(This post originally appeared in Daily Episcopalian, November 1, 2011)
Sometimes the saint is loved not simply for his closeness to God but for his patent humanity. The saint has a temper, flies off the handle, loses his or her cool in pursuit of a great ideal. St. Jerome, the first translator of the Bible into Latin, was famously irascible, once writing that one of his detractors "walked like a tortoise." To take another example, St. Peter is beloved not only because he was a great apostle, but for his many flaws: denying Jesus three times before the crucifixion, among them. Holiness makes its home in humanity. That insight says, “They’re not perfect. Maybe I could aspire to this level of achievement.”
Nothing separates "The people who are good at crafts" from "The people who are ordinary at crafts" quite like an origami bird.
Now, at its most basic level, an origami bird is a rather simple thing. After all, children do origami all the time. But give some origami paper to adults, and it can suddenly morph from a child's fun pastime to a relentless exercise in self-browbeating.
One of the things we decided to do for All Saints Sunday was make strings of origami cranes that folks could write names of the departed "saints" in their lives and string the birds around the sanctuary, as if they were winging their way through the gap between Heaven and Earth.
Two of my best friends in the parish decided to take on the task of folding the cranes. Now, they are both what we call "crafty women" in these parts. Not crafty like devious or sneaky, but they are really good at those little crafts that lots of women like to do. They take to that stuff like a duck to water (or should I say a crane to water?)
Well, one of them went out of town on vacation and the other one was feeling a little challenged by the number of cranes that needed to be made. Quintessential dummy me, I blurted out, "Oh, I made origami birds in grade school all the time! I know how to do that!" Next thing I knew, I was meeting her at the store to buy paper that met her approval, and was given a sheet of instructions and one made by the person who left town, to use as a model.
I gulped. Hers was perfect.
As I looked at that crane, I started feeling the weight of every flashback I could muster from grade school art class. Nothing I ever made in art class was ever "the best." I think only one time was any of my art ever shown in the display cases in the hall, and I think the art teacher felt sorry for me that time. When we had fundraisers at school using "kid art," no one bid on my creations (the fact my own family never bid on it, either, ought to have told me something.)
I realized I was doing this because of loyalty to my two friends, and possibly so that their slightly imperfect cranes would look "good enough" next to my definitely imperfect cranes. Mine looked fairly okay, but they chronically seemed to have a bill problem. Some of them could have passed for pelicans. Some of them, it looked like a cat had grazed their tails. I had some problems with blowing gently into them to "puff them up." I had to trash a few of them from blowing so hard their spines exploded.
It was another of those times I was reminded there was a reason I went into a medical specialty that the job was to take things apart rather than sew them together.
The other important thing I learned was "Don't make origami cranes when you're watching the Cardinals blow a lead in the fifth game of the World Series." My cranes met with a couple of casualties--a few got tossed at the TV, and hapless, unfortunate member of my paper aviary got his little head ripped off. (Interestingly enough, I decapitated a red one. Coincidence? I think not.)
But after a while, I realized when I looked in my plastic bag of imperfect cranes and feeling a little grumpy that mine "were not as good," they looked back with quite a few colors. In my compulsion to make "perfect" cranes and setting unrealistically high expectations for myself, and over-obsessing about each and every little fold, I had neglected to notice that, subconsciously, I was choosing paper from every shade and hue of the rainbow.
Suddenly, another flashback came to me from those grade school art years. A long buried memory emerged--I used to love to try to use every color that was given to me in an art project.
Historically, on All Saints Day, we focus on the "perfection" of the saints--that they are models of holiness, and we feel we can never attain that kind of perfection. But the more I read about the lives of the saints, the more I recognize they were wildly, crazily IM-perfect. St. Ignatius of Loyola is my favorite case in point--he was on his way to kill a fellow for profaning the Blessed Virgin Mary, and had it not been for his mule taking a particular fork in the road, he would have been a murderer instead of a saint.
When we over-focus on that illusion of perfection in holiness, we miss the bigger and better message--the spectrum of hues and tones and bright and muted colors that make up the Company of Heaven. We forget to see the holiness within irascibility--incredible holiness, actually, because it is when the Light of Christ streams through the cracks and fissures of our caked-on layers of human irascibility that it is most noticeable and intense. We don't always want to believe that the saints, more often than not, are clothed in a robe with grease stains, wear rusty, crooked halos, and have muddy shoes. Those muddy shoes? Feet of clay--exactly like our own.
When we accept that possibility, the saints lose their two-dimensionality. They can no longer remain monochromatic. Much like the citizenry in the movie "Pleasantville," they gain the power of living color and depth, as the revealed truth washes over them. They truly become, as the old hymn proclaims, sacred people that you have met "in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea."