Mirrors and windows: Saints are for Lutherans, too
She’s now sainted,” Kurt Hendel said with love and a tear in his eye, indicating that the woman in the picture had died.
He was presenting a digital memory book of former classmates, spouses of classmates, and friends all united by an experience with the Seminex tradition. Homecoming that year had brought many pastors and friends who had lived through that experience back to campus, and Dr. Hendel was leading a short seminar on the subject, personalizing the slides.
I was struck by that phrase, “now sainted.” Though I understood that, theologically speaking, Lutherans held anyone who died in the faith as a “saint” (we have little patience for the pomp and purported miracles of the canonization process), I’d never seen it practically applied. But perhaps most notable for me was the fact that Dr. Hendel was, in that moment, not referring to some grand, well-known theologian or scholar, but to the spouse of one of his classmates who had made an impression on him.
The saint on the screen was, in most ways, ordinary, and yet worth remembering and worth reverence. It was the most Lutheran of moments, and it made an impression on me.
What we’re missing
In the properly pietistic Lutheran parish of my youth, saints were not something noted or really talked about. Perhaps it was a reaction to a practice that was seen as “overly Roman Catholic,” or perhaps it was just because the saints of the faith weren’t considered relevant. Except for the occasional reference to St. Peter or St. Paul in a church’s name, saints weren’t in the faith picture for me. I suspect the same could be said for many Lutherans over the past few centuries. We’re not the better for it.
An affinity for the saints of the faith would have been second nature for me in childhood, as it has proven to be as an adult. I started reading comic books at an early age. Superheroes were more than just fanciful and fascinating for me. I wanted to be virtuous like Captain America. I wanted to save the day like Wonder Woman. I wanted to be that hero. Superheroes were more than just characters for me; they were symbols of possibility and reminders of righteousness in action, however flawed they were.
And they were flawed.
In seminary I was reintroduced to the saints of the church through an exploration into the Greek Orthodox tradition. This highly visual arm of the faith utilizes icons in a way that tantalized my imagination and reignited those superhero feelings inside of me. Don’t mistake that phraseology for some sort of infantilized faith, though; I do not see the saints of the faith as unflawed superheroes.
They are all flawed.
I do see them, however, as storied examples of faith in action. I do see them as examples of virtues and vices, to be learned from, sometimes emulated, and worth a second look by a Lutheran church that claims to love an embodied faith but has often only whispered about this sacred tradition.
The saints of the church have been largely kept in a small-print calendar in our hymnals, and with the exception of liturgical renewal in the last two decades, have been ignored.
We’ve lost the stories of our own flawed, ordinary, superheroes.
The process and pitfalls
The process for official canonization in the Roman branch of our faith was first adopted in the 12th Century. It is quite long and involved.
After a revered person dies there is normally a five-year moratorium, allowing a little space between the death and the process to make sure popular opinion doesn’t have undue influence on the papal decree of sainthood (a notable exception to this is Mother Teresa’s fast-tracked sainthood, with this five-year period waived by John Paul II just two years after her death). After this, a person can become a “Servant of God,” an official indication that the church is considering them for sainthood.
From there a scholarly deep dive into the life of the person is conducted, ensuring that their record lives up to the title. This can take a while (it took the popular Joan of Arc 450 years to be canonized).
The next step in the process is, for most saints, some sort of verified miracle after being invoked in prayer. This step can be waived in the case of a martyr for the faith, whose death is apparently seen as proof enough of worthiness.
Finally, the person in question is canonized after a second (or third, sometimes) miracle is attributed to them. A day is assigned, a Mass is declared, and they’re added to the calendar of those honored and venerated.
This process is obviously a tripping point for Lutherans, especially regarding “verified miracles,” of which Lutherans are generally theologically allergic. Instead, we’d rather consider anyone who died in the faith as worthy of remembrance and honor. Brother Thomas Merton (Dec. 10), Sojourner Truth (July 20) and even Fred Rodgers (Feb. 27) all can find a place on our saintly calendar alongside Saint Peter, Saint Augustine and Saint Julian of Norwich.
Utilizing the saints today
For years following my exploration of Greek Orthodoxy I had started to slowly amass icons of the faith, both ancient and modern, using them in my prayer and meditation practices. In my study I found that Luther himself highly venerated the saints of the faith (St. Mary in particular) though he didn’t believe they were any better or worse than anyone else.
This fact has kept me a Lutheran for many years and has encouraged me to utilize icons in my spiritual practices.
Icons are both a mirror and a window for the faithful.
They are a mirror because as you stare at the icon, it stares back at you, inviting you to see their life and example as a lens for living the faith. Simultaneously they are a window offering a glimpse into a different time, context, and way of being in the world. For all the attempts at transcendent experience that the liturgy offers, prayer and meditation with icons has always, for me, heightened the experience in real and visceral ways. It both grounds and transports you, especially when you understand the story of the saint before you.
In 2010 I picked up New Book of Festivals and Commemorations: A Proposed Calendar of Saints (Minneapolis/Fortress Press, 2008) by Philip Pfatteicher, now sainted himself this last year (on the Feast of Saint Alban, June 22). In it I found exactly what it promised: a revised calendar for the saints of the church, both canonized and non-canonized. It was a marriage of orthodoxy and contemporary ecclesial honesty.
I had found a new wellspring for my faith.
I started posting the saint days and icons on social media, borrowing from Pfatteicher as well as Celtic Christian calendars (as someone of Celtic heritage, this strain also speaks to my spirituality). I have found satisfaction in both informing a wider audience about the saints of the faith and in having an opportunity to explore the saints more. With each story of the faithful I gain insight, and these posts are shared far and wide throughout social media and the blogosphere. Weekly I hear stories from people who have found strength and inspiration from these posts that, for many, have long been buried in the corners of the faith.
Embodying both then and now
Outside of the Apostles, Saint Francis of Assisi is probably the most popular saint in the church. He’s remembered for being a saint who liked animals (an animal blessing on or near Oct. 4 is sometimes about as close as a Lutheran might get to a saint in most parishes!). But did you know he’s also the reason you have a manger scene in your home? It was he who invited the faithful to reenact the Christmas story in their churches and their homes with figures and art.
You probably have heard a bit about Saint Patrick because of the popular parades and secular celebrations for the people of Ireland on his feast day (March 17), but did you know that he was actually raised as a slave in Ireland? He returned as a bishop to help the people he came to know and love find a better way of being. His story is not about greenish hues or of beer, but about redemption and rebirth. Likewise, saints like St. Clare (Aug. 11), the first canonized First Nations Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (April 17) and Saint Fabian (elected pope without even being ordained as a priest, remembered on Jan. 20) hold gems of stories worth mining for the faithful.
The saints spark faith in the faithful when their stories are shared. So, set up those icons in your sanctuary and hang them on your walls. Post liner notes on the saints of the day in your bulletins. Post on your social media the stories of those who have gone before us. Educate, inspire, console, and enlighten the church using examples ancient and new!
The saints are both mirrors and windows of the faith. Take a look. After all, we’ll all be one, by God’s grace.
In every social media post about the saints, I always end with some sort of “aha” I pull from their story. Sometimes these are very personal inspirations I find in their example, and sometimes they are larger lessons I think the church at large needs to remember. The saints embody both the then of their time, and the now of our times.
The lives of the saints are reminders for me, and should be for the whole church, that a religion that claims to honor the incarnation but doesn’t lift up lived examples of it will overlook a prime opportunity to educate and inspire those who follow it.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
Original article published in the Winter/Spring 2022 Epistle Magazine; written by alum Tim Brown; photo from themodernsaints.com by Gracie.