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Ordinary Saints

by Jo Connelly
Nov. 5, 2017

A couple of years ago I would be standing here talking about my heroes- Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. But I’m not going to talk about these amazing people. I could have talked about some of the saintliness of some of the homeless men and women I have known, particularly those I know now who live at Seaton House men’s shelter. But even these heroes I am not going to talk about today. These people have inspired many of my life choices, and are understandably held up as persons to emulate. But I don’t know about you, but most days I don’t feel much like a Dorothy Day when I don’t even look at a homeless person pan- handling for spare change, let alone ask them if they need a place to stay and take them home to sleep on my couch. I would love to stand up for the rights of marginalized people like Martin Luther King, Jr., but I can barely make it to work on time, let alone get the masses marching for the rights of others. And Gandhi? Being willing to take the blows of others and hunger strike all for the love of my people and to witness to the power of nonviolence when I can be filled with rage when I think someone has purposefully lied to me or tried to scam me? Or closer to home, when I arrive dog tired after work and my adult kids have left a pile of dishes in the sink and I could just bellow with frustration! I might admire these people, I might try to emulate them in some small ways, but mostly I think of them as out of reach of most of us. In Revelations we are told that the saints standing near to God in Heaven are: “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood.” Hmm, now there’s a concept, they are saints because they have suffered?

In A Reading from Ritual and Pastoral Care by Elaine Ramshaw History is usually the story of conquerors, where greatness is measured in wars won and peoples subdued. Will Cuppy had this in mind when he wrote of Alexander III of Macedonia: “He is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.” The church, on the other hand, remembers a different sort of hero. The liturgical year commemorates saints who suffered unjustly, or who alleviated or prevented the suffering of others. In the words of Matthew, Happy are people who are hopeless, grieving, humble and hungry. Happy are those who show mercy, who have pure hearts, make peace, and those who are harassed. Huh?

So maybe being a saint has more to do with endurance and doing the right thing anyway. Maybe being a saint has more to do with being an ordinary good person than some kind of “perfect soul who does nothing wrong” kind of person? Saints have always meant a lot to me. When my kids were young, we dressed them up in the Halloween costumes that they chose, but the Big Deal was that a group of us had an All Saints party every year. Each of our families read stories of the saints to our kids and then hand made the costumes for them for their chosen saint. Halloween was fun—it was fun to walk around the neighbourhood and be a bit scared but the bigger deal was the All Saints Party, that wasn’t about fictional characters, this was about who you wanted to be—someone who had slayed dragons, was burned at the stake, was friends with animals, someone who fought injustice or cared for the poor.

In case you are thinking “Oh Jo and her friends sound like saints” the three of us families who started this and put in all this effort, all divorced in the years to come, and the community we had built together fell apart. Yes, we all used cloth diapers, made our own baby food, and shared a car, but the challenge of living marriage and community well proved to be so difficult
that it all ended. Some of the friendships during that time remain, and I have to say it was all worth it, but I was very naïve about saint-hood. I want to be a saint, that sounds so funny in today’s world doesn’t it? It conjures up an image of someone who is “sickly sweet” “too nice” someone who is willing to be a doormat for everyone, someone you couldn’t be friends
with. But what if we looked at saints differently? The definition of a saint is: “generally one to whom has been attributed (and who has generally demonstrated) a high level of holiness and sanctity. In this use, a saint is therefore not merely a believer, but one who has been transformed by virtue.” Or as my friend Kathe McKenna says, who founded the Boston Catholic Worker, Haley House, “being a saint means doing the right thing even if no one is looking.”

I’d like to propose that we look at people in our midst who have lead outstanding lives of service to others—look around this church, Holy Trinity is full of extraordinary people—people who have stood up for Social Justice issues over the years not only in Canada but all over the world. I’ll bet every single person would say that they are not a saint—ugh! Don’t call me a saint. Dorothy Day remarked when told there were some who thought she was a saint “Don’t dismiss me so easily.” Because of course this isn’t someone us ordinary people could become, right? I am here today to challenge that notion. My friend Ilona who visited from Boston a few weeks ago told me a story of a woman she knows when I asked her about saints. Ilona just retired as a visiting nurse and used to visit people in very low income buildings in Boston. “Cora,” one of her patients, lived with an unrelated woman we’ll call “Thelma” and Ilona wanted to know how they came to live together. “Back home, on the Island, Cora told her, Thelma lived with her parents across the street. Thelma was developmentally delayed, an only child of elderly parents. Everyone in that neighbourhood was quite poor, but there was a sense of community, and when Thelma’s parents eventually died, Cora and others in the neighbourhood began dropping off food for her every once in awhile. But here’s the thing—Cora noticed that Thelma wasn’t doing well even with the wonderful support the neighbours were bringing her, and eventually asked Thelma to move in with her (without any financial assistance) and later got official permission to have guardianship over her so that they could move together to Boston. Who knows what would have happened to Thelma
if Cora and the neighbours had just continued dropping off food and then if Cora had moved to Boston by herself. Cora would scoff at the idea of being a saint, she just saw a need and did something about it.

I’d like to go a step further. Ilona, my friend from Boston, told me the story of Cora right away when I asked her of a story of a saint. And Ilona would not call herself a saint—but when we were all in our late 20s and 30s in Boston, one of our friends travelled to Central America, met someone and didn’t know she was pregnant until she got back to Boston. This wasn’t the way she wanted to start a family but she wanted to keep this child. Ilona asked her if it would make a difference if she had someone to help her raise the child, and our friend said “yes.” Now you might be thinking Ilona did what Cora had originally done for Thelma—brought food over occasionally. Well, just like Cora she did more. Ilona and our friend I’ll call Cindy moved in together and became co-parents without becoming partners. Cindy then developed bi-polar disorder and when very ill Ilona became the sole caregiver for their son. Eventually Ilona had to move nearby but separate, supporting Cindy but continuing to raise Raul. Raul is now living with his partner in NYC as a graphic designer, is close to both of his parents. Cindy still struggles with her illness which has never stabilized, but manages. Ilona would not call herself a saint, and neither would Cora. I would argue that every one of us can choose a path quite simply and humanly just because “it’s the right thing to do” and become what I would like to call “an ordinary saint.”

In this world of exceptional darkness and fear, we could keep going the way we are—more condos on the waterfront, bigger and scarier world leaders who spout lies and wag nuclear weapons in our faces. Where the world’s poor cry out “justice” and know no other way to feed their families but to wage wars of terrorist skirmishes—the only way the poor of the world could possibly fight the larger powerful nations of the world. In the U.S. so many young black men have been incarcerated that it has spawned a movement to protest “Mass Incarceration” and in both the US and Canada we cry out “Black Lives Matter!” I just returned from a conference in Winnipeg where almost 70% of the people who are homeless in that City are indigenous, and right here in Ontario, we have indigenous communities without drinkable water, in ramshackle houses hardly worth the name of “house” – in Canada! One of the wealthiest nations in the world. While we sleep in a City surrounded by such visible wealth the rightful owners of this land we call Toronto, sleep on our streets, living with the trauma of all our misguided attempts at best to “help” or at worse to “annihilate.” What are we to do? Walking the same old path of “me first” is not an option towards health either for ourselves as individuals nor for ourselves as a community nor for our Planet, our lovely Mother Earth. We need to rise up as Ordinary Saints, people not afraid to “speak truth to power” people who are willing to “do the right thing even when no one is looking” people who are willing to learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters who lived sustainably on this land for thousands of years without destroying it as we supposedly “civilized settlers” are managing to do in the course of just a couple of hundred years. Let us take our inspiration from the people we know who are the “Ordinary Saints” in our midst, forgiving ourselves when we mess up, but not giving into either aping the ways of the conquerer nor giving way to the passivity of despair.

As Starhawk, the American writer, and ecofeminist activist says: “How do we get through this challenging moment in time? Each of us is called to look into our own deep selves and into our own hearts and ask, ‘What is it that is most deeply important to me? What is sacred to me…not in the sense of some precisous thing you bow down to, but that is most deeply important, what do I most care about?’ Then ask, ‘How do I put my best life energies, my unique gifts and talents to the service that is sacred to me? How do I link together with others who are doing the same so that we can become protectors of the sacred, defenders of life?’ If we do that we have tremendous capacity to get through this challenging moment and come out with a world that is more just, more resilient, more beautiful, more abundant than we have today.”Starhawk

In case you are tempted to think this is easy, I like to remember the words of Dorothy Day who was quoting from Dostoevsky “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It isn’t an easy thing to choose moment by moment a choice for love, for what is right—we don’t just “become holy” or “become a saint” and then we just do the right and loving
thing all the time. No, love in action is a moment to moment choice. Sometimes we love and the next moment we are too tired or frustrated or whatever. But that’s okay, there is always the next moment to choose love. We can become “ordinary saints” each one of us in this room and beyond. I challenge each one of us today, to sit a moment and think about not only a well-known person of extraordinary virtue, but someone you know to walk a path of “ordinary saintliness” and to pledge yourself to try moment by moment to choose an action towards good, an action that chooses love for someone else, for the planet, even when no one is looking. In the words of Bill Whitla, in our Gradual Hymn today:

Within our darkness shines your light,
within our sickness dwells your cure.
Surround us with your witnesses,
company dazzling as the sun.

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