Looking to the saints we see reflections of humanity
Fr Kevin Hegarty
AS a teenager I was turned off saints. The holy pictures of my childhood depressed me. They usually depicted saints as giant and gloomy characters, with lurid haloes framing their emaciated features. Stories of their lives often left me incredulous. They were usually tales of heroic but implausible piety, like that of St Simeon Stylites, an early Christian saint, who was reputed to have spent 30 years praying on a pillar. Well, really!
Not surprisingly, I thought saints in their earthly existence lived in incense-filled cocoons cut off from reality.
I found it particularly difficult to relate to St Dominic Savio, a young Italian who lived in the nineteenth century. In national school he was often presented to us as a model of boyish virtue. Always smiling, looking sickly and seemingly intensely spiritual. He died when only 15 years of age. I did not doubt his goodness nor the gentle dignity with which he faced his illness and early death, but his life was totally alien to the boyhood world I inhabited. A sympathetic biographer called him ‘God’s Teenager’ but he was not like any teenager I knew.
Of course I now realise that most saints have been victims enthusiastic hagiographers whose portraits were of pious skeletons drained of their humanity. The American satirist Ambrose Bierce summed up a whole literary genre when he defined saints in his amusing book, the ‘Devils Dictionary’ as ‘dead sinners, revised and edited’.
Redeeming my view
There is, however, no gilding of the lilies in the New Testament. Perhaps that is why I have come to admire St Peter. I have been reflecting on him in the last few days as we have just celebrated the feast day he shares with St Paul. He has restored my faith in sainthood as he is earthed in human reality. His humanitay is tellingly evoked in the gospel stories. He was an ordinary fisherman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. He was generous and devoted to Jesus Christ. He was a practical man, aware of his limitations. His faults are not glossed over. They are presented, unadorned. His impetuosity led him into blunders, most memorably when he set out to walk across the water to Jesus but faltered when doubt overcame him. His uncontrolled anger caused him to cut off the ear of the centurion who had come to arrest Jesus. He talked the talk of loyalty but sometimes could not walk the walk. He tried to be with his leader to the end, no matter what it cost him, yet his courage failed him and he denied Jesus three times in the hate-filled atmosphere that preceded the crucifixion.
Yet this flawed man was chosen by Jesus to lead the Church which he wished to establish. It was an extraordinary decision given the usual standards that apply in society.
Once again Jesus wanted to turn the way of the world upside down. In the choice of Peter we see all the operations of its basic Christian insight that God chooses the weak and makes them strong. The message for Christians is that we are open to God’s inspirations, we can rise above our fragilities and failures. A line from Samuel Beckett is relevant here. He once wrote ‘Try fail, try again, fail better’.
St Peter exemplifies the truth of this maxim. In the end the man who denied Jesus was enabled to endure a cruel martyrdom far from the dusty roads he had trampled with him.