In most cases, when I think about the saints, even those more recently added to the list or those who lived during more contemporary times, they inhabit a portion of my imagination reserved for the “foreign”, the “different” or the “other.” I know, this runs generally counter to both my theology and my preaching – all the baptized are saints, anyone can be a saint – but that’s not exactly what I mean here.
While I am fine claiming a certain filial love and understanding for the saints; they are, in fact, “just folks like me,” they occupy such different times and geographies from my own that I have a hard time imagining myself living their lives. How can I, a contemporary American man really sympathize with the lived experience of of a 3rd century slave, or a 12th century monk?
Elizabeth Seton, strangely, helps to break that mold a bit. She is, and has always been for me, the “Saint next door.”
Elizabeth Seton is the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the church. She founded the Sisters of Charity, a Roman catholic order for women in Emmitsburg Maryland in the early part of the 19th century.
Emmitsburg is about 15 miles (as the crow flies) from the small town in western Maryland where I grew up. Thus, even though I wasn’t Catholic, or a woman or a citizen of the 19th century, I grew up with stories of Elizabeth Seton, her life and times. She was a part of the fabric of my community’s common mythology.
And herein lies the challenge for us. Though the efforts of many churches to diversify their remembrances of the saints beyond old white guys, there will never be enough capacity to include someone who is “just like” everyone else. As faithful followers and apostles, we must shoulder the burden of making sure that the stories of what saints there are become vital parts of our community narratives so that even if we don’t look or talk or think or even act like certain saints, we can appreciate them as valid models of the kind of Christ-like living to which we can aspire.