Catholic fascination with the saints is perplexing to many people. Even I, a cradle Catholic, have often found it a bit hard to understand. Shouldn’t we pray to God, not people?
Last November our small church community gathered during the week of the Feast of All Saints, and we had a timely discussion on the topic of the saints. Thankfully for us, our well-educated pastor led the session, and I walked away from it finally having cleared up much of the confusion in my head about the saints. Saints are simply people – ordinary people – who are in Heaven with God. Beatified Saints, like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Augustine, are people the church formally recognizes as being in Heaven, but anyone in Heaven is a saint. Because they are with God, they are able to communicate with us in the same kind of way that God often does – in those small, quiet, occasional but unmistakable voices. Anyone in Heaven, whether recognized as a beatified Saint or not, can participate in this communication (so I didn’t imagine hearing Grandma talk to me this spring). Most importantly, though, is that even though they are in Heaven, the saints are still in community with us. That is, they pray with us and for us. We don’t pray to saints; we pray with saints. Asking a saint to pray for you and with you is really no different than asking a friend or family member for the same thing.
In this discussion, our pastor also shared that sometimes people feel drawn to a particular saint. When that happens, it is often because that saint is adopting you as a friend and prayer companion. In November I thought the idea of being adopted by a saint sounded neat, but it was not something I could personally relate to.
A couple of months later, I was at Bergamo Center for our parish’s annual Men’s Retreat. Bergamo is operated by the Marianists, the order of priests, brothers, sisters, and laity who also operate the University of Dayton, my college alma mater. Because of my time at UD, I have always been partial to the Marianists (and not just because I love UD basketball), but I have not had much contact with any of them since I graduated over a decade ago. I belong to a diocesan parish now that was originally founded by the Franciscans, and the parish retreat at Bergamo really has nothing to do with the Marianists other than renting their retreat space.
While on a break between retreat talks, I went for a walk through the halls of Bergamo. I stopped to look at a little display of many things Marianist – books, postcards, brochures and icons of the saintly founders of the order. As I stood there, I found myself drawn to the icons of Blessed Adèle de Batz de Trenquelléon, the founder of the Marianist sisters. It was an an unusual moment, but as I looked at Adèle’s picture, I felt like she was calling to me. I wasn’t quite sure how to react, so I stood there another moment, picked up a couple of prayer cards with her picture on them, and continued on my walk, pondering what had just happened. At the time, I told no one about the experience.
After I got home from the retreat weekend, I shared the experience with Meghann. I felt almost embarrassed to tell her and admitted to her that I wasn’t sure if I was crazy. Meghann did not think what I told her was silly or crazy at all; she seemed to think it was totally reasonable to hear me say that I felt like a saint was calling to me. With this encouragement, I put one of the Adèle prayer cards in my wallet to always keep close to me, and the other one on my dresser so that I could see it when I woke up and before I went to sleep. I felt less crazy after talking to Meghann about it, but I was still a bit perplexed. When I have heard stories of ordinary people interacting with saints, they tend to be miracle cures or dramatic, unexplainable Heavenly interventions. I hoped to myself that I would never need something like that in my life and tried to make myself comfortable with the fact that I had been adopted by a saint. For whatever reason, that was not an easy thing for me to accept.
I did take some time to read a little about Adèle after this, though. While there are some very obvious and striking differences between the two of us (a married man is clearly not qualified to found an order of nuns), I found that Adèle and I have some things in common. Small church community is something that we both have spent fruitful time doing. Writing about faith has been important to both of us. Social justice issues are a priority. Something I hoped we would never have in common as I read about her, though, was getting seriously sick in our 30’s as had happened in her life.
Then came April 17. As we grappled with the news that I had cancer, I found myself thinking of Adèle and beginning to suspect why I had met her a few months before. God had sent me a saintly companion to help me face hairy cell. I was going to need her prayers alongside mine and those of my family and friends on earth as we walked this cancer journey. I wasn’t crazy, and there was a reason I felt like she was calling to me months before. It was a brief moment of hope in the midst of reeling from the news of the day.
As spring became summer and treatment loomed on the horizon, I fell into the habit of greeting Adèle whenever I walked past her picture on my dresser. At first it was either a “hey, Adèle, how’s it going?” or a “Adèle, please pray for us as we face this cancer.” Before long, I found myself not just conversing about my cancer but also asking her to pray with me about other people in my life who needed it – my pregnant sister and sister-in-law and their unborn babies, my coworkers facing difficult family challenges, victims of violence, immigrant families being treated badly by our government – whatever was on my heart at the moment. Adèle became a reliable friend that I knew would always take these things seriously and pray for them in a much better way than I am able.
To be clear, conversation with Adèle did not replace conversation with God; it augmented it.
When treatment began, Meghann and I added asking Adèle for her help to our pre-treatment prayer ritual. It was nothing major, but just a simple “Blessed Adèle, pray for us.” Even then, I knew she was.
In my second treatment session, I had a reaction to one of the medicines I was receiving that caused violent chills and a fever. Even after the nurses got the chills stopped and the fever under control, I felt very lousy for a long while. The night after I was awake much of the night with medicine-caused insomnia accented with nausea and vomiting. It was a rough night to say the least. As I laid on the couch that night feeling lousy while my family slept upstairs, I suddenly had a moment that felt like a friend was rubbing my right shoulder, telling me everything would be ok. It was a reassuring and calming moment in a difficult night. Though I didn’t see anyone, the familiar presence felt very real. “Thanks, Adèle,” I said. After that, I was able to finally go to sleep.
If you think this story seems unlikely or downright unbelievable as you read it, I wouldn’t fault you. I have found the whole thing unbelievable myself at times over the last 8 months. Am I really interacting with a saint, or is my mind making this up? Is it really possible to have a conversation with someone who died 150 years before I was born? When I start to wonder these things for too long, God seems to say “who are you to say what I can and can’t do? If I want to send a saint to pray with you, I can do that.”
On my stronger faith days, I am thankful to God for the special grace to have gained a heavenly friend that I never knew on earth. On my days of questioning and doubting, I just try to to talk to God and say “hi” to Adèle while I’m at it.
I don’t fully understand why the founder of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate would want to adopt me as a friend, but I believe that she has. I am grateful for a companion on this journey who is clearly close to God and who wants to pray for me and my family and friends. I deeply hope that I do not become one of those saint stories where I need to ask for a miracle cure from God with her intercession on my behalf (right now treatments are going well, so for now it does not appear that I will have to). I know that I will one day again face hairy cell disease, as it is a chronic and incurable disease, but I hope that Adèle will be there next time too. Perhaps this friendship will lead to other things too, unrelated to cancer, that I haven’t even thought about yet. I don’t know. Hopefully, God will continue to give me the grace to simply be thankful for the prayer companion and to continue to converse with her as we both pray together to Him. So thank you, God, for sending me a saint friend, and thank you, Adèle, for adopting me.
Blessed Adèle, pray for us.