Saints are added to, and sometimes subtracted from, the calendar of saints days (optionally) recognized by the Episcopal Church periodically at our triennial General Convention. Florence Nightingale, for example, was added for trial use (you have to be approved twice in a row to be official) at one convention and removed from the calendar three years later at the next convention.
In theory, this was because those who opposed her inclusion were not aware of the deep connection between her faith and her ministry in the world, and because they believed (inaccurately) that later in life she lost her faith. (It does seem to be true that she shattered her health in her work and withdrew from public view. It also seems to be true that she continued to practice her faith, and that it was very important to her.) I always thought that she got kicked out because of opposition to women’s ordination and creeping secularism (she was a woman with a ministry in the secular world) and I was pleased to see her back in the calendar.
One of the more problematic “saints” for me has always been Cyril of Alexandria. I’ve been thinking, off and on, about him for a couple of weeks (since his name and actions came up, again, in a book I was reading). He was a strong defender of what has become orthodoxy. He was also utterly ruthless. He seems to have practiced a kind of “scorched earth” policy in his opposition to Nestorius and his followers that caused ongoing division in the church (things might have been worked out more peaceably and the division avoided). He also seems, at the least to have instigated, and quite possibly to have overtly plotted, the death of a neoplatinist opponent in the hands of a rioting mob of his followers. I’ve always known that all of us, including our saints, are sinners. But I’ve never been able to justify, in my mind, (seemingly) unrepentant murder with sainthood.
The best I could ever do was see him as a kind of example of what not to do — our own ayatollah (and I do mean that in the pejorative sense sense I normally hear that word used by my fellow Americans — someone so convinced they know the mind of God that they will ruthlessly impose their vision on absolutely everyone, if they can).
I was thinking about this, after Matins this morning, as I reread part of Robert Atwell’s introduction to Celebrating the Saints. So I looked up Cyril to see what he had to say about him. He talked only about his being a champion of orthodoxy. Then I looked up Cyril in Holy Women, Holy Men (which is our current, official calendar). Cyril wasn’t there. I confess myself relieved. I’d rather read about Cyril as an important, and very mixed, part of our history and heritage than celebrate him as an example to imitate in my own life.
He really did play a big part in shaping the faith of the church I live in today. He has a role in the faith I hold. But, for me, he also sets an example in behavior that I find ignoble and unChristian, and that I truly wish to avoid in my own life. All of us have feet of clay. Every saint has their own faults and failures. But, for all he accomplished, Cyril’s failures, as I understand them, are simply too great and too indefensible for me to want him in my calendar of saints.