Saints for Each Other
by Sara Arndt

Who are the saints we encounter in our everyday lives?

How can we recognize them?

What are they asking of us?

In this interview with M.R. Ritley, associate presbyter and teacher at St. Gregory's, parishioner Sara Arndt asks these questions. Their conversation shows us how saints from history and our own everyday saints, people we know or others, like writers, who influence our daily living, can become mirrors in which we see the very best of ourselves, and also mirrors through which we view the Divine.

        What is it about saintliness, I find myself asking M.R. Ritley, that makes us feel more than a little uncomfortable? It is that quality, she says, which distinguishes those whom she calls the saints of everyday life; we're drawn to them at the same time as we are troubled by them, because they consistently ask us to be more than we are, more than we would ever have thought ourselves capable of being.

        The saints which my own Church of England schools employed as popular examples of the Christian life-mythical figures like George the Dragonslayer, and martyrs like Joan of Arc-were the heroes and heroines of childhood. They were magnificent, courageous and devout, and they were patently not us. Saintliness was clearly a calling, never a career choice.

        M.R., though, talks about some very personal saints of her own life whose love and vision shaped her struggles with faith. She believes we all walk hand in hand with saints for most of our lives, and that they are not always the most obvious people.

        She puts it this way, "Our saints are those people who nurture spiritual growth in us, who help us to 'catch' something, rather like catching the measles, which opens new possibilities within us. We are compelled to see ourselves differently and so to see the world differently. I am what I am because those people believed in me, and I would never have known trust without the trust they showed to me."

        One of her 'saints' was teacher Andre Fikri, who had an innate faith in the potential of human beings. He knew M.R. as an angry and troubled young woman, but "he saw something in me that I could not yet see." M.R.'s grandfather was one of the saints of her childhood. He was raised as an aristocrat in Hungary, arrived in the U.S. in his thirties, and worked for many years as a manual laborer. "But he never lost his sunny outlook on life," says M.R. "His belief in God was solid. It had an enormous influence on all around him, including me. He never blamed God for his troubles, he knew who caused those, and it sure wasn't God." M.R. remembers how he treated people, with tolerance, care and trust, an extension of the way he saw God. "If I ever came to the point of believing in my grandfather's God, I'd be doing great," says M.R.

Those whom we make our "saints of everyday life" --our writers, teachers, neighbors -- draw us into a fellowship that recognizes our failings as well as our hope and longing for a right path.

        By showing, or by radiating spirit, saints are a living manifestation of God's actions in the world. These are people who, on an ordinary day, and in ordinary ways, convey to others that they matter as individual souls. "They're saints," says M.R., "because they are seeing as God sees. And no one is ever anonymous to God."

        M.R. remembers a woman she knew at her Quaker house of Friends, before she joined the Episcopal Church, who used to sit on the "facing benches," her face visible to the congregation. Her name was Ruth and she was in her nineties. "Her face was lined with age and experience and she had an air of serenity. I could look at her face and 'catch' something of her spirit. I didn't need to know anything about her, what I saw there was the important thing." M. R. still conjures up the vision of Ruth "when I'm agitated, or despairing, when I feel as if God has fallen asleep on the job, or hasn't come through on my schedule."

        Very often, the saints in our lives are not known to us in person. They are the artists whose work arrests life and makes it available for our contemplation. They are the writers who open up our vision and leave us unable to see things in quite the same way again. They are the visionaries in the disintegrated lives we lead, like Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, whose writing brings me back from despair by reminding me again of my place in the Kingdom of God and in the human estate. Saints, like Berry, teach us to look for our greatest hope in ourselves, in our "good work," in each other and in community.

        The saints of my childhood tales were exemplary figures, chosen for the Christian virtues they embodied. Those whom we make our "saints of everyday life" - our writers, teachers, neighbors - draw us, instead, into a fellowship that recognizes our failings as well as our hope and longing for a right path. They draw us always toward an obligation of care, and they show us, in their own fallibility and likeness to us, that care is a real possibility in ourselves. As much as we 'catch' that something extraordinary from them, we notice also their humanity, their ordinariness. Those "right paths," as Wendell Berry tells us, are found not in the grand schemes of institutions, but in small and humble ways, known to us in our daily lives.

        In reading Mohandas Gandhi's Story of My Experiments in Truth, M.R. "caught a vision, of something of which I was not yet capable, but something I wanted to reach for." That commitment to nonviolence, manifested in small acts, was something which she could never again not know and which afterwards informed her solid belief, in the midst of doctrinal conflicts in her church, that constraint of conscience is far more deadly than constraint of the body.

        This is how we encounter saints, M.R. says. They may have nothing in common with each other, but for the simple fact that, once we have known them, or read or seen what they have so urgently to tell us, our world is forever changed.

        The saints we all know may have nothing to do with our religious lives. They may be schoolteachers who look beyond the numbers to see each child as a separate soul like the English teacher who befriended M.R. when she used to stay behind, alone, in the school library, afraid to go back to an unhappy home. She was, in her own way, "seeing as God sees." "She gave me a love for literature and the faith to keep trying as a writer." It is not just when we're young that saints can touch us so deeply. Some saints in our lives are "not directly concerned with our spiritual lives, but very much concerned with our spirit." M.R. uses one of her favorite analogies, "God is ringing the telephone all the time, knocking on the door all the time. Saints are the avenues through which God does that, opening us up to ourselves, and to the possibilities within us."

        Perhaps the classic saints and the everyday saints have this in common: they accept, and respond wholeheartedly to the grace which Christ freely offers to each one of us. When Paul addresses "the saints" in Ephesians, he is speaking to all the members of the Christian community. The virtue which is required of them is a consequence of their state of grace, of sanctity. They are to live "as becometh saints." As St. Paul understood it, saintliness did not denote high moral character, but meant hallowed, consecrated, set apart for something, made holy to God.

        That state of grace which is open to us all, M.R. says, gives us the power to be saints for each other. Believing in our own sanctity, we find "opportunities to make a difference, to see the best in someone, to tell the truth as we know it to be. It's not just caring and concern, but the opening of doors that show us God's actions in the world. God hates walls. Just when we get them all patched up, God comes along and knocks them down again," says M.R.

        M.R. recounts the story of Malcolm X who, early in his life, recognized the horrific injustice in the lives of African Americans, and threw off as much of the white influence in his life as he could. After his pilgrimage to Mecca, and a powerful religious vision, Malcolm X came to realize that he had to put an end, not to his righteous anger or to his struggle for justice, but to his hatred for the white race. His struggle is exemplary of the difficult route we are all asked to take. "God's universe is not tidy," says M.R. "We are always asked to embrace those we don't want to embrace, or to attempt the very last thing we ever believed ourselves capable of doing."

        Every Sunday at St. Gregory's our preacher and all the prayers remind us that God blesses us in many ways, but it is noticing those blessings that transforms our lives. Noticing our saints, wherever we find them, and sanctifying them and each other, transforms the way we see ourselves and see God.

Sara Arndt is a freelance editor and journalist. A native of England, she now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Tom, and children, Lucy and Sophie.



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