Sainthood As Art

Neil is correct to press me for an affirmative response to the question, “What are saints for?”

I cannot criticize in others the hermeneutic of subtraction without offering something positive from my own encounters with the saints. After some reflection these past few days, I’d like to begin with Neil’s quote from David McCarthy, and springboard the discussion from here:

Certainly, literary, historical and other critical tools ought to bear on how the Bible is understood, but, at its fundamental level, the truth of scripture is most fully grasped when lived out.

When I was on retreat at St John’s Abbey last month, I was introduced to the Saint John’s Bible. In this work, the text of the Scriptures is developed with illumination to augment the believer’s experience. That artistic augmentation far surpasses a picture book. For the medieval West, there may have been a practical reason for enhancing the text for illiterate believers. But given that these manuscripts were produced by religious communities, it might also be that they were more than illustrated Bibles for those who could not read Latin. Having experienced lectio divina with illuminated Scriptures, I can attest from my own experience that it’s more than watching pretty pictures.

I would agree with Professor McCarthy in that the lives of the saints serve to illuminate the Scriptures. As Neil suggests, what better example do we have for Luke 9:58 than Francis of Assisi?

In pondering this, I’ve been living the start of a joyful liturgical season with the usual musical backdrop. (I don’t mean the pop radio stations.) In addition to illuminations of gold, silver, and paint on parchment we also have the musical embellishment of the Scriptures–centuries of musical heritage. Christmas might be accessible enough, especially with another nod to Saint Francis. But we also have the irrepressible Gloria of that favorite French carol and the expansive range of O Divinum Mysterium. I can’t imagine celebrating the Nativity without either.

The saints provide a third way of illumination. One might say that their lives are a “performance art” intended to develop the Word of God. Their witness complements the two traditional arts of illustration and music. If this is God’s plan, it’s a good one. Music and visual art, grand as they can be, do not always appeal to everyone, everywhere. Saints enfold another layer into the Christian consciousness.

Saint as artist, saint as illuminator of Divine Revelation is more appealing to me personally than saint as hero. While not to disparage the notion of hero, I think our strongest and most authentic saints should stand above mere heroism.

The multivalance of Christian saints allows them to stand out fron admirable human figures of politics or sport or art or culture. Sainthood as art form allows us to discern exemplars of the Christian way, to see saints as women and men beyond personal virtue, however important that might be. They place the human witness of Divine Revelation more squarely in the grace of God.

Seeing saints as the work of art of an almighty and generous God? Why not. We focus on the artist as we admire the art. We aspire to be tools in the hands of God. We can be inspired to sacrifice ourselves for God’s plan of salvation.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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