Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The saints are lights from the past

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published November 7, 2013

Emile Durkheim was one of the founding fathers of the discipline that came to be known as sociology. He lived and wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in France. He believed that a careful and exacting study of ancient practices could shed light on the present. He wrote, among other works, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” to prove his theory. It was a study of the earliest, most primitive religious practices then known to scholars: the rites and religious rituals of Australian aborigines. What surprised me when I read the book was that Durkheim never set foot in Australia. He relied on secondary sources for his study. Where he was criticized by some scholars for his lack of field experience, it seems that he was not unlike other scholars of his day who labored away in libraries trying to figure out cultures and practices that existed thousands of miles away.

The church sets aside All Saints Day for us to venerate the saints—known and unknown—throughout history. They are a varied group. Among them are martyrs, missionaries, rich and poor, scholars, kings, paupers, soldiers, preachers—men and women whose lives centered on God and people and who were noticed. And who were declared saints. They are not a perfect group. But they are the primary sources of study in our quest for God. More than a few lived strange, eccentric lives on the fringe. They knew sin, despair, poverty, rejection, anger. They were just like us. But they go before us for a reason. They are like lights from the past whose examples still shine on the road ahead of us.

As varied as the saints are that we celebrate today, they had one trait in common. Driven by a love for God, they involved themselves in life.

It was in life that they discovered where the mysteries of the Divine resided. The saints were men and women who grappled with the complexities of human life because they knew that is where God is to be found, shared and celebrated. I wonder if any of them had an easy go of it. I tend to doubt it. They knew the darkness and light that is life and embraced the brightness that they found, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. But that is, I think, what saints do best. They venture into dark recesses of human life and assure us that God is there as well, asking us to trust him once we find him.

It seems that we are entering a time in the history of the church that is a very exciting one. Pope Francis has his eyes riveted to the impoverished who inhabit the dark alleys of life. He has been there and has his discoveries to share. Saint making may take a new and needed turn in the direction of those laboring in those places. It seems that they are rediscovering old and living truths. I do not know if people these days are all that convinced by the miraculous, the kind of holiness that seems so far out of reach for most, perhaps all, of us.

They are more interested in people who live in streets all over the world and who make a positive difference. And perhaps that is enough of a miracle in itself. They want saints who lived this life as we know it and who found God in the crevices.

I do not fault Durkheim for doing his best without taking a long trip and consulting some primary sources. He was a product of his time.

And we are a product of ours. And the primary source of saintliness is right before us, in the tedious and long book that is life. Life is our primary source for God. For it is also God’s primary residence. It is a residence the doors of which are open to all, and eccentrics may know the way a bit better than we supposedly normal folks.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at