This week, the Church honors St. George. There is little we know of St. George beyond the fact that he was martyred during the Diocletian persecution in 303 A.D. His legend, that of rescuing a princess about to be devoured by a fearsome dragon, is the result of centuries of embellishment, though not without purpose. The patron of the cavalry, he embodies the manly virtues of courage, nobility, chivalry toward women, etc. Depending upon your point of view, George was a soldier who became a saint, or a saint who happened to be a soldier. Our artwork, a portrait of St. George in stained glass, illustrates the difference.
In his magnificent spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton explains the paradox of human existence, namely, that our nature, left unaided, is incapable of saving us. Of course, we have a supernatural destiny—heaven—but we lack the means of attaining it on our own merits. (Would that public figures humbly admit that we cannot achieve this solely through human action.) On the contrary, we must be assisted by the grace of God, which strengthens the weak, heals the wounded, and makes lovely the love-less. Yet this requires a profound humility in admitting our impotence before God. As we mentioned last week, sanctifying grace enables us to cooperate with him. Merton uses the metaphor of glass to make his point. Glass possesses its own natural beauty, yet still lacks “something.” When light touches the glass, however, it “becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.” So it is with us. Some might say that sanctity is a matter of “doing things” that are thought of as “holy”: martyrdom, missionary work, religious life, holy orders, etc. Then what about those actions that are not considered particularly religious? I spent many years in the military with people whose manner was rough but who, I believe, were quite holy. The poet George Herbert compares the human heart to a stained glass window:
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal (set) in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
Yes, sainthood means that God enables us to do great things: the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, for example. But there is more: rather, what God enables us to be. If you have ever been in the presence of holy people—and I see this all the time in our parishioners—you can perceive it. Whether you call it the light of the Gospel, the odor Christ, the touch of grace, the music of heaven, or the taste for the divine, it means the same thing: God’s life shining within human beings fully alive. May we too be the glass through which this glorious light shines.