Foolish and Excessive Saints


Fear the Most High, you that are God’s saints, for those who fear God lack nothing.  In the name of the undivided Trinity, one God now and forever.  Amen.

The young man stood alone in the centre of the town square.  All around him, people were gathering—jeering and mocking, unsure what to expect, but anxious to see what might happen.  He had been literally dragged there minutes earlier by his angry father, simply because he had taken and sold samples of rich cloth from his father’s store in order to get some money to repair a dilapidated old church.  Things had not been going well with his father in the past few months, and the annoyed shopkeeper wanted justice and compensation from the local bishop.

The bishop, irritated because he had been disturbed from his noonday meal, asked the father what he wanted.  The young man remained silent.  The father accused his son of ruining the family business and the family name.  He wanted to have his property back, and, if not, he was prepared to disown his son.  Everyone in town, including the bishop, was to be a public witness to this fact.  The son walked very slowly toward his father.  Methodically, without saying a word, he began to undress.  Standing there fully naked, he gave his clothes to the father, and turned away.  There were gasps and more jeers from the assembled crowd.  As Francis walked out through the town gate toward the hills of Assisi, one could hear shouts of “What a fool!”  Yes, what a fool.  What a holy fool.  God’s holy fool.

Saints represent many different things to many different people.  For some, they may be intercessors, or guides, or models, or a sign of the kingdom to come.  When I was a child, saints to me were heroic figures, and I wanted to be like them.  I still retain a sense of that.  Of course, we all love hearing about Francis of Assisi because he is, in so many ways, the quintessential saint; we romanticize him for his simple and refreshingly literal way of living out the gospel message.  Yet we forget how terribly odd he was, and how much he would have been seen as a marginal figure and an outcast in his own community.  What can one expect from a person who undresses in the town square?  That certainly seems to be the pattern with saints.  They’re odd, and weird, and terribly eccentric.  They are “in-your-face” about everything they do.  In a word, they are defiantly queer.  In the eyes of their contemporaries, and probably in our own from the 21st century, saints were, and are, quite foolish individuals.  Why do they do such things, we may ask?  And is God really calling us to this sort of thing?  Even as we know that we are all called to holiness.  We are all called to be signs of God’s presence in the world.

The other thing about saints is that they live lives of rather curious and, at times, distressing excess: excessive prayer, excessive mortification, pretty much excessive everything—but also, excessive faith, excessive hope, excessive mercy, excessive love.  In the academic study of saints and sanctity, which is a field that I work in, the theme of saintly excess is a prominent focus of analysis.  We use it as a way of trying to understand how these holy persons were able to shape coherent and sustaining identities for themselves—how they were able to use their bodies, in many cases, as a means of affirming themselves, and also critically engaging with the culture they lived in.  Generally, however, it’s fair to say that we don’t feel terribly comfortable with excess.  All too often, it implies something negative, a disturbing kind of fanaticism; something we should avoid at all costs, especially, in this day and age, when it comes to being religious.  Yet I ask myself: was Jesus himself not rather excessive in his own life—in what he said, in how he related to others, in his challenges to the power holders of his time?  Is that not why he was so often despised?  And what’s wrong with having an excess of desire for God?

I think saints are definitely onto something when it comes to foolishness and excess.  I am reminded of that oft-repeated quote from the second century Church father, St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  We have to be careful: this is not talking about the modern cult of self-fulfilment, though it has often been used that way.  It’s not about me or us; it’s about God.  Irenaeus is saying that God is best made manifest—is most gloriously present, as it were—when human beings are most themselves; foolishly so; excessively so.  Why?  Because God made us in God’s image, and God is nothing if not excessively and beautifully creative.  I think one can argue for a theology of excess, a theology of radical creativity.  The Latin American theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid—she who also talks about tango as a form of prayer—uses the expression “indecent theology.”  This may be jarring to our ears, but she’s really referring to a type of theology done from the margins, at the intersections of oppressive power and human vulnerability.  A theology that is indecent only insofar as it challenges and pushes the limits of a decent, more established theology.  In that way, saints are indecent theologians.  They refuse to be constrained by what a decent church—or a decent culture, for that matter—says and does.  Saints push the envelope; they step in where the world or the church so often fail to step in.  Saints are not afraid of getting their hands dirty; they are fearless.  Saints, in a good and generous kind of way, can put us to shame.  The examples of their lives, which are so often lived at the margins, can help us push our own limits outward and upward.

In fact, is there anything more excessive and more foolish from the world’s perspective, and according to the world’s logic, than the Beatitudes?  We have just heard the familiar litany from the gospel of Matthew.  We hear it recited so often that we hardly bat an eyelash.  We may even know it by heart.  But have we really considered the implications of the Beatitudes, the ways in which they constitute a direct challenge to so-called decent worldly values?  If we were to begin living like that—as saints down through the ages have done—what might the world think of us?  Peace-making?  Mercy?  Meekness?  Purity?  Some of us might strive to live like that, but we know full well that these are not the world’s norms, certainly not what is expected of ordinary people.  That is why saints, extraordinary people if ever there were, are so gloriously foolish at living the Beatitudes to excess.  The Beatitudes remain the Christian standard, not the worldly standard.  Saints have understood that, and saints can help model a response from us to the challenges posed by the Beatitudes.  In that way, saints can and do hold a mirror to our lives.

Dès le jour de notre baptême, nous sommes appelés à devenir des saints.  Nous sommes invités à faire partie de la grande et belle famille de Dieu, qui inclut ceux et celles qui nous ont précédés dans la foi : les saints et les saintes.  Le prêtre nous pose une série de questions, des questions qui nous permettent non seulement d’affirmer les fondements mêmes de notre foi, mais aussi de nous engager envers le monde et d’être solidaires avec les personnes avec qui nous le partageons, qu’elles soient proches ou loin de nous.  C’est ce que les saints, depuis toujours, ont su faire.  Ces saintes personnes ont su reconnaître les besoins des gens qui les entouraient, et elles y ont répondus avec générosité et grand dévouement, comme nous le demandent les béatitudes dans l’évangile d’aujourd’hui.  Les saintes et les saints, de qui nous devons tirer exemple, nous interpellent encore et toujours.  Ils nous demandent de nous surpasser.  C’est aussi ce que Dieu veut de nous, un excès d’amour, un amour sans bornes qui est gage d’espérance et de vie pour les autres.

What a glorious vision we are given in today’s reading from the Book of Revelation!  It’s quite the grandiose spectacle, a kind of Cecil B. de Mille over-the-top staging of saintly happiness.  But above all, it’s a promise, a promise to which each one of us is called, and in which we are all offered a starring role.  We are indeed all called to holiness.  We are all summoned to sanctity—in fact, we already are part of this communion of the saints, seen and unseen.  We just need to be more deliberate about it, more conscious of how we can live it out more fully.  How we choose to do that depends very much on our own life circumstances.  There is no one uniform path, no set roadmap, and no journey safer than the other.

A good place to start, however, might be to love excessively and to live fearlessly.  And in so doing, to become God’s holy and saintly fool.

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