They’re cheering for us, praying for us. More than that, though, they show us how it’s done.
After a year of reflecting on different Scripture passages every week, I think it’s only fair to share my favorite Scripture passage—at least my favorite of the last few years:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. (Hebrews 12:1-4)
I could write a book on this passage, the image of casting off sin, of running toward Christ. I’ve been meditating for months on this idea of keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, of staring at the smile lines around his eyes and being captivated by his human weakness. I quote verse 2 again and again in talks: “For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the Cross—you were that joy!” I remind myself, when temptation seems too strong or when I’m inclined to congratulate myself on having defeated it, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” And when I’m overwhelmed by the too-muchness of it all, I picture Christ, suffering unimaginable pain, not just to save me but so that I might not grow weary and lose heart. I could pray on this passage forever.
And then there’s that cloud of witnesses, the saints who’ve gone before us and whose lives show us how to live. These men and women and children have almost nothing in common with each other. They’re princes and peasants, geniuses and fools. Some barely sinned a day in their lives, others lived lives so evil even HBO might be tempted to censor them. There are explorers and housewives, theologians and farmers, men recognized as great even by a world that despises the Church and others so ordinary that those closest to them hardly noticed anything special.
This is the legacy that’s been handed to us: a Church filled with saints so entirely different from one another that we who follow in their footsteps find that each of us is made in our own mold, called to holiness in a unique way. You’re not going to be a hobo and I’m not going to be a bishop and none of us is likely to debate heretics at ecumenical councils but all of us are called to be saints.
This was an idea I held rather vaguely for over 15 years—saints are great and we don’t worship them. But all I knew was negative apologetics, why it’s not bad to ask the intercession of saints or hold them up as models. I didn’t know them. They weren’t friends, weren’t stories to be told or witnesses to imitate. They were just there.
I don’t know what happened, exactly, but over the last few years I’ve begun to realize just how incredible it is to belong to this communion of saints. Fr. Mike Schmitz has of the saints as a crowd of those who’ve finished the race before us and come back for us to run us home. I love that concept, that these are the men and women who’ve been where we are and who love us more than we’ve ever loved before. They’re cheering for us, praying for us. More than that, though, they show us how it’s done.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians (11:1) to be imitators of him as he is of Christ. Of course, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith, but when we turn our eyes to the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, they lead us to him. We imitate Christ, of course. For all the fullness of his humanity, though, Jesus never struggled to breastfeed; but St. Zelie did. Jesus wasn’t haunted by memories of a sinful past; but St. Mary of Egypt was. Jesus wasn’t an alcoholic; but Venerable Matt Talbot was.
The Saints show us what imitating Christ looks like in particular circumstances, with certain failings and struggles and limitations. It’s as though you’re going through an impossible obstacle course (think American Ninja Warrior) and you’re following some tall, muscular, coordinated guy and trying to do what he did. The trouble is, you’re short and nearsighted and you’ve only got one arm. But here comes a coach with one arm who says, “Oh, I’ve done this part. Here’s what you need to do.” And when you’re past that obstacle, up walks a nearsighted saint to guide you through the next. Then someone short with a strategy for the Warped Wall. And more than just advice, you can watch videos of how they did it, listen to them cheer, watch a crowd of them going wild in the stands, all for you.
I was in the chapel at Oxford’s Magdalen College once, where dozens of saints carved from heavy wood loom over the worshipers, and I had an image of the Saints in heaven leaning down over a gap in the clouds, staring at us. “I spoke truth though it killed me. What are you going to do?” “I proclaimed the name of Jesus to the lost. What are you going to do?” “I spent my life caring for the poorest of the poor. What are you going to do?” “I loved virtue more than life itself.” “I saw the dignity in criminals.” “I praised God in great suffering.” And when we fall they’re disappointed but encouraging: “I once started a war over a book of Psalms. It’s okay. Get up and keep going.” “I spent 40 years caring about nothing but myself. Turn back to Christ and try again.” It’s like a whole crew of big brothers and sisters cheering and instructing and encouraging and interceding—what an incredible grace!
If you’re anything like I was, you ask St. Anthony to find stuff and maybe hit up St. Joseph of Cupertino for help on exams. But the saints are so much more than just extra people to pray and the more you get to know them, the more (I think) you’ll realize what a gift they are. So if 2016 was A Year in the Word, I’m declaring 2017 A Year with the Saints. Each week, I’ll introduce you to a Saint (or Blessed or maybe even a Venerable here or there) whose feast day is coming up, a saint whose strengths or weaknesses are inspiring or encouraging. This year, let’s get to know this enormous family of ours and allow the cloud of witnesses to help us persevere in running the race, with our eyes always fixed on Jesus.