While there is no clear equivalent in NT Greek to our word ‘saint’, the early traditions of the church developed a way of talking about particularly notable Christian leaders as ‘saints’. It became a practice of the Roman tradition of the church to name persons exemplary of the faith as saints. Such naming of persons as saints served the practical purpose of educating the laity in how to be a Christian. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman practice of naming persons as saints seemed restricted to male priests and female nuns. Except for the more episcopal traditions, in various ways the rising ‘protestants’ adopted the practice of downplaying the calling of any person a ‘saint’, except in the sense that all Christians are called to be holy and saintly.
In the dissoluting ways of Protestant practices, the words ‘saint’ and ‘saintly’ deteriorated into vagueness and controversy. Yet in hymns and other practices, references to ‘saints’ was a useful way of reminding clergy and laity that there are some distinct characteristics of Christian life other than the vacillating societal norms of secular life.
Dorothy Messenger was my friend and was such a discerning and devoted Christian that over her 102 years knowledgeable friends found themselves referring to her as a ‘saint’. Why did this happen? And why did I and my wife Sarah fall easily into referring to Dorothy as a saint, a gift, a very wise gift?
I want to explore Dorothy’s life, especially in her last two decades, in order to clarify for myself, and perhaps for you, what it might mean to call someone a ‘saint’ and not merely mean that ‘she was polite and nice and sometimes helpful to me.’
So, blog friends, consider Dorothy.
Dorothy was born March 4, 1915 in Dallas, Texas. She received her undergraduate degree from Texas Christian University in business and accounting in 1937. At TCU she met and married “Andy” Messenger in 1936 . Andy went to seminary at the University of Chicago and would enjoy thriving ministries in Texas and Oklahoma. I first met Andy and Dorothy when I became Dean of Phillips University Graduate Seminary in 1975 and they were serving a church in Woodward, Oklahoma. Andy was a tall and distinguished person, yet gentle and friendly, easy to like. While I noticed Dorothy—friendly, endearing—it was mainly her attachment to Andy that seemed most important. Only later would I discover her own extensive churchly work among the Disciples in Oklahoma, but also that she was gainfully employed for 28 or so years as an accountant for several business enterprises. Until Andy’s death in 2002, Dorothy and Andy were also a team in ministry for almost 67 years. I am hesitant to suggest that they were my close and intimate friends during my tour at Phillips University from 1975 to 1988. But I found both of them to be gracious, intelligent, open and friendly, and earnest about being Christians!
Seeking medical expertise for understanding and diagnosing Sarah’s obvious decline in health, in 2012 we sold our lakeside cottage—we called it ‘Anchor Point’—and in April moved into a cottage at the Epworth Villa Residential Community in Oklahoma City. Our search for a Disciples congregation ended with our becoming members of Southern Hills Christian Church in the adjacent town of Edmond. I have written elsewhere about the amazing ministry of the Reverend Dr. Gary Byrkit at Southern Hills. But Sarah and I were attracted to Southern Hills not only by Dr. Byrkit’s preaching and friendship but also by the many dear friends from our past who were members: including Betty Wolfe, my presidential secretary at Phillips University; and Dorothy Messenger, already regarded as ‘saintly’ by the congregation, and many more.
Dorothy and her husband had moved to the Oklahoma Christian Home in Edmond before his death and she remained in their cottage until her own health decline moved her into nursing care and then critical care.
At Southern Hills Sarah and I joined the lively Inquirers Sunday School Class and therein, Sunday after Sunday, we enjoyed and were illuminated by the vigorous and searching discussions among the members of the class, which included Dorothy, then in her late 90s. And herein, I began to grasp again the searching thoughtfulness of Dorothy. She was now in a wheelchair and depended on her daughter Myrna to get her to ‘church’. In the SS class she had her special chair and her portable ‘hearing’ device that helped her follow the discussion among the members of the class. Yet her age and devices did not impede her lively and intelligent participation in the class. She asked questions and proposed possibilities, as her very presence and engagement kept the rest of us ‘on our toes’.
It became obvious to me that Dorothy was a genuinely committed and learned ‘Christian liberal’ both in theology and politics—quite unusual in Oklahoma church life. And in seeing and hearing her participation in the class, it was clear and obvious that Dorothy was theologically acute and insightful. And ‘liberalism’—theological and political—was displayed in her consistent distress at the racial prejudices and paleontological politics in churches and neighborhoods and state and national governance. Yet in being dismayed she never became hateful and accusatory. She did not hiss and spew. But she was a consistent witness on behalf of the least of these.
I want to pause here and consider what ‘being liberal’ seemed to mean to Dorothy. In her gut and soul, being liberal simply meant ‘being a Christian for whom no neighbor or enemy is beyond God’s love and grace.’ It was the generosity—the love and grace— she saw in Jesus and the witness of the church about the ultimate reality of God that attracted and anchored her. To suppose that God wanted, for example, blacks to be slaves, wanted the rich to be protected, wanted Christians to go to war when the national leaders declared it a war sanctified by God for God-Fearing folk; all of that was simply baffling and offensive to Dorothy. Being ‘liberal’ for her simply meant being courageous and committed to the Gospel as the heart and soul of church life.
As I observed Dorothy over these last few years, it became obvious to me that she lived and enacted a distinct pattern of living passionately, faithfully, unselfishly, of being ‘other oriented’ in ways kind and generous. For most of us who regard ourselves as ‘Christians’, perhaps even as ‘Disciples of Christ’, to further call us ‘saints’ might seem hyperbolic, almost humorous, in a plethora of discerning ways. So I am writing this little blog under the firm conviction that Dorothy was a saint! But to say that clearly I needed to think clearly about the saintliness of Dorothy. Which is the occasion for this small piece of bloggish reflection.
So, I am writing this modest little piece because I am inclined to call Dorothy a saint! A ‘saint’? Of course, folk who might be reading these remarks should also know I seem preoccupied with what I call “grammar”: how words have meanings and uses that can be tracked and clarified. So, the next task for me herein is to explore what I think is conceptually involved in saying my friend was a saint.
We can first simply acknowledge that New Testament Greek does not have a clear word for what we call ‘saint’. There are other words that pick up the meanings rather well. But in the life of the early Roman church Latin equivalents developed such that ‘sainthood’ became applied to male clergy renown as church leaders: Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, etc. The women who become saints are almost without exception women in the various religious orders.
Precisely because there were these already established grammars for male and female saints, the various Reformation churches seemed to abstain from calling anyone a ‘saint’. Yet some Protestants could be found to slip back into saying such things: ‘all Christians are saints, etc.’ I am brief here about other examples of uses of ‘saints’ because their grammars are often mixed and confusing.
But in the Protestant traditions a common concern centered on how persons live: how did they understand and relate to neighbors, to the various social networks that shape and form persons. Obviously, saints were at least generous and loving, not full of hate and jealously. Saintly folk build up and encourage others and are steadfast in friendship. Perhaps many of us today are not inclined to call folk saints, because so much church life seems dominated by warnings about enemies, social hard-heartedness, encouraging suspicions, judging who really loves in Jesus’ name.
Notice, in what I would call ‘the deep grammar’ of church life, being a saint is never something one should claim for her or himself. No Christian should aim at saintliness or sainthood. The aim is not for saintliness as such but is an aim for the good of the neighbor or perhaps even the enemy. Or put another way: saintliness is not a private virtue, but we might call it a practical skill in how to be a peacemaker and lover of the unloved.
Obviously these points could use further elaboration and some preaching, but I hope it is enough to encourage understanding of why I want to call my friend Dorothy a saint. She did not set out to be a saint; she never talked about sainthood. Simply being in her presence was a gift. She was a gift to me and many others.
At the age of 102, my saintly friend, now in hospice care, suffered a severe stroke resulting in a prolonged and excruciating descent into silence. I finally got there to see her. I spoke but she heard me not. My own incapacitations of aging rendered me helpless and sad at the sight my dear friend. Her countenance was darkened by the unrelenting shutting down of her bodily organs and processes. Death would not be long delayed. When I left her room, I knew I would never see her again. A day or so later she breathed her last breath.
It does not matter whether Dorothy knew she was a saint; saints do not seek sainthood or recognition or popularity. A true saint never sets out to be or become a saint. Saints might defend or discuss or argue about beliefs and actions. But mostly we, ordinary folk plain and simple and flatfooted, might grasp saintliness when a saint has been our friend.