Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saint (Mother) Teresa, Godric and Plaster Saints

I’m not a big fan of novels, but I really liked Godric by Frederick Buechner.

Published in 1981, the book is about Saint Godric, who lived in the 11th century in England.

Little is known about the holy hermit, who was a sailor and merchant before devoting himself to a life of prayer.

What we do know was written by Reginald of Durham, who spent time with Godric prior to the saint’s death.

In Buechner’s re-imagining of their time together, Reginald is set on writing a reverent tome about Godric’s life—the kind that will inspire the faithful.

But Godric will have none of it. He repeatedly tries to impress on Reginald why he doesn’t deserve a saintly write-up.

“I started out as rough a peasant's brat and full of cockadoodledoo as any,” he tells Reginald.

“I worked uncleaness with the best of them or worse. I tumbled all the maids would suffer me and some that scratched and tore like weasels in a net. I planted horns [had sex with other men’s wives] on many a goodman's brow and jollied his lads with tales about it afterward.”

As for being a merchant, he admits to cheating his customers, thieving, pirating and other things that “are better left unsaid.”

Those things may be in the past, but he’s no better a man today, he tells his biographer.

“Know you this . . . Godric's no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too.

“A slothful greedy bear. Not worthy to be called a servant of the Lord when he treats such servants as he has himself like dung . . . .

“All this and worse than this go say of Godric in your book.”

Of course, Reginald does no such thing. All that remains is a wondrous tale of the saintly Godric.

Thoughts about Godric came to mind recently when Mother Teresa—now Saint Teresa—was canonized by the Pope.

From some reports, you’d think she was the worst possible candidate for sainthood. A French publication accused her of glorifying human suffering instead of relieving it, being a penny-pincher with her money, and having questionable friends in high places.

Christopher Hitchens, in his scathing review, called her a “fanaticist, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”

Canadian columnist Michael Coren repeated these charges, adding that she “provided sub-standard medical care, took money from dictators and criminals and often cozied up to them, pushed her faith on the vulnerable and sick.”

What I think these critics miss is that Saint Teresa, like Godric, was human. And humans aren’t perfect.

Saint Teresa seemed to know this. "If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote in a private letter published after her death.

“There is so much contradiction in my soul,” she added, “so deep that it is painful.”

She went on to write about feeling not wanted by God, being repulsed by God, having no faith, no love, no zeal.

“Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place,” she wrote. “The thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

Godric, as imagined by Buechner, couldn’t have said it better.

In addition to Godric, Buechner mused about saints in his book Wishful Thinking. 

“Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long,” he wrote.

“As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way.”

The feet of saints, he went on to say, “are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them.”

I think that sums up Saint Teresa pretty well, whatever her flaws.

From the Sept. 17 Winnipeg Free Press.

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