All Saints: Cloud of Witnesses
My definition of saint keeps evolving and expanding.
When I understood like a child, the word evoked images of holy rollers and revelers. The saints carried on with their horns and noisemakers, forever marching in. As I craned my neck to spy the start and finish lines of their grand parade, it mattered that I was among their number, high-stepping my way into the kingdom of God.
Coming of age within church sanctuaries, saint became a synonym for aged Christians, a noun always preceded by adjectives like sweet and dear. Later, making up for a few centuries worth of lost time, I studied the Reformation and steeped myself in the priesthood of the believers. That doctrine judges all confessing Christians—living or dead, young and old—as saints right here, right now.
The saints I honor stretch across time and place. They make miracles every day, converting mustard-seed faith into occasions to break through with change and go forth in worship.
Widening the borders of spiritual wisdom, I now listen more intently to Catholic friends who invest the word with narrative hope. I trace the arcs of lives well-lived and well-studied, absorbing stories of uncommon faithfulness, of miracles great and small. Watching modern believers tug at the string connecting their lives to attendant saints, I feel pangs of something like holy jealousy.
My current definition borrows from every stage and tradition. The saints I honor stretch across time and place. They make miracles every day, converting mustard-seed faith into occasions to break through with change and go forth in worship.
This fall, I will write a miniseries of columns under the banner All Saints. This work is logical and perhaps long-overdue; where my writing errs, it defaults to the side of adoration. The subject of a profile once graciously accused me of hagiography, worrying I made too much of him. Maybe I can’t help it—the longer I look, the more saints I see.
During this miniseries, I’ll pay respect to six modern saints who exist along the gossamer edge of my personal cloud of witnesses.
Everyone commits at least one particular heresy, and perhaps this is mine: I tend to elevate common grace over saving grace. Lord, let me never take the reality of redemption for granted. But taking Jesus at his word—that out of the heart’s overflow, the mouth speaks—I find something resembling faithfulness in so many souls.
What someone believes and assents to matters; a life’s compass points godward or the needle spins and spins until it doesn’t. I know this at an elemental level. But when I hear healing words, experience art, or enjoy simple graces offered by a well-intentioned soul, I fall in love a little. I recognize the contours of sainthood, and thank God he saw fit to deliver this miracle through this vessel.
During this miniseries, I’ll pay respect to six modern saints who exist along the gossamer edge of my personal cloud of witnesses. Four are dearly departed and two stand among us—these six figures weather my spirit and work in both clear and imperceptible ways:
St. Franz Wright, patron saint of upholstered souls;
St. Bono, patron saint of true believers;
St. Mike Birbiglia, patron saint of storytellers everywhere;
St. Thelonious Monk, patron saint of tuning to your own frequency;
St. James Baldwin, patron saint of working out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling;
and St. Mary Oliver, patron saint of the wonderstruck.
Even on days when their names fail to pass my lips or penetrate my prayers, these saints animate the practices I lean on to feel my way through the world.
These columns won’t pretend to be exhaustive or read like biography. I am not a Baldwin scholar or even a Monk completist. But I am a living authority on the way their work and presence redraw the horizons of possibility.
I will fight—and sometimes lose—the temptation to overreach; I will try not to assign orthodoxy without evidence. But I will relish the places where grace spills over and through lives dedicated to examining God’s world from particularly acute angles.
I have settled under this cloud of witnesses, experiencing bursts which saturate my life and work. This series is my testimony of standing in the rain. And I hope it offers a lens for you to look through—to see grace everywhere, in everyone.