I didn’t know about the saints until my thirties but I came by my ignorance honestly.
As an Evangelical we didn’t talk about the saints. If we did, it was to condemn those idol-worshiping Catholics who named and adorned their places of worship with statues of these long dead heretics.
Who prayed to mere men and women in the place of Christ.
Who worshiped the dead.
(We were rather crude in our assessment.)
Now, as a Catholic, I find myself enamored with the holy men and women who came before me. Not only have the saints become an endless source of fascination and admiration—they’ve become kin.
Digging Into the History of the Saints
What happened first was a journey into the history of the Church’s understanding of the saints.
To my surprise it turned out that a belief in the ability of deceased Christians to pray for us dates back to some of the earliest Christian writings we have: the Early Church Fathers. These writers, many of whom were taught by the apostles themselves, write extensively about this practice, already well established in the Church of the first century.
What’s more, many of the earliest churches themselves were built on the spot where some of first Christian martyrs met their untimely deaths. There was something sacred about those exact spots; something which connected the living to the dead—a belief in the union of their prayers.
We see this, too, in the Book of Revelation.
Prayer for the dead, and the ability of the dead to pray for us, is a long-established practice in the Church.
Practicing Prayer with the Saints
But all my reading, and research, about the practice itself could only take me so far. I’ve come, now, much further, by living with the saints, too.
As an newly-minted Catholic I knew very little about the saints and came at them in a rather haphazard way.
I’d heard about this saint, or that saint, and threw up tender shoots of prayer in their direction.
“St. Albert, pray for me.” I’d try, and knew that since we shared a name he’d certainly be listening.
Then it was St. Francis de Sales—I was enamoured with his writing during the Counter-Reformation and asked that he’d pray for me and my own prose, this blog, and its readership.
And then I encountered St. Gianna Molla and asked for her intercession late into the night as our teething toddler cried and cried and cried. (These days she remains my go to midnight intercessor.)
And I realized, gradually, that one can form a relationship with a saint in much the same way one can form a relationship with a living, breathing Christian on earth. And this is kind of magical.
Through stories about St. Martin de Porres I can learn about his life, his character, and relate his struggles to mine.
Through the written interviews, books, and encyclicals of St. John Paul II I can more clearly juxtapose his experiences with mine.
Through the incredible journals left behind by St. Teresa of Calcutta I can get a glimpse into her heart, her journey, and how mine is reflected therein.
And I can know that they know what I’m going through; and I can count on their prayers.
I’ve learned too, through experience, that as I turn to St. Gianna Molla in the middle of the night, again, it’s a kind of comfort in the same way that calling up my friend to ask for his prayers brings me a great relief too.
I’m sure, though, that he is personally relieved that someone else is getting that “call” at three in the morning instead of him.
Reading About Life with the Saints
In learning to live with the saints, Fr. James Martin’s aptly-titled book My Life with the Saints has come into my life at exactly the right time.
Despite being a cradle Catholic, Fr. Martin knew about as much about the saints as I did coming into it. His book is one-part memoir, one-part biography and traces his own vocation story and the saints he encountered along the way. Typical of Fr. Martin, he is witty, informative, and surprisingly candid.
That’s to say, in My Life with the Saints, I can see much of myself and that’s been a blessing.
First, to encounter Fr. Martin’s favourite saints in the same way I’ve encountered mine: organically and serendipitously and exactly when I needed them.
And, secondly, to confirm, through someone else’s story, just how incredible life with the saints can be.
How Dorothy Day swept in, through the legacy of her work and writing, at exactly the right time for Fr. Martin—when working just down the street from her famous stomping ground.
Or, how the simple story of St. Peter and his infamous betrayal of Christ, served as a picture of redemption and struggle at exactly the moment with Fr. Martin needed to learn those lessons.
These experiences are my own, and reflected beautifully.
Like Fr. Martin, as I’ve learned to live with the saints, as I’ve been blessed with the holy friendship of so many more Christians than I ever knew possible.
I’ve also been frequently humbled at exactly how God works through their prayers.
In my own life, again and again, the power of the prayers of the saints is affirmed—sometimes powerfully, like a situation suddenly turning around on its head after asking for the prayers of St. Michael; sometimes quietly, like finding an envelope with the return address of my grandmother, several years deceased, in a random stack of papers just after I’d been praying for her that very morning.
What are the odds?
What learning about prayer to the saints, actually praying to the saints, and living amongst the saints has taught me—if nothing else—is just how much bigger God is than I’d ever imagined. How much more capable He is in working through the ordinary and the mundane of life—and through the incredible and holy, too.