Somewhere among my childhood mementos are a series of booklets entitled Little Lives of the Saints. I inherited them from my older sisters, Jo Ann and Mary Ellen. By the time they reached me, they had been well-thumbed and the covers were missing. My sisters enhanced the pictures with colored pencils, thus giving the saints’ robes a velvety sheen and their cheeks a rosy hue.
In addition to these artistic flourishes, I became familiar with the symbols used to tell something about the saint’s life. Thus, when I read the facing page, containing a brief biography, I was already familiar with some aspects of who the saints were. Martyrs hold palm branches and are often shown with something that symbolizes the form of death they suffered. Saints with a particular calling often have other symbols. St. Peter, for example, holds the keys to the kingdom, while St. Augustine, one of the most important theologians of the early Church, carries a book and a pen.
My good friend, Fr. Bill McNichols, has taught me a great deal about the symbolism of the saints. As children, we pored through stories of the saints together. Decades later, Fr. McNichols is a world-renowned iconographer (see his work at standreirublevicons.com). Through his beautiful art, he depicts the saints with both traditional symbols and ones that speak to our life and times. Thus, his lovely icon of St. Rose of Lima not only portrays her with the flowers for which she is named, but also shows her standing on a globe as patroness of the Americas.
The resurgence of interest in lives of the saints is a hopeful sign in an era of reality television and obsession with celebrities behaving badly. The saints’ humility, compassion, dedication to prayer, and service to the poor exemplify what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus. By studying the symbols of the saints, we discover new ways to appreciate who they were and why they remain such revered figures in our Church. It’s a lesson worth passing along to the children and young people in our care.
Kathy Hendricks is author of Pocket Prayers for Parents and Everything about Parish Ministry I Wish I Had Known. Visit www.kathyhendricks.com.
This article was originally published in RTJ’s creative catechist, October 2013.
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