Since it is November, the month of the celebration of All Saints Day and Thanksgiving, I have been thinking with gratitude about the people in my life who I have declared as saints. It might surprise you that topping my list are not the names of seminary professors, famous preachers, or great heroes of the faith. My saints are not known and recognized by others as truly great persons. Instead, they would mostly be described as common folks, ordinary people.
My mother-in-law was a saint. She died a couple of years ago. She never went to college, worked as an ice cream dipper most of her youth. She was a single mother for seventeen years, raising my husband by herself along with the help of her parents and siblings, before she married a sailor and moved south. She would never talk much about that time. I think she was ashamed that she had given birth out of wedlock and she could never find a way to forgive herself for that. And yet, that shame never defined her. Nothing harsh or heavy ever defined her. She was as simple as she was kind, compassionate as she was gentle. From the very first moment I met her, she welcomed me into her heart as the daughter she never had. And unlike all the other stories about mother-in-laws I have heard, the story of my relationship with my mother-in-law was a story of unconditional love and acceptance. She is on my roll call of saints because she was exactly the woman she showed herself to be, nobody more, nobody less. She’d give you the clean and pressed blouse off of her back and tell you when you were done wearing it to pass it on to somebody else. She never met a stranger and I never heard her say a hurtful thing about another living soul.
There’s another saint on my list, a man whose name I no longer recall, a Baptist preacher from West Virginia. He was a chaplain who helped train me and I remember him telling me the story of why he kept his cigarettes in his front shirt pocket. He said he was an addict of cigarette smoking and he saw no reason to hide it. Admonished and criticized by the other staff at the hospital, he kept his cigarettes out front where everybody could see them. He said he didn’t understand it but that when he kept his pack in his front pocket he noticed that the patients in the hospital and their family members were more likely to talk to him so that even though he was reprimanded time and time again, he kept it there. He said a few of his patients told him that if he struggled with an addiction like smoking then probably he could understand their struggles and they weren’t afraid to confess what it was that was really troubling them. That Baptist preacher taught me about being real, being honest, and even though I don’t carry cigarettes in my front pocket, I’ll never forget the importance of not hiding my sins or my sorrows, my disappointments or my doubts. Not everybody wants to see the human side of preachers but most people who are troubled appreciate the honesty.
I used to think that saints were those folks who did things I could never do, showed great courage or accomplished extraordinary feats but I don’t think that anymore. This Thanksgiving I am grateful to have learned that anybody can be a saint. If an ice cream dipping single mother can live her life with an open and loving heart and a Baptist preacher isn’t afraid to show the world his bad habits, I suppose even I have a shot at sainthood. For now, however, I’m satisfied with just being thankful with learning how to recognize a real saint.