G.K. Chesterton, who wrote little biographies of both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis, delighted in the uniqueness of the two men. Thomas was the greatest philosopher of his time while Francis was a wandering fool. Thomas a great bull of a man with an intellect to match; Francis a scraggy simpleton.
St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) also admired the individuality of the saints. She wrote: “How different are the variety of ways through which the Lord leads souls! Souls are more different than faces.”
The saints are unique because they are ordinary people who have allowed an extraordinary power to bring them to their full potential. The saint is a human being fully alive — a person who shows God’s glory in the ordinary, his grace shining in their face.
While the saints are unique, they also complement one another. They fit together as members of a family do — each one unique, but each one also, in their own way, showing the family resemblance.
A saint is a unique image of Christ, so each saint reveals Christ as a brother resembles a brother, a sister or a father. They show their kinship in appearance, manner, gifts, interests and personality because they are of one blood.
Like family members, the saints are dependent on one another. Here a great philosopher, there a humble poet. Here a warrior and martyr, there a simple servant of the poor. The poet Dante sees that in heaven each saint is perfectly happy because each one is exactly in the place where he should be in relationship not only to God, but to one another.
Meditating on the saints, Thérèse says: “All the Saints will be indebted to each other … who knows the joy we shall experience in beholding the glory of the great saints, and knowing that by a secret disposition of Providence we have contributed there unto … and do you not think that on their side the great saints, seeing what they owe to quite little souls, will love them with an incomparable love? Delightful and surprising will be the friendships found there — I am sure of it.
“The favored companion of an Apostle or a great Doctor of the Church will perhaps be a young shepherd lad; and a simple little child may be the intimate friend of a patriarch.”
In a speech approving the miracles of St Thérèse, Pope Pius XI echoed the same thought, saying: “God created such giants of zeal and holiness as Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Behind these, on the far horizon, we catch a glimpse of Peter and Paul, of Athanasius, Chrysostom and Ambrose. But behold! The same heavenly Artist has secretly fashioned, with a love well nigh infinite, this maiden so modest, so humble — this child.”
An Army and a Family
The saints form a kind of army of God — with each soldier in their proper rank and fulfilling their proper duty according to their gifts and calling. However, if the saints form an army, they also form a family, and if a family, then we would expect to see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aged and youth, wisdom and innocence together.
Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543) and Thérèse are saintly symbols of this balance and dance between young and old. They stand together as wise old man and innocent young girl — grandfather and granddaughter in the economy of the Spirit. As such, they introduce us to the wisdom of age and the wisdom of innocence.
Through them we learn from the experience that age brings yet we keep the youthful zeal and joy of childhood.
By loving Benedict and Thérèse we appreciate again our own grandparents and children and glimpse in them the potential glories of God.
By connecting with Thérèse the Child and Benedict the Father we also make connections to our own infancy and ancestry. Connecting with Thérèse and Benedict can bring to the light dark corners of a disturbed childhood and family history.
In praying with them a transaction is agreed. They open the unlocked doors to the wisdom of age and the wisdom of innocence.
Symbols of Sanctity
Symbols strengthen the spiritual life. A symbol connects with deep meanings at the level of life below the language of everyday commerce. Water within baptism is not only cleansing and refreshing physically, but it signals and effects spiritual refreshment and cleansing.
So it is with the saints. Each one, in their own way, points to something greater than themselves. St. George or St. Ignatius Loyola, for example, stand as saintly warriors of the Spirit — knights of the Lord. St. John Vianney or Padre Pio represent supernaturally saintly pastors and confessors. St. Jerome, St. Francis de Sales and St. Thomas Aquinas represent the writers, scholars and intellectuals of the world, and therefore the importance of the intellect.
Each saint as a symbol, therefore, transcends their own personality to become a cosmic and universal figure.
Benedict and Thérèse, therefore, become not just an old man and a young girl, but icons of age and innocence. Benedict is usually shown in his black monastic robes. With his cowl over his head, he holds his pastoral staff in one hand and an open book in the other.
The book is Benedict’s famous rule — but the book is also a symbol of all learning and universal wisdom.
A raven stands at Benedict’s feet like a magus’ familiar. According to the legends, the black birds fed Benedict in the wilderness as they did Elijah. According to another famous legend, a group of renegade monks tried to poison Benedict with tainted bread and wine as they refused to have him as their leader. Benedict prayed over the poisoned food, discerned the danger and broke the cup with the wine and commanded a raven to carry away the bread.
Together the symbols point to a figure more universal than the historical Benedict alone.
Benedict stands as the silent mystic. With his long white beard, his staff, book and bird, Benedict is the prophet, the seer and the wise old man. Abbot Benedict assumes an almost mythic dimension in the Christian imagination.
He is the archetypal mentor and father figure. He is Abraham and Elijah, Merlin and Gandalf.
Thérèse’s image also transcends her own personality. In iconography she is portrayed in her Carmelite robes, arms clasping a crucifix and an armful of roses. The roses are an emblem of her beauty and innocence.
As at an old-fashioned Corpus Christi celebration, she is the universal flower girl, strewing roses on the way.
She might be a princess from a fairy tale, Snow White or Rose Red — offering her home and herself to save the suffering bear.
The roses are also an ancient link with the Virgin Mary. Thérèse’s innocence echoes hers.
Roses are always a paradoxical sign. Their thorns are a reminder that their fresh beauty has a sharp price.
As the Virgin of Nazareth suffers with her Son, so the virgin of Lisieux holds the crucifix like a red badge of courage for it links her own suffering to the universal suffering of the Cross.
Like Benedict, Thérèse is an archetype. He is the father; she is the child.
In the martyrology he is an ancient Polycarp facing the flames, she an innocent Lucy embracing the sword.
In the myth, Benedict is the wise old man, Thérèse the innocent victim. In the fairy story he is the prophet; she is the princess.
He incarnates the wisdom of experience, she the wisdom of innocence.
If Benedict is the wise old mentor, Thérèse stands for the mythic child and the possibility of innocence within each person. She is Eve and Esther, Daphne, Joan of Arc and Lucy out of Narnia.
Like Thomas Aquinas and Francis, Benedict and Thérèse are radically different personalities; also like Thomas and Francis, they complement each other in surprising and profound ways.
Augustine wrote about the Scriptures that “the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old made manifest in the New.” So it is with the writings of Thérèse and Benedict; the remarkable insights of Thérèse are hidden within Benedict’s simple monastic rule, and the universal wisdom of Benedict is made fully manifest in the writings of Thérèse.
In the two of them Thérèse’s picture of the saints in heaven comes true, for in Thérèse and Benedict “a simple little child becomes the intimate friend of a patriarch.”
We learn from these two not only the complementarity of youth and age, not only to value our wise elders and to treasure our children, but we are also reminded of the need to tolerate and love one another.
Each saint in heaven is a unique work of God’s craftsmanship, but it is also true that each saint here below is a unique work of God’s craftsmanship — even if that work is still in progress.
It is the destiny of each soul to be perfected in Christ. It is the final destination of each of the baptized to become a unique and eternally precious icon of the Lord. If that is my destiny, then part of my growth is to become ever more aware of that same potential in others.
I can only reach the potential God has for me as I slowly come to realize and appreciate that every one of my family members in Christ is called to be a saint and therefore to show forth the glory of God as human beings who are fully alive.