We are tempted to reply at once: “a very holy person.” Ah, but what is holiness? That is a more complex issue. We can’t point to a foolproof lifestyle to define what holiness is supposed to look like.
Some canonized saints of the Church were kings and queens in palaces; others begged on the streets of their cities. Some were wellborn and educated, while as many were peasants, unsuccessful students, or simpleminded.
Some saints ranked among the popes, bishops, priests, and religious; others were farmers, doorkeepers, parents, even children. Some prayed and wrote in solemn cloisters; others wandered the countryside preaching. Some performed miracles, and many others are remembered for great wisdom or compassion. More than a few were martyred by methods artists have rendered in magnificent horror to impress such tremendous love and sacrifice upon the religious imagination. Others died of old age in their beds, with loved ones gathered around them.
Those of us who grew up with images of saints encircling our spiritual sensibilities are impressed above all by a certain mythic quality endowing these figures. They seem to exist without the temporal anchor that weighs heavily on the rest of us. In their soulful union with God, saints appear to float above history and its gritty concerns.
We may be hard pressed to locate most of these sacred personalities on the globe, or to pin them down to a particular generation. We know them, rather, from their writings or what others have said about them. For the most part, the average saint remains locked in a timeless vacuum of plaster, stained glass, holy card, and legend. He or she, frankly, is not of this world, unlike the rest of us.
A wrench gets thrown into the myth-making process once the element of proximity is added to the mix. The hometown celebrity can never quite escape the history of having been the ponytailed girl in algebra class or the young man who mowed lawns. Locality and familiarity make the saints of the United States most striking for those of us anchored in the soil of this country and its uniquely experimental history.
The shiny surreal saints we grew up with—faraway figures from places like Assisi, Avila, Padua, or Hippo—seem to have inhabited the celestial communion forever. We have largely lost them behind a haze of hagiography, which means “idealizing or idolizing biography.” Our homegrown saints are different. They share a story we have heard from secular history books. The U.S. saints step (and sometimes stumble) out of the pages of that history, traveling territory we know by heart as citizens of these same neighborhoods.
In their remarkable proximity to us, the saints of this country are reminders that all saints really do start on the ground: in some city or village, among a particular people, bearing the values and ideas of their generations. From their precise perch in time, there is information they don’t have, or perspectives they can’t imagine, that will seem flatly apparent in future centuries. Wrapped in threadbare mortality, each has flaws that become part of the lumber of their sanctification.
The saints of our land drop anchor in the common cultural waters that are still in the process of shaping us. This makes their stories especially relevant as we seek a way of holiness for ourselves.
Making intercession through the saints is a time-honored tradition among Catholics. We might well utilize the special graces of these women and men who achieved sanctity by sweat and tears—and sometimes blood—on these shores. But the goal of this book isn’t to present more holy lives to admire, nor to add to our chain of heavenly advocates. We can be sure no saint purposefully aimed to be canonized, or sought to be the object of veneration and prayers!
These American lives are uniquely offered for our contemplation—to imitate their motivations if not always their methods—so that we too might be numbered among the holy ones in our own time.