|Ms. Marilyn lives next door to us and is the mom to two grown boys and one grandbaby. About seven months before we moved in, she became a widow. Every night she walks her dogs arond the neighborhood and nearly every weekend she’s in her yard taking meticulous care of the flowerbeds and the landscaping.
Every once in a while she’ll ask Rodney for help in moving some heavy furniture. But that’s about it. It seems we ask for her help more than she does ours. “Do you mind lending us some butter?” “Can we borrow your extension ladder?” “Does your mower have any gas?” She’s gracious and generous to us—a saint, though not in the typical sense of the word. And that’s not the least of it.
She has a PEOPLE magazine subscription that comes to her house every week. And every week, after she’s done reading it, she passes it off to me. We hit the neighbor jackpot.
I could get lost in a PEOPLE magazine—and do. But when you read it long enough you begin to notice a trend. Every week there’s a sort of pattern. The cover story either advertises someone’s rise to the top, or someone’s fall from grace. I don’t think PEOPLE is the only media outlet to follow the trend. I think it’s tapping into something we all do.
We gravitate toward stories that make heroes out of ordinary people, stories that make them larger than life. We sing their praises, we pat them on the pack, we set them up on a far wobblier pedestal than we realize and then we wonder why they fell off. Why the drug habit came back to consume them. Why the shady money deals seemed a viable choice. Why the series of affairs appeared tempting enough to follow through on.
We make idols out of stone not realizing that underneath lays the flesh and blood humanity of people not that unlike us. A complicated mixture of good and disgraceful. Of hero and villain. Of praiseworthy and shameful.
One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is how they’ve taken the calendar year and assigned each day to a person they’ve recognized as a saint. Most I’ve never heard of. But on April 23rd, I noticed St. George had a day, and I seemed to remember him being famous for an encounter with a dragon. How he got to be a saint, I wasn’t sure, so I read a short bio of his life.
Turns out, he was a real life martyr in the Middle East, probably before the time of Constantine. He was a member of the Roman army, and was killed because he refused to recant on his Christian faith.
To me, that makes him more than worthy enough to be honored. But we just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Time and legends, and perhaps well meaning people desperate for an iconic hero and not a susceptible human, made George a slayer of dragons and a rescuer of princesses too.
In the short blurb about his life, clearing up the confusion over what St. George really did, and what people wished he’d done, it says this: “The Church adheres to his memory, but not to the legends surrounding his life.”
I’m beginning to think it’s easier to create legends around people to make them larger than life, than it is to embrace the complex nature of actual humanity. We want our heroes. We want to believe there are those who can accomplish the impossible, who rush head on into danger, who are fearless to the point of arrogance about what their dauntless courage can accomplish.
But that’s not real.
And it shouldn’t be disappointing.
What’s disappointing is seeing someone crumble under the weight of expectation and hero worship we’ve heaped on their shoulders.
What’s encouraging is knowing that there are those around us deemed saints because of their humanity and not in spite of it.
They are saints for their complexity. For their averageness. For their skin and bone make up. Saints who in their normalcy accomplished incredible feats—maybe not in slaying a dragon, but in their white-knuckled grip on the faith that sustained them—even when their very life was on the line. In their courage—in spite of the terror. In their conviction—despite the threats. In their holy actions—amid their frail mortality.
That makes a saint.
A saint is a person like the real St. George, and our next-door neighbor Marilyn. People who do what they do, but not for the grandeurs of greatness. People who are saints in their generosity and kindness, in their perseverance and their character, who are that way because they couldn’t imagine being anything else.
So on April 23rd, we remember St. George—and the other ordinary saints around us. Not for what we imagine he did, but for what we know he did. We remember a saint more like us than we may want our heroes to be—he was just human after all. But we revere him because of what he accomplished in his ordinariness, making him far lessordinary and more extra-ordinary in the eyes of the Church as a result.
We don’t need sturdier pedestals. We need more authentic heroes. We don’t need more tales of mythic proportions. We need more stories of average people working out their faith in fear and trembling. We don’t need more legends. We need more saints.