There is some disagreement at present concerning whether or not Mother Theresa should be canonised.
But I find myself wondering what difference it makes to anyone whether she is declared a saint or not.
She certainly led a life worth living, and helped others to do the same, and she gave to the dying a dignity they had never known before. But I have known saints in more ordinary and less exacting circumstances than those to be encountered in the slums of India.
Does the canonisation of Mother Theresa validate the goodness and the invisible sacrifices made by countless saints – parents as well as those who give their lives looking after other people’s children, care workers, people who do the jobs we don’t want to know about, let alone do? Does it validate their anonymous holiness?
We cannot really talk about saintliness without talking about holiness. We presume that those singled out for canonisation were holy because that must surely be the primary qualification required by the Church for sainthood. But it would not occur to some of the saints I have known to wonder whether or not they were holy, apart from those whose profession as priests obliges them to do so. In a way, these fall into a category of their own when it comes to qualifying for sainthood.
So, in order to do justice to unknown saints both past and present, we perhaps need to find other ways of talking about holiness, ones which don’t sound pious, and at the same time don’t circumvent the quality of holiness which is essential to sainthood. Piety, which is often mistaken for holiness, does not make the idea of becoming a saint very appealing. For one thing, pious talk about holiness and sainthood usually revolves around misguided notions of humility.
Humility, which is the mark of holiness if not of sainthood, is one of the least understood virtues. Humility is a virtue to be desired (even if reluctantly) rather than acquired through sheer personal effort. It is a gift, not a qualification. It enriches the life of the one who has it as well as the lives of others. It is also frequently abused by those who talk about it most. The humility of Christ, his particular love for the poorest and least important members of society, and his own ultimate fate, gives a hollow ring to any talk of humility. Too often such talk goes hand in hand with the exercise of power.
Humility presented as a covert agenda for keeping people in their place (in whatever context and however that is understood today), also feeds equally misguided notions of the meaning of sacrifice, and some pretty dubious interpretations of the meaning of ‘holy poverty’. Poverty can only be holy when a person chooses it in order to enrich the lives of others, as many anonymous saints do today, and have done for centuries. Poverty’s other holy dimension lies in choosing not to allow materialism to get in the way of a person’s single-hearted love for God. Poverty is never holy when it is imposed by the greed or selfishness of others. Humility is not a virtue when it is really no more than compliance with unjust norms and expectations. The same is true of sacrifice.
None of this is to say that the virtues of humility, poverty (when it is chosen) and sacrifice (when it is freely made) are not the attributes of a holy person. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is quite the opposite. A person who is truly holy, and therefore humble, will know their own gifts and the riches they have to share, and they will be grateful for them. The key to humility and holiness lies in gratitude. To be truly humble is to be grateful to God for what we are, for being as we are and for the things we have with which to be a blessing to others. We take for ourselves only what is necessary for the happiness which God desires for us and we never take it at others’ expense.
Yesterday evening the house martins came early to drink from our pond. The nights are already drawing in and the birds are limbering up for the great flight south. The ordinary annual routine goes on. The house martins, just by being birds, are grateful for it, and rejoice in being what they are as they drink on the wing from the pond. They are governed by seasons and wind direction. Their life’s value, or worth, lies in their unquestioning trust in the source of these routine occurrences, on which the survival of their species depends, and there is something about their gratitude for the ordinary which speaks of humility and holiness.