The lives of the saints present us with an aesthetic paradox. Many stories, especially those of martyrs, dramatize the human side of saints—suffering in their frailty, suffering for the sake of sanctity. St. Thomas Becket, St. Catherine of Siena, and Blessed Pope John Paul II immediately come to mind. And yet, the saints nonetheless somehow seem like eternal figures to us—their statues standing athwart the tides of time and the currents of culture, the fixed gaze of their icons forever glowing.
This is paradox is most evident in the saints known as stigmatics and the incorruptibles. The stigmatics, in their humanity, bear the dreadful wounds of the crucifixion—normally such wounds would be a sign of vulnerability and impending mortality, yet the persistence of these sacred wounds is a testament to their transcendence of their human condition, through their close union with the Incarnate Christ. The incorruptibles actually died, but their bodies, or parts of their bodies—a tongue, a heart, a hand—never suffered decay.
The online collective of poetry I discussed yesterday really speaks to this paradox using fresh and vivid imagery. St. Thomas Becket is described as having his blood poured out like wine; St. Agnes feels her ribs snapping like twigs under her attackers, St. Paul of the Cross is described as a plum—all imagery that calls attention to their all-too-human side, to the fact that these extraordinary figures are not invincible. On the other hand, saints are also depicted in terms that suggest their permanence—the diamond teeth of St. John or monks praying so close to the hard floor that they become like rocks.
Sometimes, images of permanence and perishability are blended together in creative and provocative ways. Consider the poet’s description of St. Stephen, whose belly she describes like a lake upon which small stones will simply skip across—the lake image conveys a sense of timelessness as well as vulnerability. Or, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings may have seemed like straw to the saint yet are envisioned by the poet as “wandering wisps of his hair on fire” that “light up this tunnel we call life”—certainly suggesting their lasting value.
Of course, what I have called an ‘aesthetic paradox’ is really the paradox of humanity: that we are fallen and mortal and yet we are also promised eternal life. Indeed, all of those seekers among us who have reached beyond the shallows of rationality into the great deep have felt within us our heats beating to the rhythm of some eternal chorus. As Christians, we know and believe that we will both die yet are called to eternal life. Our bodies will wither away and yet they will be resurrected. In this life, the paradox is less apparent for most of us—it is our weakness and mortality that are most obvious. Our eternal futures are more a matter of faith than sight. It is only with the saints that the paradox steps into daylight. The saints are witnesses to the otherwise hidden truth our about ourselves—a truth that ultimately can be understood only by reference to the Incarnation.