Note: this weekend, I wrote a post collecting all of my responses to people’s Protestant concerns with praying (or “talking”) to saints. Before you express your disagreement to this present post, I’d ask that you’d at least read some of that. Thanks.
Especially on Facebook, my previous post on praying to saints caused a lot of conversation, with maybe slightly more than half of people disagreeing (strongly) with my post, with the other half appreciating it. So before I begin this post today, I want to make something clear: I don’t like being that guy. This blog’s purpose is not to start flame wars or set off long disagreements among friends. I genuinely want to be helpful to people–even when that means challenging and stretching them, and even when they strongly disagree with me. One need not be convinced of a position to be helped by reading about it.
With that being said, let me tell you some of my experience with finding a saint to pray to (or, as my previous post said, maybe a better word is simply “talk”), and then let me tell you a little bit about her.
Throughout history, there seems to have been saints that have gone before us that God has given unique grace to in certain areas of life. Those saints that the Church knew of and was able to recognize ended up being declared “patron saints” of those things they seemed to have unique, almost unparalleled grace for.
And so, in times of need in a certain area, much of the Church throughout history has felt comfortable praying to those saints from times past that seemed to be especially graced for those kinds of situations.
So…here’s my funny story.
Early this year, I knew I was moving into church leadership and seminary again. Also, I had begun my series on women leaders in the church and so I wanted to pick a female saint. And so, I picked St. Catherine of Alexandria, a patron saint of philosophers and theologians, who was burned at the stake for having converted to Christ all of the philosophers in a certain town. I felt that I could try out praying to her while in seminary.
I went to the only Catholic gift shop I knew of in Philly and found the necklace you can see below. Well, as you can see, I messed up. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had picked up the wrong saint. Figuring this was “meant to be”, I decided to go with it, and I looked up Catherine of Siena, who is a patron saint of lots of things, including against sexual temptation. Oh great, I thought.
But then I quickly realized she was the saint for me.
Born in the 14th-century, she grew up in a really difficult household. At age 5 or 6, she started having ecstatic visions of Christ, and so she devoted herself to celibacy in order to focus on serving him and him alone. And yet, even in this difficult home, she tried to love and serve her family relentlessly.
She decided to neither get married nor become a secluded nun, and instead stay within society and devote herself to learning and teaching about Christ. She became a lower level member of the Dominican Order, so she would be a layperson in the service of the Church.
At 21, she experienced the event that most defines artistic representations of her: she had a massive ecstatic vision of Jesus, and experienced a “Mystical Marriage to Christ”. It was during this event that she felt Jesus tell her to no longer live a quiet, withdrawn life, but to go headlong into the public sphere.
She became a traveling teacher and got involved in the politics of the day. She gathered male and female disciples (yes, women can do that in the Catholic Church), began her prolific writing career, and became a de facto diplomat of sorts, traveling place to place, trying to make peace among warring political factions of the day. She was almost assassinated on a couple of occasions for her political work.
At 30, she wrote her most famous work, The Dialogue, is about a conversation between a Soul and God that delves into the depths of the human spiritual experience and God’s relation to it. It’s supposedly a transcript of an ecstatic experience she had to this effect.
Ever since being a teenager, she had been ill for most of her life, and as she got older, could eat less and less. Eventually, until the only thing she could eat was Communion, which she took daily. She lost the use of her legs, had a stroke, and a week later died at the age of 33.
Now, I don’t mean to exalt her or make her super-human. Some of her ecstatic and charismatic experiences are incredibly odd. A brief stint of her political work involved getting a crusade underway to fight against Muslims. She didn’t really seem to be within any consistent community or accountability structure and largely spent her ministry as a lone wolf, experiencing, writing, and teaching things on her own with little input from others (that I can tell).
And yet, I feel a certain kinship with her. She is one of only two women that are “Doctors of the Church” , meaning she is one of the most respected theological minds in the Catholic Church. And yet she is also considered one of the most important mystical writers in all of Catholicism.
So… a mystical charismatic with a mind and ear for theology, writing, and politics, who comes from a difficult church background and childhood? Sound familiar? I certainly feel like I see that person in the mirror each day.
Like I said in the first post, I take seriously the sainthood of all believers. If you take on praying to saints, I genuinely think that you should feel free to talk to any saint that has gone before us, not just those canonized by Catholics or the Orthodox. And I think you should feel free to talk to many of them at once if you want. For me, though, I just needed to pick one as I tried this practice on for size. And I’m glad it was Catherine. I’m still planning on delving into her writing here soon as part of this practice, and I’ll be sure to tell you about it when I do.
[image credit: “Catherine of Sienna” by Theophilia on DeviantArt]
Again, if you’re still really having some problems with all of this or think I’m way out of line, I’d encourage you to read some of my clarification and response post, especially the first little section. Here’s that pic of Catherine I mentioned earlier: