Scratch and Sniff Sainthood
By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 10, 2021 | In The Liturgical Year
Perhaps I’m dating myself, but I used to love Scratch-and-Sniff Stickers from my childhood. My favorite scent was grape. I liked to make the stickers last a long time, trying to keep them away from younger siblings who liked to scratch my stickers a little too much until there was no longer a scent. It is rare to find vintage stickers that are still intact without scratches from an eager sniffer.
In the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the character Williy Wonka had the idea of Smell-O-Vision, providing commercials that would have the scent of the food in the commercial wafting over the airwaves, “helping” people to smell the Wonka chocolates. So maybe not Scratch-and-Sniff, but a similar idea to make something seem more realistic (Or was that just the movie? I can’t find my copy of the book to verify.)
When I watch movies or read books, I try to visualize the reality being described. Some things you don’t want to activate too much of an imagination, but for some it does enhance the experience. I think about how things would taste or smell or how hungry or tired or joyful the characters would feel.
When reading biographies of saints, especially those quick write-ups summarizing a life’s work in one paragraph, I find the description so sanitized and one-dimensional. Yesterday’s saint is a perfect example. For the Memorial of St. Peter Claver, the Magnificat’s biography included:
He devoted himself to the multitudes of slaves who were brought to work the farms and mines, feeding, bandaging, catechizing, and fathering them. To their owners, he preached mercy. In his later years, Peter gave an annual retreat to the rough seamen who entered the port.
It is very well-written, and it portrays that St. Peter worked tirelessly for others. It doesn’t sound like his life was neat and tidy, nor easy. There is a glimpse of the other side of “rough” seaman.
But I tend to think “Smell-o-vision” or those stickers might help us step into Father Claver’s shoes…and shoes of other saints who also worked so hard to help others. In particular I’m thinking of some whose feasts have just passed, such as Mother Teresa, and others who are upcoming on our calendar, such as St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis of Assisi, St. Martin of Tours….
All humans need food, drink, clothing and shelter, and especially love. And think about what happens when you don’t have these readily available? Sickness, disease, filth, no clean clothing, no shoes, no education, nothing to keep one warm, grumpiness, irritableness, bad habits, sin, etc.…
Another thing that hasn’t changed is human nature, which struggles with the effects of Original Sin. We are saddled with concupiscence, a tendency to sin. Alcohol and drugs have been around for centuries. Adultery and other sexual sins are also not a new invention. And everyone has free will. More on that…
Considering all these factors in mind, I have a bigger picture that I paint when I think of these saints who are helping others. What was it like for the people who received this charity from the Saints? We have to realize they were not just passive receivers, which means the work of the Saints was even greater.
Do you know the story of St. Francis of Assisi helping the leper? In my younger years I used to read it and think that the leper might have been quiet and just so happy for St. Francis to help him. As I got older I started thinking about the stench and how hard it would have been for St. Francis to talk let alone breathe without dry-heaving from the odors he was not accustomed.
But now I think about the receiver of the charitable act from the hands of St. Francis. He may have been in extreme pain, “hangry” and irritable. St. Francis was new to all this charity work. Was St. Francis abrupt? Did he ask the leper if he wanted help? Did he converse with him? I wonder if the leper was hesitant for help. Maybe he resisted. Maybe he yelled. Maybe he threw things at St. Francis. (You know, that free will gives you the freedom to exercise your temperament.)
Yesterday, as I was thinking of St. Peter Claver helping the slaves, I couldn’t help thinking that his job was even harder because those people were probably really angry. I often think about how I would feel, and I don’t think I would accept help at first. I wouldn’t be trusting of any fellow human. Slavery was a huge injustice done to them and they were trapped in this terrible way.
Another cross of the slaves is that in their predicament, family bonds were broken since people were bought and sold to different owners. How hard it would be to be faithful to a wife or husband when you were physically separated! And how about coping mechanisms? How often would someone who felt completely abandoned and hopeless would turn to some kind of comfort or find ways to numb the pain?
St. Peter Claver was trying to heal their bodies, to make their ill treatment less uncomfortable, but he couldn’t free the slaves. With all their struggles and confines of their life, if their hearts were changed and converted to Christianity despite everything, THAT is amazing. Their bodies were enslaved, but somehow they were able to rise above and recognize the greater Good and loving Shepherd, and how their souls could never be enslaved. How wonderful for them to have the grace to see that even in their condition, God has loving and perpetual fatherly care for them.
Back to my scratch-and-sniff analogy, I do think of how hard this would have been to do charitable work in helping others who are less fortunate. Most of the saints lived in a time where there were no showers and very few baths, no deodorant, no kinds of cover up spray or essential oils to make it all smell better. Plus, there was no running water, no septic or sewer system, no bandaids or readily available antiseptic for cuts or sores. And how about the smell of food? Without refrigerators or some kind of preservation, nor a sanitation department, the smell of rotting food must have been prevalent in some poorer neighborhoods.
That’s how my brain works when I’m reading these saint biographies. I’m thinking of the smells of the scene, and the personality of the receiver of the good works. The saints were helping people with a typical human nature, with feelings, with struggles, with a personality. They might have been feisty, angry or depressed. There was interaction between the giver and the recipient, and there had to be a free will acceptance of the charity bestowed upon the recipient. It’s easy to write down “St. So-and-so helped the poor.” But that simple phrase encompasses a whole lot more that if we scratch and sniff the surface (just a bit). We can see the layers of this work, not just a one-dimensional description. We can further appreciate the saints’ work, and really understand how it is to ask for their assistance. They know our struggles and our work is similar—human nature is universal and knows no time.
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