Saints Preserve Us

Sanctity goes undercover

As I write this, it's November 1. In much of Europe, today is a holiday. Toussaint. Todos los Santos. Allerheiligen. Offices and shops close. Processions stop traffic. Here, it passes unnoticed.

For me, though, it's a red-letter day. Not only is it the birthday of my youngest grandchild, it's the Feast of All Saints.

I like the "all" part.

My personal saints have no marquee value. They do not appear on any calendar or stained glass window. There are no statues of them in parish churches. If I told you their names, you would not recognize them as spiritual giants.

My saints are low-profile types who practiced undercover virtue and stealth holiness. They're an eclectic group, ranging from my college roommate whose Mississippi-Delta-accented voice still exhorts me from the realms of the blessed, to the ancient monk who urged me to lighten up and brightened my infrequent visits to his monastery with stories about his friend the Elvis impersonator.

There's a clutch of writers, some local, some from far away, who drift in when I'm on deadline and running on empty. They lean over my shoulder and repeat the magic formula: Sit there. Don't get up to fold laundry or mop the kitchen floor or make Coquilles Saint-Jacques. Write one true thing. The rest will come.

There is my eccentric great aunt Hattie, whose stories and poems recited from memory pushed me headlong into a reading and writing life. There are the two remarkable English teachers who challenged, cajoled, crossed out in red pencil, and refused to settle for second best.

And then there are the friends of a lifetime who left too soon: one in a plane crash, two from cancer. They come and go, stopping in to do whatever they did best on Earth: steering me clear of self-pity and into action, pointing out the ridiculous or the hilarious or the unexpectedly beautiful thing right in front of me.

The newcomers feel very close: the lady who sat in front of me in church every Sunday, wheelchair bound, unfailingly cheerful, courageous in the offhand way that discourages comment. Her funeral was in May. She reminds me to keep my priorities in order. The retired chemistry professor who cared tirelessly for his ailing wife while fighting his own illness and left his family a legacy of hard work, quiet good humor, and complete integrity—he was buried a year ago. He turns up whenever I need him to unravel some knotty problem of academe. It was his turf, after all, and he never lets me down.

Always present is my grandmother, sensible, steady, wise. When I teeter on the edge of emotional overload, when what Roy Blount Jr. called "life its own self" is way more than I can manage, it is her voice that I hear. Well, dear, she begins, as she always did. And then I sit very still and listen for what comes next.

While canonization requires proof of heroic sanctity, my cloud of witnesses kept their holiness under wraps. They practiced the daily asceticism of suit-up-and-show-up. They went to work whether they felt like it or not. They took care of the souls entrusted to them, including their own. They knew how to tell a joke and how to laugh at one, even if it was on them.

Once, in Assisi, I put my hand on the piece of glass that covered the cloak of St. Francis. It took my breath away. A grimy-looking gray wool garment, patched with large, uneven stitches, it reminded me of my undercover saints. Well-used. Serviceable. Still here.