What faith really means for a man cannot be represented abstractly; it can be made visible only by and in men, who have lived out this attitude to its logical conclusion... by and in such men, and basically only thus, can faith declare clearly what sort of decision it really is… Such men show that faith is fundamentally a particular kind of passion, or, more correctly a kind of love which seizes a man and points the way he must go, even if that way is wearisome.
Faith and the Future, 26
Reflection – Ratzinger is talking here in this early work of his about the saints, and how it is the saints who alone can show us what Christianity really means and is. Our faith is not an abstract system—the systemic bits of it are very much antecedent to the lived heart of the matter. Our faith is not a code of ethics—the moral law is real and must be obeyed at great cost, but it is not the heart of our faith.
Our faith is… well, if Ratzinger is right, I can’t say what our faith is, not on this blog, not in words! I can try to describe it, I guess, in some of the very beautiful people I have known in Madonna House and who I would not hesitate to call saints, leaving any definitive determination about that to the Church, of course. I will confine myself to those who have died, so as not to embarrass the current bunch of saints I’m living with!
There was Mary Pennefather. She was a brilliant woman who suffered from crippling social anxiety all her life, causing her to literally tremble with fear much of the time. In MH her limitations meant she spent her life mending clothes, washing dishes, folding laundry… and praying. And praying, and praying, and praying. Mary was a mighty prayer warrior while doing the most menial ‘low’ tasks there were. And light and grace and peace and beauty flowed forth from her, trembling and all…
Then there was Jim Guinan. A little Irish-American leprechaun of a man, full of Irish charm and wit. His constant stream of (very funny) jokes and teasing concealed an extraordinarily loving and praying heart. Jim simply loved everyone who crossed his path every day, and somehow always found ways to express that love in warmth and personal interest, always accompanied with a joke and a smile. Being around Jim was like warming your hands at a wood stove on a cold winter day – he exuded love and warmth.
Then there was Fr. Gene Cullinane. A brilliant man, a ‘great man’ in his younger days, he had been a pioneer in Canadian social justice circles, an educator and scholar of some reputation. But then God and his beloved Mary picked him up and deposited him at MH in its earliest years when it was a ragtag bunch of suspect Catholic fringe radicals. And so began a great process of simplification, of being little, of doing little things well for God. When I knew Fr. Gene he was an old man entering a time of physical fraility and illness. He spoke very little, but in his silence communicated total dedication, total prayer, total listening to God and an iron determination to obey whatever God asked him. I learned from Fr. Gene what a priest was, although he was past the point of being able to celebrate Mass, give direction, or ‘do’ much priestly ministry. He simply was a priest— a living offering to God. At the end, when I entered his sick room, I always had a powerful urge to genuflect towards his hospital bed—he was like a living tabernacle.
I realize, writing this little portraits, that they communicate little if anything. And those reading who didn’t know these people (i.e. the vast majority of my readers) might say, ‘Well, these were nice people. That’s… nice, I guess.’ The world is full of nice people, actually, and it’s not really a big deal to be nice.
These three (and I could easily go on with another ten – I have been blessed to live among saints, really), were not ‘nice people’, really. Something else flowed through them, something bigger than them. Something not quite human, although it flowed through all their human powers. It cannot be communicated in words; it must be experienced. And those who have known a saint or two know exactly what I’m talking about.