For a few months, earlier in the year, I was knee, waist, and ultimately about shoulder-deep in saints.
It was for a book, of course - the Children's Book of Saints that Loyola will be publishing next spring. During the time I wrote it (and I won't tell you exactly how much time that was until the people at Loyola move beyond their initial raves about the manuscript to take a really close look at it. Then we'll see) - I spent every waking moment immersed in hagiography, stories of saints in all of their mystery and ordinariness, their inspiration and their weirdness.
Did I say weirdness? Yes, I did.
For in my research, I’ve found the oddest stories, tales which, depending on how you look them, give you either more reasons to be Catholic, or a good healthy list of reasons to run screaming to the bland, polite Unitarian rationality.
Take this one about St. Francis de Sales, preacher, teacher and courageous bishop of Geneva in those hideous post-Calvin years.
The story goes that when Francis was a baby, he was taken by his wet-nurse to Mass. On the way, little baby Francis loved to share whatever treats he’d been given with beggars along the way. One day, Francis ran out of treats and was terribly sad. He wept. The wet-nurse got a grand idea. She (ahem – are you ready?) offered her breast to a needy beggar instead. Little Francis clapped in delight.
Another one, this one posthumous.
Most of you have probably not heard of St. Gaspar del Bufalo. He’s actually not a minor saint, though, being the founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood. I saw his ulna (forearm bone) this past summer in a retirement home for the order, out in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio.
In the book I read about St. Gaspar, much attention was given to the miracles attributed to him after his death. The vast majority of them involved sick people being healed after they - swallowed - Gaspar’s relics.
Not exactly material for the parish mission, I guess. But, you have to admit, they’re memorable. You will never, ever forget those stories, I guarantee it.
There are, indeed, many things in our tradition that make us squirm. I mean, you just don’t find this kind of thing – not to speak of Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross levitating, Catherine of Siena spiritually wedded to Christ or Benedict shattering poisoned-filled cups with a mere blessing – among most of our Protestant brothers and sisters.
But you know, as strange as these stories can get sometimes, they point to an important – shall we say – essential aspect of Catholicism.
The body thing.
In Catholicism, we take the Incarnation very seriously. God became flesh in Christ – he grew in a womb, nursed at a breast, ate, drank, suffered pain and died.
God, we know, comes to us not as an idea, but as a person.
This Person, this God, lives on in His Church and continues to meet us where we are, through bread and wine, through water and oil, through touch, through the sacrificial, all-consuming love of a man and woman in marriage.
And Catholics aren’t afraid of that. God works, loves and heals, not just through our minds and words on a page, but through bodies, events and this fleshy concrete community of saints and sinners called Church.
It is one of the glories of our faith, one that the Orthodox share, one that we have inherited from Judaism, but one that the Protestant reformers shrank from and feared.
Their argument, of course, was that while the Incarnation is certainly a fact, the Catholics had lost their bearings and allowed the flesh and the human touch attempt to control the Divine, rather than be controlled by it.
Maybe they were right, to an extent, and Vatican II was a recognition of the same problematic tendency, although, as we all know, the pendulum swung a might too far.
No, I’m not putting that St. Francis of de Sales story in my book. It’s not quite appropriate for the audience.
But I have to say, even though it grosses me out, I still like it. In a strange way, it communicates to me the reality of a world in which God is everywhere, always at work, using whatever we’ll let Him use to get the job done, a world saturated with the divine, even in the oddest places.
So, listen to the stories – strange and ordinary, beautiful and grotesque – stories of a people plunging into creation fearlessly and enthusiastically, seeking God in every bit of flesh and blood He has made, and, stranger yet, finding Him there.