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We admire rebels, but our saints are grandmas


Packing for the women’s retreat was easy: a sweatshirt, a bottle of wine, Mint Milano cookies and 12 books on mystics. I even brought a Hildegarde of Bingen CD. Then, grudgingly, I tossed in the pages on Joan of Arc my husband had photocopied for me from Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

When we’d planned this overnight sojourn to Trout Lodge (“the YMCA of the Ozarks,” a tagline I thought our priest made up to be funny, until I saw it on the rustic-but-smooth-sanded wood sign) we’d chosen the theme of women saints. We’d even come up with three categories: First, those who had rebelled against society’s prescribed roles (I’d been drafted to report on St. Joan of Arc, despite or perhaps because of my aversion to her militarism). Second, those who had reached sainthood working within the system (nurses and moms and sweet timid maidens). And finally, those who had transcended gender roles altogether (my mystics).

Friday evening, one car pool van after another crunched onto the gravel in front of our log cabin dormitory. We ate, built a fire and set to work. Furtively glancing at my photocopies, I gave a lively account of St. Joan of Arc’s eerie visions, brilliant military strategies, subsequent failures (conveniently blamed on the king) and tragic immolation.

Paying short shrift to the second category, we moved to mystics and talked about Julian of Norwich and Hildegarde, defending them from one very practical retreatant’s objection that they didn’t do anything. (She should have done St. Joan.)

Can you have a living mystic, murmured Carol as midnight approached, or is a mystic just a dead contemplative, the way a statesman is a dead politician? Chuckling, we decided that today’s mystics probably aren’t even in the church, let alone an anchorage; if they aren’t living out in the woods or channeling New Age, they’re incarcerated in a mental institution. Our conversation swung from rebellion to transcendence, from androgyny to defiance to sheer genderless heroism. We glowed with pride in the women who had ripped away the garments of oppression, the women who had reached through the curtain of space and time.

The next morning, it was time to name saints in our own lives.

And everybody named their grandmother.

Not only did they name their grandmother, but they named her because of her pecan pie; her warm, constant presence; the way she had quietly endured such suffering at the hands of her husband; the way she took all the neighborhood’s children under her wing. Eyes bright with tears, people shamelessly told soppy stories about words of encouragement and small, deliberate acts of kindness.

Not everyone had chosen her grandmother, of course. Still under Joan’s fiery spell, I’d found myself naming Temple Grandin, an autistic designer of livestock facilities, because -- perhaps because of her disability -- she is entirely honest, incapable of fluid deceptions and manipulations. Rejection stings her too, yet she lives free of the craven need for others’ approval. She speaks her mind and steers by her truth.

But setting aside autistic women who can intuit a nervous cow’s field of vision, we didn’t have much else. One nurse, one schoolteacher and a flock of grandmothers. After the last person had spoken, we looked at each other with an uneasy recognition.

Our saints came from the category we’d spurned. They came from the boringly compliant middle zone, ruled by norms we’d grown up hating.

Was our adulation merely guilt, a pang of conditioned remorse over our own unbaked cookies? Or did our hearts recognize a valor our heads had been taught to ignore? The women we’d chosen had to work every bit as hard as the rebels, if they wanted to achieve their goals for their families without violating the framework. Sharply intelligent strategies had to be masked; suffering had to be borne in silence. Their inner lives had to develop as strong and abiding a presence as any mystic’s visions, even if the dialogues were more mundane.

In the final analysis, all sainthood is a daily sort of thing; it touches us because of its sustained holiness, not its temporary brilliance. Some healings are miracles of prayer; others consist in overboiled chicken broth or patiently holding the bowl for someone in the throes of chemotherapy.

Few of us ever meet the more dramatic sort of saint -- or if we do, we don’t recognize her. But we do recognize, with all five senses, our grandmothers -- their rubber-banded prayer cards, wrinkled aprons, garlicky smells, long stories, abiding presence. They are too human to interest any hagiographer. And precisely for that reason, they are the best possible conduit for the divine.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999