Please to begin with a peek at a saint who once walked in our midst.
It seems that Francesca, "Mother" Cabrini, had her designs on a new orphanage for New Orleans, and looming large in her sights was a wealthy Sicilian-born ship owner, Capt. Salvatore Pizzati. She invited the old captain to visit her and gaze on sleeping children. Then she told him: "The saint of fishermen and the Keeper of the Keys guided you to safety over the many perilous seas and has retired you with the health of an oak and much wealth. Will you not in turn be as Saint Peter to these orphans in the stormy seas of this life, and prove that your baptized name, 'Salvatore,' has been God-given and truly stands for Deliverer?'"
The old captain burst into tears and pledged a large amount of money. Later, his advisers advised him to reduce his generosity, and one went to see Mother Cabrini to ask for such a reduction. He returned flustered.
"You complain that I failed?" he said. "How would you have fared in the face of such fury? Little Mother Cabrini, who seems mild as a dove, stormed at me with the mien of a lion." The orphanage was built on Esplanade Avenue and still stands as the main building of Cabrini High.
Saints come in all sizes, shapes and surroundings, but perhaps the most interesting writing comes from the mystics. Here are two examples, one male, one female, both Spanish -- and, yes, St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila knew one another.
Here's St. John, writing of the late-night path to union with the divine: "Oh, night that guided me. Oh night more lovely than the dawn. Oh night that joined Beloved with lover. Lover transformed in the Beloved! Upon my flowery breast, kept wholly for himself alone, There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze. The breeze blew from the turret. As I parted his locks, with his gentle hand he wounded my neck and caused all my senses to be suspended. I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."
St. Theresa of Avila was capable of poetic stanzas like this one: "Things being-less thou dost unite / With Being that can know no end / Thou endest not, yet endest quite; / Unforc'd to love, Thou lov'st at sight: / Thy nothingness Thou dost transcend."
Mahatma Gandhi mused: "God is that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know. ... God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and life and yet he is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. He transcends speech and reason. He is a personal God to those who need his touch. He is the purest essence. He simply Is to those who have faith. ... He is the greatest democrat the world knows, for he loves us unfettered to make our own choice between evil and good. He is the greatest tyrant ever known for he often dashes the cup from our lips and under cover of free will leaves us a margin so wholly inadequate as to provide only mirth for himself at our expense."
The 13th-century Sufi master Rumi described himself as a sober ascetic until "Love came into the mosque and said Oh, great teacher! Rend the shackles of existence! Why are you tied to the prayer-carpets? ... If you are a profligate and a scoundrel, do justice to troublemaking! If you are beautiful and fair, why do you remain behind the veil?'"
Doubtless there are those who will scorn either the veracity or the utility of lessons left behind by those deemed holy. But these things already have been addressed by James Froude, in the pompous prose of the 19th century. "Doubtless the Lives of the Saints' are full of lies. Are there none in the Iliad? Or in the legends of Aeneas? ... Are the songs of the Cid or Siegfried true? ... Oh, then, they are poetry; and besides, they have nothing to do with Christianity. Yes, that is it. ... Religion has grown to be such a solemn business with us, and we bring such long faces to it, that we cannot admit or conceive to be at all naturally admissible such a light companion as the imagination."
Froude went on to champion the efficacy of saintly stories as moral exemplars. "Here was one who, like you, in this very spot, under the same spot ... was tried like you, tempted like you ... he fought the fight ... he triumphed, and now he reigns a saint in heaven ... all is distinct, personal, palpable. It is no dream." Of dreams and Saints, there's always the Super Bowl. And as the last verse of "When The Saints Go Marching In" pleads: "Then Lord let me be in that number / When the sun refuse to shine / And when the moon has turned to blood / And when they crown Him King of Kings / Then Lord let me be in that number."