dull do-gooders, but because they were vibrantly alive — vibrantly themselves.

Holiness is worth pursuing. Tell that to the next pink unicorn you meet.

I loved Halloween when I was a kid. Dressing up, canvassing the neighborhood for candy…. Best of all, if Halloween fell on a weekday, there was never school the next day — because it was a holy day of obligation, All Saint’s Day. What a great holiday! Only Christmas could trump it.

Nowadays, I pay little attention to Halloween. Our street does not get trick-or-treaters. And, being a grown-up, I am aware of far too many real-life terrors to be enchanted by grinning jack-o’-lanterns and costumed monsters. But I retain affection for All Saint’s Day.

There are many saints who have provided me with support over the years. For instance, Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases, has more than once been my prayer-partner. I’ve also leaned on Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things, for help in finding everything from homework to misplaced keys. And what good Catholic hasn’t muttered, “Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, find a space for my machine-y” in a crowded parking lot? (Really? Just me?)

Certain saints, however, hold a more indelible place in my heart. Take St. Lawrence, my patron saint. Asked to present the Romans with the riches of the city, he brought in a crowd of poor people, an offense that bought him the death penalty: roasting alive on a giant barbeque. During his death, he was heard to quip, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.” I love him for his sense of humor, his bravado, his commitment to the poor. I see a lot of St. Lawrence in Pope Francis.

St. Theodora, also known as Mother Theodore Guerin, was the founder of the college I attended, St. Mary-of-the-Woods. Known for her commitment to educating women in a time when college was considered dangerous to a female’s health, Mother Theodore was a force to be reckoned with. She simultaneously embraced humility and obedience while refusing to back down from her commitment to her mission, even when the local bishop effectively kidnapped her, locked her up, and told her she was excommunicated from the Church. A woman who once gently directed her order to love children first, then instruct them, St. Theodora is a model of patience, kindness and strength.

And then there’s Thomas Merton, who is not a saint yet, but who ought to be. Brilliant from the get-go, the son of an artist, Merton was a long-time atheist who found God in the most surprising of ways. (I urge anyone who is unsettled on the question of God to read Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.) He became a Trappist monk and a prolific poet and writer, covering a wide variety of topics, such as social justice and Eastern religions. He died too young, and with him the world lost one of the 20th century’s great spiritual thinkers.

We are used to thinking of saints in the past tense. It seems incredible that saints might walk among us today, but they do. What do they do that the rest of us don’t? Not much, really. Sainthood is less a way of doing than a way of being. As Mother Theodore said, “Let us never forget that if we wish to die like the Saints we must live like them. Let us force ourselves to imitate their virtues, in particular humility and charity.” In a world where humility and charity are in short supply (just look at our politicians), let us not forget the example of the saints.

You stand in good company
with Addie and Cynthia,
Carol and Carole;
with Thomas á Beckett,
centuries away from Birmingham
and from your own hometown.

You saw death in the house of God
and you yielded, hands open.
Did you forgive him, even in that
moment? The shock of the bullet?
The letting of blood?
I believe you did.

The trip to Heaven
could not have been quicker,
from the sight of Christ’s cross
to the sight of His flesh
in the blink of a moment,
faster yet than bullets leave barrels.

Pray for us, new saints
to the pantheon of those
struck down by evil
in a place of God.
The God of the lowly, those shoved to the margins,
hears you most keenly.

 

Female role models don’t exactly abound in the Catholic Church. On the one hand, we have Mary, mother of God. Ever see a statue of Mary? Does she look like a woman who gave birth and nursed a child or does she look like a twelve-year-old boy? If you agreed with the latter, you must be a church-goer. All the statues I’ve ever seen of Mary portray her as nearly sexless, with no curves and even less femininity. Saint John is prettier. But of course, Mary was a virgin. That the Bible never says whether she had sex with Joseph (who was her husband, after all) after the birth of Jesus doesn’t keep most people from viewing her as perpetually untouched — and therefore sinless. Mary is just about the only positive role model young Catholic girls have…and she’s not portrayed as a woman in any real way — certainly not in a way that a modern woman in a loving relationship can respond to. There are few (if any) husbands or boyfriends as understanding as Joseph. One expression of human sexuality and, well, you’re not like Mary anymore.

So, whom can we look to? Let’s examine the other Mary, Mary Magdalene. Again, nowhere in the Bible does it state that Mary Magdalene was a woman of ill repute. In fact, MM’s backstory didn’t come about until Pope Gregory, in the year 591, decided that three women named Mary mentioned in the gospels were, in fact, one and the same woman. Thus began Mary Magdalene’s association with bad girls. Of course we know that she reformed. But let’s face it; what do we primarily associate her with? Prostitution. Arguably Jesus’ most faithful female disciple — she who stood by the cross while He died, she who first discovered that He had risen — has gone down in history as a common whore. Who wants to be like her?

Where does that leave all of us women of faith who are neither virgins nor whores? Who do we have to look up to, to emulate? Most female saints are of the virginal sort, many losing their lives rather than relinquish their purity to some filthy man. Then there’s St. Anne, mother of Mary, and St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine — both married ladies and mothers to boot. What do we know about them? Not much, other than they gave birth to great figures of the Church. They are prized, seemingly, mostly for being the mother of Someone. Too bad.

Catholic boys and men have a plethora of choices for role models — from firebrands like Peter and Paul to contemplatives like St. John…tough guys, like Michael the Archangel and tender guys, like Francis of Assisi. Catholic women mostly have Mary or Mary. No wonder so many of us feel lost.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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