Our relation to the saints
The Christian has a lively consciousness of his connection with those departed who were linked to him by blood, love, or spiritual affinity. He hopes for a reunion with them in the life to come; he thinks of the purification which they may have to undergo to attain “the glorious liberty of the children of God,” (Rom. 8:21).
The idea of appealing to their love on his own behalf hardly ever occurs to him. He may feel the need to prove himself to them, or that he is bound to carry out some instruction. But beyond that he feels that the gulf of death is too great and that the religious stature of the departed is, on the whole, not sufficient for him to invoke their spiritual aid in any real sense of the word.
It is different when we come to people whose lives were filled with God’s spirit in a very special way. We read that from the earliest times the faithful have asked the martyrs for their intercession. And they did this, not out of a fortuitous impulse of religious sentiment, but in keeping with the very heart of the Liturgy — the holy Mass. In early times it became a custom to erect altars above the tombs of the martyrs and their invocation was included in the prayer of the Mass.
This is true for saints generally. The term saint has changed greatly in the course of the centuries. In the New Testament it included all those who believed in Christ, who were reborn by Baptism, and stood in the communion of the Eucharist — in other words, all Christians. However, with the growing number of the faithful, the meaning of the word saint was narrowed down, and more and more was used to denote something exceptional, which revealed itself (through the call and guidance of God) in the form of an absolute devotion and in greatness of experience and action in certain individuals.
Such people as Martin of Tours, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth of Thuringia, Teresa of Avila, all lived on earth subject to the necessities and the insufficiency of human existence like everyone else; at the same time they were living witnesses of another world and were filled with its mystery. They truly put into effect the commandment to love God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind, and their neighbors as themselves — thus living not for themselves but for the whole of mankind. So man when he appealed to them in his distress felt that he was recognized and received as nowhere else.
Love between human beings can be very great. For example, a father works himself to the bone for his children or a mother devotes her whole life to them. Yet much of this love is simply the tie of blood and instinct; only gradually and through much struggle does it rise above these natural limits. The love of the saints arises from a selflessness which comes from God alone and which, with holy earnestness, desires the good of others. Is it not right, therefore, that we should continue to seek this love, even after the hearts in which it lived have ceased to beat on earth?
Death according to Christian belief is not an end but a transition. Those who die in the name of Christ do not enter into the void but into the fullness of holy reality.
Man instinctively believes that the dead become shadowy and shrinks away from them to seek the warm light of the earthly sun, or he may believe that the dead become an uncanny or destructive influence against which he must seek protection. These instinctive feelings are overcome by faith, which teaches us that those who died in a state of grace have attained to the glorious liberty of the children of God and the pure fulfillment of their being in eternal light. Is it not appropriate, therefore, that we should seek in their glorious liberty those who even while on earth were witnesses of divine love and power?
The saints reflect the majesty of God
From the earliest days of Christianity there has existed a living relationship between the faithful and those who, while on earth, proved themselves the friends of God in a very special way — namely, the saints. This relationship has many different aspects.
At first sight, it seems to consist almost entirely in the appeal for help, an invocation fully justified because the predicament of existence is very grave. Thus to seek the love of those who have fully entered into communion with God, who are at one with His will and filled with His grace, is a natural expression of the life of faith. But in addition to the appeal, praise takes a prominent place, rejoicing at the devout and noble lives of the saints, their deeds and victory, and at the divine guidance manifested in them. They are the witnesses to redemption.
The new creation which constantly re-emerges from Christ is hidden; everything seems to belie it and faith has great difficulty in retaining its conviction that it will one day be accomplished. The saints, radiant in the glorious liberty of the children of God, encourage us in this hope.
They may also assume a special responsibility for the manner in which the individual conducts his life. They open up the riches of Christ. Whereas He is “the Light,” simple and at the same time all-embracing, the saints break up this mysterious brilliance like a prism breaking up the white light in the spectrum, allowing first one color to shine and then another. They can help the believer to understand himself in this light of Christ and to discover the road which leads to Him.
The profoundest motive, however, which leads us toward the saints is the desire simply to be in their company — to abide with them. It is love seeking the communion of those who have dedicated their lives to love and who are now fulfilled in it; it is the desire for that holy atmosphere in which the soul can breathe and for the mysterious current which nourishes it; it is the longing for the answer to the ultimate meaning of existence.
It is all this, in the final analysis, which the believer seeks from the saints, although at first sight it may appear that what matters to him is their help. In a closer scrutiny of the lives of certain Christians we may be impressed by the discovery of a close connection with a saint.
The relationship to the saints is wholesome and fundamentally natural and right. Admittedly, they were only human beings, but they have entered into the mystery of God and the new creation is completed in them. The believer does not seek in them great personalities, but rather God’s witnesses in whom God has been fulfilled. This veneration may at times assume undue proportions. In the lives of some people, or at certain times, it may almost displace God. Of course, much depends on how we look at it. The prejudiced may, in some individual case, easily assume that God has been displaced when the unprejudiced would clearly understand that God’s holiness is the only real object of veneration. On the other hand, the proper order may really be upset and Christian conscience be forced to protest. Let us remind ourselves here of the words of the Gloria: “Tu solus Sanctus: Tu solus Dominus: Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu, in gloria Dei Patris” (“For Thou only art holy; Thou only art the Lord; Thou only, O Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, art most high in the glory of God the Father”).
The prayer of the individual and of the community alike must be dominated by the majesty of God. It is He who must be adored and glorified; it is before Him that we must confess our sins. It is His grace that we must invoke. To Him we must give thanks at all times and everywhere so as to allow for no obscurity as to the aim and object of Christian prayer. Veneration of the saints then assumes its right place and proportion.
This article is from a chapter in Fr. Guardini’s The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.