Saints were everywhere in my Catholic childhood. Their haloed, beseeching visages appeared in the unlikeliest places, from laminated prayer cards that fell out of books to oblong medals glued on to car dashboards. This suggested to me that saints were holy people pulled down to earth by the concerns of daily life. Their names designated landmarks of fraught emotional territory that we mortals were ill-equipped to navigate alone: schools, churches, hospitals.
As patron saints, they even had something like job descriptions. Saint Francis looked after animals. Saint Theresa, children. My mother’s favorite saint for many years was Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. I noticed that he was the first choice of many other people too. There was a whole section of the classified ads in the newspaper devoted to thanking him for prayers answered.
I learned that intercession was the umbrella term for all the different forms of assistance saints could provide. The idea was that saints had a direct line to God. Occupying a rank somewhere between the rank of ordinary souls in Heaven and the angels, saints in my mind were like the administrators of the cosmic realm, evaluating the complaints and appeals of the living in order to issue the appropriate work orders, permits or waivers. You contacted them by saying special prayers or lighting candles in front of their statues in church.
Though I knew the word petition and the procedure, I don’t recall reaching out to saints directly myself. Maybe I believed that a child’s concerns didn’t merit their intercession. In the fairytales I was fond of at the time, commoners only petitioned the king or the officials of his court in dire situations: when armies invaded, plagues swept the land or they were on the brink of starvation, subsisting on crusts of dry bread in their hovels.
This idea changed when I grew up. Reflecting my turn toward Buddhism, my adult concept of saints was closer to the ideal of the bodhisattva. That is, a human being so fired by compassion could direct their spiritual aspirations toward relieving the suffering of all sentient creatures (human and otherwise). Such enlightened beings wanted to help. They were not the bureaucrats of the heavens, dutifully sorting through complaints and requests (with the renowned patience of saints). Rather, they were active supporters of souls facing the challenges of embodiment in the material realm.
Now on the path of Sufism, I am aiming to integrate my earlier ideas of saints into something that is once a higher ideal and still a practical support for daily life. How can the two ideas be married? Saints in our tradition are spiritual guides as well as human role models. Their lives illustrate the extent to which transformation of the human being is possible — which for me is the real miracle that gives rise to all the others. They demonstrate the formula of effort and faith awakening receptivity, which allows the inflow of Divine grace.
Most Sufi saints were not hermits off by themselves in remote places. They were ordinary human beings whose lives were woven into the fabric of the everyday world. They had families, they had jobs, and pains and problems of their own. Some were respected scholars, like Rumi, who made his living issuing legal decrees in 13th century Konya. Some performed more humble service, like the mystic Rabi’a, who was a slave for some years in 8th century Iraq. The characteristic shared by all these men and women was putting care for others ahead of themselves, entirely out of longing to see the face of their Sustainer. Is that what distinguished them as saints, or holy people?
I think the Arabic word awliya expresses it better: they were the friends of God. They were not abstract ideals of virtue, floating on a distant plane, nor were they necessarily the most high-profile combatants against the dunya’s dark forces. My hunch is that they were more like secret superheroes. They would do their work of bringing the light while remaining invisible themselves. They wouldn’t shrink from tasks that others might deem daunting or even impossible. But their greatest feat, which would allow them to perform all the others – whether it was flying through the air, healing the sick or feeding the hungry by no apparent physical means – was to be in constant and continuous remembrance of God. Their very being would become its own zikr.
By making the Divine Reality the ground of their own reality, such friends of God would embody the will and word of God. For me, that would explain why, in life, their very breath could transmit baraka and healing, and why their bodies would also not decay after death. As beings of pure essence, they would become bearers of a rose-like sweetness.
And I think they are not just relics of an earlier time. I think they remain among us today, as ubiquitous in their own way as the saints of my childhood, though we may not always be able to perceive them. As a Hadith Qudsi says, “My saints are under My domes; no one knows them except Me.”
Rumi makes a similar observation in the Fihi ma Fihi about those who have attained:
“You may have sat down next to them, but you cannot see them, you cannot hear those words, those greetings and those smiles. This isn’t surprising; a person who is ill and close to death sees imaginings. He or she is not even aware of the one who sits next to him or her; he or she doesn’t even hear what that person says. Those realities are a thousand times subtler than these imaginings. One cannot even see these imaginings unless one becomes that ill; neither can one see those realities unless one dies; one cannot see them before death.”
Rather than physical death, I understand Rumi to mean this as another injunction to die before you die. That is, dying to the demands of the nafs is actually a means of escaping its limitations.
In the Mathnawi, he explains this transformation in yet another way:
Since the quality of being sought is the opposite of seeking, the Revelation and the flashing of the Divine Light consume the prophet with burning.
When the Attributes of the Eternal have shone forth, the mantle of temporality is burned.