In Costa Rica, there is a certain species of sloth that moves so slowly that fungi and algae have grown in its fur, lending it a greenish tint and helping it to blend into the forest. The sloth, in a sense, has become a fixture of its environment—so much so that even two species of moths and one variety of beetles also live in its fur.
Strange as it may sound, one could describe this living creature as its own ecosystem or habitat, much as the tree it clings to is a habitat for ants, other insects, birds, and small rodents or an entire forest might be a habitat for a leopard.
The story of the sloth helps us to understand some of the metaphoric language two great spiritual writers have employed in describing saints. One is Fr. Frederick William Faber, a great spiritual writer of the nineteenth century, who, in his classic work, The Foot of the Cross, or The Sorrows of Mary, suggests that we can think of all saints who are like her as mini-Edens:
He [God] has a thousand Edens still, even in the bleak expanse of this salt steppe of a world, where we may work, to the sound of running waters, not without colloquies with Him in the cool time of the day; and we may wander from Eden to Eden, either as the weakness or the strength of our love impels us. For the present let us shut ourselves up in the garden of Mary’s sorrows (The Foot of the Cross, 3).
Strikingly similar language appears in Pope Benedict XVI’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, to also describe the saints:
The believer becomes one with Christ and participates in his fruitfulness. The man who believes and loves with Christ becomes a well that gives life. That, too, is something that is wonderfully illustrated in history: The saints are oases around which life sprouts up and something of the lost paradise returns. And ultimately Christ himself is always the well-spring who pours himself forth in such abundance (Jesus of Nazareth, 248).
Both metaphors—that of Eden and a desert oasis—liken the saints to lush habitats. What does it mean to think of a saint as a ‘habitat?’ It indicates that the saints are much more than advocates for us by passing on our petitions to God and likewise much more than avenues for Him to send grace back to use—as wonderful and world-scandalous a teaching as this is.
However, saints are more than this. When we think of them as ‘habitats’ we recognize that in a sense they become spiritual spaces—places where our devotion is nurtured, and our understanding of the faith grows. Here God’s grace has burst into life, His truth has become incarnated anew, and His love has become enfleshed yet once more.
How can this be? Both metaphors further illustrate this for us.
First, as mini-Edens, saints are the lush vines and vegetation that grow up around the one central tree, which in the new creation is the cross on which Christ is crucified. This is completely biblical imagery. In John 15, Christ Himself uses it:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing (verses 1-5).
Likewise, Pope Benedict’s metaphor of oases emphasizes the saints’ continuity with Christ: they are not free-floating bodies of water but instead are oases that are fed by the well-spring that is Christ. (It’s worth noting that his metaphor is also as biblical, given that Christ is often referred to in terms of living water. See, for example, John 4.) The point here is critical: the saints become spiritually nurturing spaces for us not because of any intrinsic merit but because of their connection with Christ.
The classic Protestant canard against Catholic teaching on the saints is that they somehow get in the way of our devotion to Christ. But as these metaphors clearly illustrate, the saints are really just God’s way of reaching out to us. They are the branches extending out to us from the cross. They are the oases we encounter in the desert of doubt and sin when the divine well-spring seems so distant from us.
Here the example of the sloth is also helpful. Just as the sloth clings to the tree, so also the saints become what they are by clinging to the crucified Christ. And just like the moths that clutch their fur, may we also, in seizing onto the saints, thereby also remain connected to Christ.
So the saints become temporary way stations for us as we journey to our true destination. One might say that we ‘wander from Eden to Eden’ on our way to the heavenly Eden that awaits us.