We have been hopping from saint to saint; let’s now consider the idea of sainthood—in particular the medieval saint of the western Europe.
A saint is a person seen as exhibiting holiness, someone whose behavior can in a notable way be likened to an attribute of God.
The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus and the Greek hagios, both referring to an otherworldly quality distinct from the ordinary, something or someone special enough to set or be set itself apart—holy. In English a saint is also known as a hallow, someone holy, from the Old English halig, which is related to the German heilig (holy), from which we get Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day.
Originally, all Christians believers were called “the saints,” referring to the forgiveness and purification of baptism. Under Roman persecution, the term came to mean those who died refusing to deny the faith and were therefore deemed to be actually in the presence of God in the afterlife.
The notable aspect of martyr remembrance within their church community was that the day of a death so noble was regarded as a “birthday” to a new life with God and actually celebrated as a happy occasion. Bones were saved as relics and their names recited at the Eucharist, each church naming its own local martyrs.
Over time, Christians began to refer to saints who were “confessors,” people whose life or teaching gave witness of their faith. Saints were popularly proclaimed at first, then bishops started investigations; finally, in 993, Pope John XV canonized Ulrich of Augsburg, the first saint proclaimed in this fashion.
In general, saints have always been seen as exemplary people, extraordinary teachers, wonder workers, figures who intercede for the living with God, quite often they refused material comforts and were with a special relationship to God—albeit not always possessing all of these qualities. Saints are not free of sin (St. Jerome, the great biblical translator, shared with me the shortcoming of a bad temper) nor of error (try as he might, St. Augustine retained a bit of the Manichean dualism from his pagan days), nor regarded as divine—it is heretical to hold such a view.
In later periods, popes set up processes by which saints should be canonized—in the adversarial legal system from the late middle ages to the 20th century, there arose the famous “devil’s advocate,” an individual charged with arguing against sainthood for a given individual. Today, the process resembles more closely the presentation of a doctoral dissertation. An excellent book on the subject is Making Saints by Kenneth Woodward.
In the Middle Ages, the recalling of saints, their veneration and prayers seeking saints’ influence with God, was aided by art that often depicted them with a halo, a ring of light—often golden—that surrounded the saint’s head. Of course, medieval theologians argued about the halo, as about everything. In the Catholic interpretation, the halo stands for the divine grace suffusing the soul in perfect unity with the physical body. Eastern Orthodox theology views it as a “window into heaven.”
All of the apostles (save Judas) were deemed saints as was the mother of Jesus, Myriam, whose place became mired in endless disputes as the theologians of Mariology fought for ever loftier titles and claims for the simple Jewish maiden from Nazareth.
In the popular conception, Christians “prayed to” saints, although this is theologically incorrect and was heretical even in the Middle Ages. When a Christian addresses a fellow believer who is dead, what is happening is an invocation. The Christian calls upon the saint as a go-between of sorts to obtain divine favor.
Mary, because she was the earliest and most prominent woman saint and also a mother who suffered to the point of seeing her son die, was and to some remains, the focus of requests for intercession. In the mind of popular piety, which is the untutored but intuitive and often most valuable expression of faith, how could Jesus in heaven refuse a request from his mother?
Mary inspired the rosary, with its Hail Mary prayer, the Christian mantra that announces the significance of God becoming a man, a humble human from an unmarried mother. The repetition turns it into a kind of music intended to put the person praying in the quietude of God’s presence.
In the Anglican use there are two beautiful hymns that recall the Christian saints.
One is I Sing a Song of the Saints of God (from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, no. 293), by Lesbia Scott (1898–1986) who composed a number of children's hymns which she sang to her own children as a young mother in her twenties and published them in 1929 as Everyday Hymns For Little Children. The hymn takes us in the historic arc from the apostles to our day
I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
Another is the more stately For All the Saints (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, no. 287), composed as a processional by the Anglican Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How and published in 1864; today it is sung with music composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1905. This hymn takes the listener through the travails of sainthood
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;Sharing their struggles and remembering them lies at the core of the communion of between the living and dead saints.
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.