Family Portraits

August is a month rich in the calendar of the saints. All month long I’ve wanted to write a bit here and there each day as yet another of my favorite saints was commemorated. The list this month is long, and here are just a few:

  • St. Alphonsus Liguouri
  • St. Peter Julian Eymard
  • St. John Vianney (The Cure of Ars)
  • St. Dominic
  • St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
  • St. Lawrence
  • St. Clare
  • St. Maximillian Kolbe
  • St. Stephen of Hungary
  • St. Bernard
  • St. Rose of Lima
  • St. Louis
  • St. Monica
  • St. Augustine

And we’ve also had days celebrating the Transfiguration of the Lord, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Queenship of Mary and tomorrow will mark the Passion of St. John the Baptist. Which is a polite way of saying remembering the occasion of his being beheaded by Herod.

I realize that these days set aside to honor and remember saints are looked at as odd by most. It’s one area of Catholicism that I have always appreciated though, even while a Protestant. I think it was the historian and amateur genealogist in me. I have always thought of it no differently than a wall that might be found in the home where all the family pictures are hung. Portraits of moms and dads, siblings and cousins, aunts or uncles. Of grandparents and great-grandparents. Weddings or family reunions. Most homes used to have such a wall. My own does. It keeps us connected with our past and reminds us from whence we came. It was a place of wonder for me as a young boy and my grandparents would delight in telling me stories of the long-since-gone people whose sepia-toned images hung from the plaster by a nail.

source: fotovisura.com

That is what we do with the saints. We honor them with a place on our “wall.” For the most part the stories are not sugarcoated and lessons are learned from their struggles. Their triumphs are chronicled, too, and especially from those martyred we gain strength in lessons of perseverance and in heavenly reward. It is a reminder that there is more to life than what we see before our eyes.

Maybe that’s where so many struggle today. The walls on their homes are empty. The digital age affords us the ability to take more pictures than ever, but our walls are now on Facebook. The images are not developed and hung in a prominent or more permanent place. It is also my opinion that we have substituted family photos for those of celebrity, whether from the entertainment world or the political. We choose to know every detail of the shallowest of humanity who offer nothing more than an often-repeated example of how not to live our lives.

Not that the saints or our own family members were perfect. Far from it in fact. Every family has “crazy Uncle Joe” I’d wager. (One day I’ll probably be known that such by my descendants. “That’s your crazy Uncle Jeff. He was odd and eccentric, but pretty harmless. A bark worse than his bite” they’ll say.) Today’s saint, St. Augustine, once famously prayed “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Saints know they are among the worst of sinners and in that knowledge they once again serve to lead us in the struggles of our own lives. They lead through their examples of prayer, and perseverance in the face of great adversity, and in overcoming the worst flaws in their own character. If you are familiar with Augustine’s great book Confessions you already know of his early life of brokenness. Of his drunken escapades and whoring. And yet this man, learned in rhetoric and philosophy and Seeker of Truth, found it. He found Truth in God and in His Church. In the Office of Readings this morning we find the following from his Confessions:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Augustine may have been late to this ultimately better and more divine party, but among the lessons we learn from these holy men and women is that it is better to be late than to never arrive at all.

It is through this calendar of commemorations and solemnities that we in a small way participate in the sanctification of time. We order the temporal things of this life with the sacred. We have role models all around us, both good and bad. Whom we choose to claim as our own…whose portraits we hang from our wall and stories we relive and pass on…is ultimately up to us.

Addendum: There is a movie being released soon about the St. Augustine that includes of course his incredible mom, St. Monica (we remembered her yesterday). It’s called Restless Heart and it looks very well done. A review by Brandon Vogt is here. To be honest I hadn’t seen the trailer until yesterday and wasn’t paying too much attention as I feared yet another lame attempt by Christian filmmakers to make a movie. However, this looks pretty darned good and I aim to check it out.

RESTLESS HEART uses a historic backdrop to tell the true story of Augustine of Hippo – one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved and well-known Saints. Its message is as timely today as it was only a few generations after Jesus walked on Earth. It is the story of one who pursues fame and fortune without a moral compass – and the changes that occur when events lead him to see the light. It also chronicles the collapse of the Roman world and how Augustine laid the intellectual foundations of what became Europe.

Movie website: restlessheartfilm.com

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