Saints Be Praised!
“Those who are pure are temples of the Holy Spirit.” —St. Lucy of Syracuse
“Our wish, our object, our chief preoccupation must be to form Jesus in ourselves, to make his spirit, his devotion, his affections, his desires and his disposition live and reign there. All our religious exercises should be directed to this end. It is the work which God has given us to do unceasingly.” —St. John Eudes, The Life and Reign of Jesus in Christian Souls
André Schwarz-Bart's 1959 novel, The Last of the Just (Le Dernier des Justes,) describes a family of righteous men and their actions upon the world over the previous 800 years. These men are Lamed Vav—individuals who give up their lives to bear the world's pains, The story is reminiscent of the Gospel injunction about giving up one's life for the sake of others—a prefiguring of Christ's sacrifice for us.
The theme is picked up again in Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Sandman. In the episode entitled, “Three Septembers and a January,” the character Death refers to the Tzadikim Nistarim as “they say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints—36 unselfish men and women. Because of them, the world continues to exist. They are the secret kings and queens of this world.”
The Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל"ו צַדִיקִים — "36 righteous ones") also known as the Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים — "secret or hidden righteous ones") is an ancient Talmudic concept in Judaism and refers to 36 highly righteous people, without whom, the world would implode because of its own evil and corruption. In every moment of every day of their lives and with every action, they acknowledge the Shechinah or the Divine Presence in the world. It harkens back to Abraham's trying to make a deal with God over the proposed destruction of Sodom. Abraham, hoping to spare the innocent who lived among the unrighteous, asked God if He would reconsider His decision if 30 or 40 righteous people could be located in the city. To that, God replied that He would indeed spare Sodom. (Genesis 18:23-33)
Lamed vavnik is the Yiddish word for the 36 Tzadikim, holy people keep their identity secret and often don't know they are among the Lamed vavnik. Since the identity of the Lamed vavniks are unknown, possibly even to themselves, everyone should act as if he might be one. Thus, we should all live holy, devout and humble lives, doing good and pray for the people of the world. St. Anthony of Egypt reflects this belief that the righteous among us may not realize who and what they are in his Sermons:
The saints are like the stars. In his providence Christ conceals them in a hidden place that they may not shine before others when they might wish to do so. Yet they are always ready to exchange the quiet of contemplation for the works of mercy as soon as they perceive in their heart the invitation of Christ.
Some Talmudic legends suggest the Messiah might be among the Lamed vavniks. This is reflected by a Christian legend that one often hears in homilies during Mass where a group of Christians are discussing the arrival of the Messiah when they decide to petition the local rabbi, a holy and respected man in the community. He listens to their questions and is silent for a long time. At last, he speaks, “The Messiah is among you.” The Christians, shocked at the rabbi's words, return to their homes wondering who it could be. And, from that day onwards, each of them treated all of the others in their community as if that person were the returned Messiah.
I believe the Talmudic number of holy people active in the world today is severely undercounted. I've personally met at least 20 saintly people in my life whom I could easily identify as lamed vavnik. How many of us can honestly say that our grandmothers are not all among the Tzadikim Nistarim? Hopefully, all grandmothers are holy and raise their families lovingly. The world would self-destruct and descend into barbarism and chaos if we only had 36 righteous men walking among us, praying for us and working to improve the lot of mankind at any given time. Rather, I believe there are tens of millions of them many of whom work in silent anonymity. We all know them. They are those theocentric individuals who naturally reflect God's love and peace. They are the ones with whom you always feel happy, safe and content. A saint bears the pains of the world with joyous aplomb. Someone who can't take up his cross, instead, selfishly and unthinkingly casts his burden onto the world making it a worse place in which to live. And, as Tertullian reminds us, “the selfish do the world a great favor when they die.” This is axiomatic as selfish people don't do anything for anyone except for themselves.
What's a Saint?
When a righteous person dies, Jews will speak his or her name and then add: זיכרונה לברכה (zecher tzaddik liv'racha) which means, “May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing.” This beautiful custom is retained in Christianity when we use the title “saint” or “blessed” before a righteous, deceased canonized person's name.
A saint is a person who is in Heaven. Period. There's nothing mysterious or non-Biblical about it. Catholics don't see them as deities or anything else other than very good humans who are in the Presence of God. The first time the word "saint" is used in the Bible is in reference to Aaron, Moses' brother. (Psalm 106:16) the word is the first mention of the word saint in Scriptures:
King James Version
Good News Version
They envied Moses also in the camp and Aaron the saint of the Lord.
And they provoked Moses in the camp, Aaron the holy one of the Lord.
There in the desert they were jealous of Moses and of Aaron, the Lord's holy servant.
The original Hebrew refers to Aaron as qadowsh (Hebrew: קדושׁ) which is translated as "saint" and specifically refers to someone who is pure and free from the defilement which comes from committing crimes and sins. The Greek Septuagint uses the word, ἅγιον (Greek: hagion) which would mean “holy person.” The Vulgate uses the expression sanctum Domini which means the “holy one of the Lord.”
The English word “saint is derived from this Latin word. The word “saint” appears 121 times in the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. In the Good News Version of the Bible, “saint” has been replaced with the words “holy person” or “God's people” or, in some cases, “angels.”
If Christ promised us that we could share eternal life with Him, then saints exist. This is why many Protestants refer to the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,) the Jewish patriarchs, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles and many of the patristic writers as “saints.” Saints are definitely not angels. Angels are immortal spiritual creatures with free will that serve and worship God. Some of these angels, in their pride, rejected God, very much like how some humans have and though these creatures remain “angels” they are, in fact, demons. When we die, we don't become angels, as is popularly believed. In Heaven, the angels serve us. One of Mary's titles is “Queen of Angels” because they look up to her and do her bidding. This doesn't mean we should disrespect them or be demanding when dealing with them. That will get you nowhere quick smart.
Saints can be designated as such by a pope or, before the modern era, by popular tradition or even popular acclaim. All of the Old Testament patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets are saints because of their place in salvific history even Adam and Eve.
The question remains, however, how do we know if someone is in Heaven. Though the Catholic Church never addresses the issue of who exactly is in Hell, a definitive answer as to who is in Heaven is possible. The task of ascertaining who is a saint is a tedious, time-consuming and arduous process and, in essence, requires proving a particular individual has led a heroically virtuous and Christocentric life.
Saints are venerated, not worshipped, by Christians who have recourse to their intercession, specifically asking for their prayers for some important intention. The saints aren't minor gods independently and self-sufficiently powerful, as are recognized in paganism. In those religions, these minor gods are often in conflict with each other and selfishly seek to expand their own power. Such is not the case with Christian saints.
Because of the lives they've lived, many saints have become associated with various illnesses, social or historical situations, professions, ethnicities, countries, people and places. Over time, these have become their areas of patronage.
The saints should be recognized in how well they imitated Christ but the veneration of saints in no way suggests Christians should bypass Christ in their prayers. The obverse is also true. Just because Christ is God in Whom all power resides, it doesn't mean that those in His Divine Presence don't share in His love and care for humanity. Those in Heaven are in the presence of God and thus have access to Him in their prayers in a way the living do not.