I’m an amateur gardener. I’m always figuring things out again for the first time, like that you can’t pack the tomato plants into the garden (so small and nonthreatening in spring, such monsters in August).
This year, I tried growing corn and pole beans in my front yard. It was my play on the Native-American “three sisters” technique where the corn supports the beans, and the beans fix nitrogen for the corn. The third sister–squash–is supposed to trail along at the bottom and provide weed cover, but I leave squash for the backyard. The corn did alright, but I lack the agricultural skills of the Iroquois, so the beans had a hard go of it. They ran out of stalk to climb when the sweet corn matured and died before the beans had finished growing.
Beans need to lean. They can’t stand on their own. Beans ravel round stalk and twine. They climb and cling. All those tender blossoms–pollen scoops, bee funnels–swell. They dangle pods. The sun hoists them up on tendrils vining and looping, thin strong filaments lashed fast against the elements.
It turns out that saints need to lean too. They need those before them and those around them. They need God to hoist them up, lives raveled round God’s mercy, prayers like filaments, reaching. The truest saints are those who recognize their own flimsiness, their own indebtedness to others and to God. They’ve discovered that they can’t stand on their own. “Blessed be the Lord who daily bears us up,” sings the psalmist (Psalm 68:19). Saints lean on God and others. They’re borne up.
Anyone can learn to lean. That’s why the Apostle Paul addressed all of God’s people as “the saints in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:1). It’s why Peter spoke of God’s people as the “saintly nation” (1 Peter 2:9). All God’s people are saints, inasmuch as they’re learning to lean on God’s merit working through them. Their sainthood is found in their dependence on God.
I like icons, those two-dimensional sacred paintings used in some Christian traditions for worship and devotion. I had the good fortune of stumbling across a palm-sized icon of Peter and Paul lovingly cradling the church in soft folds of pastel cloth. It’s the church in Rome–the place where Christian tradition records that both men were martyred. My little icon was stashed in a box at an estate sale, the scraps after the university paraphernalia had all been scooped up. It was just us and a Catholic man left bidding. He won, but he kindly let us buy a few icons from his box. I got Peter and Paul and the church, gold leaf peeling from their halos after too many rough years in the basement.
I keep the icon in my church study. It reminds me of the “great cloud of witnesses” who preceded me–not just Peter and Paul, but Alfred and Shirley and Pat and Harold and all the saints whose names are known only to God. I like to think that it’s us in that church they’re holding. It’s us cradled lovingly by sisters and brothers who came before us. It’s us held by Christ whose mercy bears us all. We’re right there with our peeling halos, leaning into amateur sainthood.