Jim Taylor

I came back from Ireland with a new appreciation for saints.

I grew up with rigidly protestant presumptions about saints. Among Protestants in general, my parents certainly leaned towards the liberal side, theologically. But they still carried the legacy of the Reformation -- and of the Puritan Revolution in England -- that stripped cathedrals of all saints and statues.

There was a sense, I think, that true worship belonged only to the Trinitarian God. Therefore devotion to anything else must be an error, a turning away from true faith.

The trip to Ireland was organized as a kind of pilgrimage by two professors at the Vancouver School of Theology -- one Anglican, the Rev. Lynne McNaughton, and one United Church, the Rev. Gerald Hobbes. Under their guidance, a group of thirty or so traced the evolution of Celtic Christianity.

We learned about St. Patrick, of course. And about St. Columba, who carried Christianity from Ireland across to the Isle of Iona, in .

We also traced the footsteps of St. Brendan, the Irish leader who set out with 14 friends from the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland's most westerly point, and may have reached North America 500 years before the Vikings, 1000 before Columbus.

St. Kieran founded one of the first monastic communities at a key crossroads in the center of Ireland.

We met St. Brigid of Kildare, the only woman officially recorded as having been consecrated a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. She lit what today would today be called an eternal flame for peace, and founded an order that still exists.

Brigid was an earthy and practical woman. A prayer attributed to her says, in part:

I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.

I would like an abundance of peace...

I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.

I would like to watch Heaven's family drinking it through all eternity.

Personally, I identified most with St. Kevin of Glendalough. Like me, he oscillated between his need to be alone, and his need to belong to community. He loved nature. According to legend, one day when he had his arms outstretched in prayer, a bird landed in his palm and laid an egg in this impromptu nest. Kevin let it stay there until the egg hatched and the fledgling learned to fly.

And maybe there's a touch of envy -women apparently found Kevin irresistible!

I no longer see the saints as otherworldly substitutes for God. They were human beings, plagued with problems just as we are. Like us, they failed sometimes. But they stand out among the throngs of pilgrims seeking God because they didn't give up. They persisted in following their vision.

And so we don't pray to the saints. We pray with them, and through them. We recognize that by their lives they have earned a special place in the cloud of witnesses who have preceded us. And we ask them, as companions on our journey, to join with us, in prayer and in praise.

Jim Taylor, former managing editor of the United Church Observer, is the author of ten books and write of two weekly columns availabe at http://edges.canadahomepage.net. He lives in Okanagan Centre. For more information about VST pilgrimages, go to http://www.vst.edu/pilgrimage.