Everyone in heaven is a saint, and sometimes the Church draws particular attention to one of these saints by bestowing upon them the formal title of “Saint”. Usually this is because this person showed himself or herself to have been an extraordinary person in some way, even if that way was quite common. Whoever they were, they showed that they loved God, and that their lives were touched by him in some remarkable way. Granting a title of Saint to someone is meant to draw attention, not to the greatness of the person, but to the unique outpouring of God's grace and love upon their lives.
Often these Saints are made 'patrons' of people or situations with which they could personally relate. Personally, I can pray for anybody, but I have a special connection to someone who's lost a sibling. I can pray with the insight I've drawn from my own experiences, and my heart is connected to the person I'm praying for in a distinctive way. People in heaven, saints and Saints alike, have this same connection.
Over the years, I've collected my own batch of patron saints. This started years before I actually became Catholic, and I'll write more about that another time. There are certain people that my heart has been drawn to over the years, and sometimes I offer up a few words to them. I ask them, as I would ask any good friend, to say a prayer for me. I'd like to share a bit about what makes these people special to me, and why I esteem their prayers and fellowship in the sacred communion of saints.
Saint John R. Cash.
One day in 1996, my friend Dave Skene told me about a new Johnny Cash album, on which he covered songs by artists such as Beck, Soundgarden, and Tom Petty. I picked up a copy of Unchained from the library, expecting not much more than some interesting novelty songs. As I listened, however, I heard something much greater. I found truth in that voice. He seemed to inhabit these songs in such a way that made them his own, and it was hard to imagine anyone else singing them.
I spread the gospel of Johnny Cash wherever I went. I bought the book, Cash: An Autobiography and as I read I felt like I was sitting on Johnny's porch in Tennessee, listening to him tell stories about his life. These stories helped to inform the songs he sang, and as I listened to his music, it took on even more gravity. He was deeply aware of his failings, both in what he had done and in what he was capable of doing. He had embraced a life of deep and abiding grace, and seemed to exude a wisdom that has come from making a lot of mistakes.
Johnny's spirituality was deep and rugged. His holiness did not come from outward piety, but was displayed in who it was he chose to be with. This was most famously exemplified in his two most popular albums, which had been recorded at Folsom Prison and San Quentin respectively. The energy recorded on these two records is palpable. The inmates saw him as a man who was truly with them. Although he had never served time in prison, they could recognize an outlaw when they saw one.
The fact that he was comfortable following up 'A Boy Named Sue', with the famously bleeped line, “I'm the sonofabitch that named you Sue!” with 'Peace in the Valley' said a lot about his spirituality. He showed me that a saint and a badass could be one and the same. In fact, both of these qualities were most on display simply in his being himself. He was an outlaw that knew grace and beauty and tenderness.
In his book, he wrote openly about the loss of his older brother as a little boy. He wrote of the connection he continued to feel with his brother, despite the distance that comes from death. Although our circumstances were very different, I knew what he was talking about. And I could feel what he was singing about when he sang of death, of hope, and of heaven.
Today, I work in Modesto, California with broken men not unlike the people Johnny sang about, and sang to. As I become more intimately acquainted with their stories of loss and regret, I feel many of Johnny's songs all the more deeply. These songs of brokenness and brutal honesty become prayers of hope and healing for these men and for myself.
Despite his success, Johnny Cash seemed to embody honesty, devotion, and even simplicity. He wasn't perfect, and like any saint, he would set anyone straight who would see him that way. After all, what is a saint but a penitent sinner? What he was, like every other saint, was himself. He didn't just stand up for the forgotten and the broken, but, like Jesus, he stood with them.
He life continues to inspire me, and his music continues to renew me. I'm not saying I'm the badass that Johnny Cash was, but if I have my moments, a great part of me has Johnny to thank.
Saint John, pray for us.
I have been ungrateful,
I've been unwise.
Restless from the cradle,
Now I realize,
It's so hard to see the rainbow,
Through glasses dark as these.
Maybe I'll be able,
From now on, on my knees.
Oh, I am weak.
Oh, I know I am vain.
Take this weight from me,