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Saint Nasty

Spiritual giants care about one thing—and it's not people's feelings.
1996This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

On All Saints Day, our congregation sang a hymn that begins, "I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true. . ."--a line that is not only sentimental, but on at least one account, simply wrong.

I grant that saints are both brave and true. Though principalities threaten and rage, they do what they are called to do. This usually amounts to telling the truth, and that, in turn, usually results in the saints being burned or beheaded. Brave and true, indeed.

But patient? The word conjures up an array of images--of haloed saints listening sensitively to others' worries, smiling at people's weaknesses, setting people back on the path of virtue with a blessing and a gentle pat on the back. Surely, the images suggest, the saints were nice people--that's why they are saints. That's why we sometimes describe a forbearing person as being "patient as a saint." But, I am learning, this phrase can be an oxymoron.

Take, for example, the saint who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize of all history, Francis of Assisi. You would think a life characterized by peace would make Francis a nice guy to be around. Not so.

Just one example: Francis had this thing about money: his friars were not to touch it. And he did not mean the "you-can-touch-money-but-just-don't-let-it-grip-your-heart" stuff.

One day a worshiper at the Church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula, Francis's headquarters, left a coin as an offering at the base of the sanctuary cross. This was a common offering of gratitude to God in that day, but when one of Francis's friars saw the money--disturbed by its presence at the cross, or perhaps knowing Francis's revulsion of money--he tossed it over ...

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