I’m thinking today about saints. Today, December 12, marks exactly one week since the death of Nelson Mandela, a man many have called a modern-day saint. It also marks the anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego during the Middle Ages. I will attend a celebration in her honor tonight at our local Mother Grove Goddess Temple. Tomorrow, December 13, is the feast day of St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind. It also marks the anniversary of the start date of the Council of Trent, a council that addressed, among other things, the veneration of saints. Since both the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have freely available lists of saints honored on any given day, it seemed like a good time to check it out and see what I could find. As it turns out, there are saints in all the world’s major religions, and their stories are almost always fascinating.
Saints are generally associated with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches because they have official processes for recognizing and canonizing them. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and other reformists criticized the Catholic Church for venerating saints and their relics. They warned that such veneration was idolatrous, distracting believers from God, the true object of worship. At the time, their arguments held little sway. When the Council of Trent ended in 1563, the Catholic Church affirmed the veneration of saints, relics, and the Virgin Mary. The reformers, as you know, ended up founding new denominations.
I am rarely an apologist for the Catholic Church, but they may have simply been acknowledging a spiritual reality: people have always been interested in honoring those who seem to live saintly lives – people who live a life of compassion, people who apparently have a special connection with the divine, people whose presence is associated with miraculous events, people who consistently remain one with the holy, or people who guide us to that which is sacred in ourselves.
Most organized religions have found a way to make peace with this aspect of human nature. The idea that saintly adoration should never replace one’s worship of the one, true God is a typical stance for monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Even the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are now clear on that point. But honoring believers who have lived particularly saintly lives is generally allowed, perhaps even encouraged. Buddhism and Hinduism also have long traditions of honoring saintly beings. Buddhist saints are those who have achieved nirvana, the sublime state of enlightenment. You might hear them called bodhisattvas. In the Hindu tradition, you might hear saints called gurus or swamis. Some Hindu saints are even accorded god-like status many years after their deaths. These avatars are considered to be incarnations of Vishnu, Shiva, or some other aspect of the divine.
Juan Diego is one of the many, many Christian saints. It’s not even clear how many saints there are, although most sources number them in the thousands. Juan Diego’s story began on December 9, 1531, on a hilltop outside Mexico City where he experienced a vision of a young girl. She asked that a church be built in that place and in her honor. Juan Diego immediately recognized the girl as an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When he relayed his tale to the Archbishop of Mexico City, the Archbishop asked Juan Diego to produce a sign as proof, so Juan Diego returned to the hilltop site. The young virgin appeared again and instructed him to gather flowers. Although it was December, Juan Diego discovered beautiful roses all around him. The virgin arranged the flowers in his cloak, and Juan Diego returned to the Archbishop on December 12. When he opened his cloak, the flowers gently floated to the earth, and in their place was an image of the virgin. That image is now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Soon after, the Basilica of Guadalupe was built at the foot of the hill. It is one of the most visited Marian shrines on the planet, and it claims to house the cloak of Juan Diego, who was canonized as a saint in 2002.
In honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I have chosen to outline the lives of a few, interesting female saints that I came across today.
Hannah (mother of Samuel; lived around 900BC; feast day = December 9): Hannah, married to Elkanah, was childless. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had children, and Peninnah thought nothing of mocking Hannah because the “Lord had closed her womb.” One night, Hannah presented herself in the temple. She wept and prayed and vowed that if God would grace her with a boy, she would give the boy up to the priesthood. Hannah’s prayer was answered, and she gave birth to Samuel, which means “asked from God.” You can read her Biblical story in 1 Samuel 1-10.
St. Lucy (patron saint of the blind; lived on the island of Sicily from about 283-304CE; feast day = December 13): Lucy’s mother arranged for her to be married to a young pagan, despite Lucy’s sacred vow to remain a virgin and distribute her wealth to the poor. When the marriage was canceled, the groom-to-be reported Lucy’s Christian beliefs to the non-believing governor. But when the guards tried to arrest her, she became stiff as a board and heavy as a mountain. Unable to move her, they built a fire around her and tried to burn her alive. When that didn’t work, they stabbed her with a sword in the throat. She was venerated as a Christian martyr almost immediately, and by the Middle Ages, her story also included a bit about having her eyes gouged out.
Machig Labdrön (founder of Chöd, a Tibetan Buddhist practice; lived from about 1055-1153CE): Machig was a native of Tingri, a village in southern Tibet near the base of Mt. Everest. As a Tibetan native, she was familiar with their ancient shamanic rituals. She became an early disciple of Guru Dampa Sangye, who had moved to Tibet from southern India. He taught Machig the fundamentals of Mahamudra meditation, which she practiced diligently from her home in a cave. Over the years, she combined the Mahamudra teachings of India with the shamanic teachings of Tibet to develop Chöd, a unique spiritual tradition that is still practiced today. The word Chöd means “cutting through,” as in cutting through and moving past the ego.
Julian of Norwich (Christian mystic; lived from about 1342-1416 in Norwich, England; never canonized – or even beatified – by the Catholic Church): At the age of 30, during a serious illness, this young woman experienced numerous intense visions of Jesus. She described her visions in writing shortly after they happened. That text is now known as the earliest surviving English book authored by a woman. Many years later, she wrote a longer, more theological version of her visions. She believed that God was all-loving, compassionate, merciful, and forgiving. She also saw God as both our mother and father. She is called Julian of Norwich because she lived as a religious hermit in a small cell built into the wall of St. Julian Church of Norwich. Her real name is unknown.
Anandamayi Ma (lived from 1896-1982 in what is now Bangladesh): Born Nirmala Sundari, Ma was a peaceful, radiant baby whose divinity was recognized when she was still an infant. She was married at the age of 13, according to local custom, but by all accounts, her marriage was celibate. She was known for her prolonged, deep meditative states. From the age of two, kirtan, a form of devotional chanting, could leave Ma in an ecstatic, blissful trance. Many followers reported her ability to hold complex asanas and mudras for long periods of time. Even though she had almost no formal schooling, crowds of people from around the world, including noted political figures, would visit her for spiritual counsel and blessed guidance or simply to rest in her divine light.
The veneration of saints is controversial, and their biographies are suspect, especially for saints born before the Renaissance period. But hidden within the legends and gore, we meet people who offered the world shining examples of perseverance, holiness, faith, and love. There are certainly worse things one could contemplate on any given day.
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[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]