I thought we might want to think about a few saints who can be held up as examples during this period of intense heat and I’m not referring to climate. I am referring to the warming up of the campaign season with the political conventions of our two major parties in the United States. I want to look at three individuals today who speak to me of the need for spiritual strength and frontline courage in challenging the systems they thought unresponsive to justice for all. These three individuals came to mind quickly, mostly because they are my kind of people, trekking through the sludge of their humanness, lifted by grace with wings to soar.
Saint Augustine, Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Hippo, North Africa, whose feast is celebrated this week, is a saint for everyone! Talk about a bad boy. He drove his mother, St. Monica, to a life of tears having forsaken his Catholic faith, following the heresy of Manichaeism. He lived a profligate life in the bordellos of the city, taking a concubine as his mistress for 15 years, fathering a son, and in between all this achieving a brilliant status as a rhetorician in several universities. Not until he studies the Dialogue of Hortensius and Cicero does he begin to detect the vein of dishonesty that runs through the quest for government power. When he fortuitously meets Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, a formidable rhetorician himself, Augustine is eventually converted. He is known for his beautiful autobiography, Confessions, and for his extraordinary theological writings that range from simple catechesis to theological treatises. His episcopal leadership centered on condemning heresy on occasion threatening his life. Of all his oft repeated quotes, the one I like centers on his experience of giving up his mistress whom he appears to have loved dearly: “My mistress, being torn from my side…my heart which clave to her, was wracked, and wounded, and bleeding.” Human to the core.
Thomas Merton, the famed American Trappist, lived a similar life prior to priesthood. In fact, Augustine’s Confessions were part of Merton’s pre-conversion reading and influence. Merton’s life reads like a travelogue of best places to party in Europe, and he, too, fathers a son. His conversion is a wonderful story of how the incessant nagging of a pursuing God just won’t leave him alone. But once a Trappist, he uses his writing skills and contemplative spirit to engage the anti-war efforts against American involvement in Vietnam. His abbot considered silencing him because his voice carried significant influence and the Abbey became a target of unsympathetic aggression. His book, The Seven Storey Mountain, is a classic among spiritual autobiographies. I once mentioned to my students that Merton had fallen in love with a nurse at a Kentucky hospital where he had undergone back surgery. It sent droves of high school girls to bookstores to purchase the book in which she is mentioned. At least I got them to read a spiritual book!
Dorothy Day, now a “Servant of God,” the first step toward canonization, is a truly modern saint who stood up to the corrupt power that sometimes stains government and church. A journalist by trade, she and Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker, a movement, still existing today advocating justice for the poor and disenfranchised, especially in our cities. Day, a communist in her youth, underwent an abortion when her longtime paramour would not marry her. After her conversion, she traveled and stumbled along the road to conversion to the Catholic faith, living always with the poor and then settling in the Bowery of New York, not paying federal taxes (because they supported war efforts), living the life of an anarchist and totally Catholic believer. She was a contemporary of Thomas Merton and had been influenced by his autobiography. She became a pacifist. She was arrested numerous times over the years and confronted the New York hierarchy of the Church for its unfair treatment of union workers seeking better pay and justice. Her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is inspiring and disquieting. I take its lessons seriously. My favorite quote of hers is, “Do not call me a saint. I do not wish to be so dismissed.”
These are saints who can inspire us now as to what we should be thinking of and doing during this election time.
Can you think of other saints whose emphasis was on justice and unselfish leadership in social organizations?
Most of all, let us pray for insight to do the right thing in the election we are anticipating.