Posted November 7, 2015
God's Holy Fools? The Wisdom of Living Saints
Taken from The Jesuit Post
'Smee' would not appreciate being called a fool,
holy or otherwise.
Sister Marie Estelle (special ops codename: "Smee") was
the principal of our Catholic grade school in Milwaukee for many years. Like so
many great religious women, Sr. Marie Estelle ran an incredible school on a
shoestring budget. Each morning she would greet us at the door with a smile, a
pat on the back, and a word of encouragement.
I remember one Mardi Gras
celebration in particular. Sister was running the pinata hitting station. After
spinning a blind-folded seventh grader into dizziness, Sister didn't manage to
retreat to a safe distance in time. Whack! She took a whiffle bat to the head
that would've stunned Jose Canseco, let alone
a thin, kindly religious sister. And yet, like the near-invincible T-1000 from
Terminator, she lifted her head, smiled to assure us she was all right, and
handed the bat to the next batter. No harm, no foul.
* * *
I never was in
a class taught by Sr. Marie Estelle. But some twenty years later, I am still
inspired by this holy woman who left such an impression on my young soul. No
doubt each of us has similar stories of those who've taught us about life,
inside the classroom and out. These role models are quiet and strong;
deferential and courteous; joyful and easy-going; people who don't take
themselves too seriously; people who are unaffected by slights and
inconveniences. It seems like these holy ones walk through life untouched by
the slings and arrows that so easily discourage the rest of us. I wonder, how
did these people get like this? When did the pixie dust rain down on them? Have
they always been blissfully unaware of others' eye-splinters, 'holy fools'
untroubled by the reality around them?
And more importantly, What must they
think of the rest of us, who fall far short of unconditional love?
Marie Estelle was so unflappable because she had no idea what was going on
around her. (Maybe she thought getting hit with a whiffle bat was a sign of
adolescent affection?) Maybe life was just simpler for the respectable, kindly
figures who inhabit these stories. Maybe everybody was just less cynical, less
unloving, 'back in the day'.
"Not so fast, there, Simmons" you might say.
And you'd be right.
Though Sr. Marie Estelle was old as the hills in the eyes
of an eight year old, we knew from the look on her face that she didn't miss
anything. AN.Y.THING. To my young mind, Sister was everywhere at once -- leading
morning announcements, prefecting the cafeteria during lunch time, picking up
trash as she strolled the hallways. When I was in third grade, she once caught
wind of one of my smart-alecky remarks about a teacher. Her face appeared in Ms.
Schwab's door-window that afternoon, staring right at me. Sister called me into
the hallway with a slender, beckoning finger. It was time for Joey to have a
come-to-Jesus chat about kindness. How did she KNOW??
* * *
actually sat and talked with the "holy fools" in my life, I find something in
them other than blissful aloofness. They too have had unkind thoughts fill their
heads, and strong feelings slink through their hearts. They too know pettiness,
jealousy, competitiveness, pride, and sloth. They too have walked with, talked
with, and wrestled with demons that plague all of us. They too have failed in
the past to live up to their own aspirations, yes -- but they get back up and
keep trying, one day at a time.
A few years ago, our resident Thinker of
Luminous Thoughts Tim O'Brien, SJ turned me on to a quotation which stopped me cold. Author Marilynne Robinson
"The tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself
out. Wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting
one's own inevitable share of human fallibility."
Maybe that's what holiness
looks like for us in a somewhat cynical age: Accepting one's one fallibility.
The wisdom of our "holy fools" lies not in their ability to ignore reality, but
to be fully attuned to it. Yet wisdom is more than an ability to sniff out and
name shortcomings. Holy wisdom comes from a learned, cultivated love of others,
a love which would sooner pardon than pin down. Why? Because these "holy
fools" know that they have their own demons, and they turn to God for help to
keep them tamed. They have experienced -- and in turn embody -- the forgiving
love that God has for each of us, in spite of ourselves. The God who knows all
of our resistances and limitations, and like a parent -- or a kindly grade school
principal -- wants only the best for us.
These are the wise teachers, the
saintly heroes of the stories we tell. Often enough, they see the limitations we
work so hard to cover, and yet they refrain from rendering judgment. Perhaps it
is their loving restraint -- rather than aloofness -- that give them an aura of
saintliness. Thank God for these living saints, who remain so resolutely
uninterested in others' imperfections.
If Marilynne Robinson is right, then
wisdom and humility are not magic. They do not hit us all at once like a
whiffle bat -- at least they haven't for me. Whatever patience and love I've
summoned for others has come only from recognizing the slow, patient love I've
already received. Love and support from the the unheralded saints -- the holy
fools -- that God has seen fit to place in our lives.
Saint John XXIII wrote,
"See everything. Overlook a lot. Make a little progress." If this is how
saints are forged, then sign me up.
+May all God's holy fools pray for us
today, and every day.+