Posts Tagged 'saint'

All the Saints

Photo credit: Margaret Benefiel

All Saints Day, November 1, the day when all the saints who don’t have their own Feast Days are celebrated, has me reflecting on other saints.  Who are the saints who have not yet been recognized as such?  Who are saints who have had a particular impact on my life?

Three saints who immediately spring to mind for me as ones who have had an impact on my life are Sr. Mary McGowan, Desmond Tutu, and my cousin Gary, none of whom have been officially recognized.  While none of them are perfect, all of them have provided me with glimpses of God.  All of them have taught me about soulful leadership.

Sr. Mary McGowan served on the staff of the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation when I participated in the program in the mid-eighties.  A quiet presence, she exuded love.  Extremely insightful, she quickly saw through illusion and had the habit of regularly raising the penetrating question that punctured any self-importance or self-righteousness I was carrying.  When she died recently, I felt a sharp sense of loss despite having not seen her in over thirty years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the mid-nineties, suffered under apartheid.  Then, through prayer, he learned the power of forgiveness to transform suffering into compassion.  Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he helped South Africa avert a bloodbath and find its way into the future.

My cousin Gary had a rough start in life.  As he grew, I watched him turn to God and discover God’s healing power.  He wanted to pass on the compassion he had received, first by serving as a pastor and then by working with at-risk youth and young adults, training them with the skills they needed to find employment and succeed in life.

I experienced all three of these saints as not only giving deeply from their hearts, but also as having a light touch.  Laughing easily, helping others feel at home, and being down-to-earth are gifts shared by all three.  Saintliness does not preclude lightheartedness; indeed lightheartedness is often one sign of the Spirit’s work in a person.

Who are the saints who have had an impact on your life?  Whether recognized officially as saints or not yet recognized as saints, in whom do you see God? Who has been a spiritual leader for you? Who has invited you to follow a path of deeper engagement with Holy Mystery? If you’re like me, the unsung saints may be just as important, if not more so, than the official ones.  This All Saints Day, honor the saints who have inspired you and helped you along the way.

Following in the Footsteps of Francis

St. Francis at San Damiano, looking out over the valley in Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Photo credit: Margaret Benefiel

Ancient stones, steep stairs, and sparkling fresh air greeted me upon arrival in Assisi, Italy, a month ago. Lush olive groves, leaves iridescent in the sun, offset the city stones. “What sort of place is this, that shaped St. Francis 800 years ago?” I asked myself. Eager to deepen my understanding of the saint, I had returned to Assisi to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis.

Profligate playboy, drama king, dejected knight, young Francis lived life large. He grew up in turbulent times, with civic unrest in Assisi and war with nearby Perugia surrounding him. Returning from a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia, sick and weak, Francis drifted. When he sold his cloth merchant father’s wares to repair a church, his father chained him in punishment. Francis stripped in public, denouncing his father. Unlikely material for a saint.

Yet God shaped Francis over time, and Francis yielded. A simple saint, Francis wanted one thing. Nothing but God, he proclaimed, shedding all else. He chose a life of simplicity, serving the poor, and calling the church to reform.

I watch with interest as Pope Francis embarks on his first trip to Assisi tomorrow, a pilgrimage with eight cardinals, to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis. Pope Francis will walk in the footsteps of the saint as he visits various Franciscan sites. I picture the places he will visit and wonder what impact they will have on him. At the same time, Pope Francis teaches me what it means to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis as I re-enter my life in a twenty-first-century, North American world.

Eschewing the pomp of the papacy, Pope Francis, like St. Francis, has chosen simplicity. He lives in the modest Vatican guest house, for example, instead of in the papal suite in the Apostolic Palace where his predecessors lived. Furthermore, Pope Francis, like St. Francis, has made it his priority to serve the poor and preach peace. Everywhere he goes, he seeks out marginalized people for his services and conversations. He advocates the use of empty convents as refugee shelters rather than income-generating hotels. He took a stand for peace in Syria and around the world, exclaiming, “Never again war! We want to be men and women of peace.”

Finally, Pope Francis, like St. Francis, is reforming the church. He has dedicated the first three days of October to meeting with the eight cardinals who will work with him on reforming the Vatican administration, restructuring the church to serve the world rather than itself. It is no coincidence that this is the group that will travel to Assisi tomorrow, drawing inspiration from one of the greatest reformers of the church, who, like them, lived in a time of materialism, violence, and a self-serving church.

Tomorrow, Pope Francis walks in St. Francis’ footsteps in Assisi. The next day, he will continue to show us what it looks like to walk in St. Francis’ footsteps in our world today. May our imaginations be ignited with the possibilities he inspires.