King Louis IX of France, better known to us as Saint Louis, lost his father when he was twelve years old. His mother Blanche became regent and ruled France until he was old enough to become king. Blanche was a domineering personality, so domineering that, after Louis had married the lovely young Margaret of Provence, he and his new bride would have to sneak away to the back stairs of the castle for cuddling and smooching (a detail that I throw in here for no better reason than to gross out a certain ten year old girl of my acquaintance).
Louis went on two crusades. He built a personal chapel, Le Sainte-Chapelle, which was of such magnificence that it was copied everywhere in Europe, and although I’ve never been there, it is a place of such delicate beauty that just looking at a picture of it is enough to rest my mind when I’m weary. His reign was a golden age for France, and the arts flourished. He purchased the crown of thorns from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople and brought it to Paris in a long procession that took many days.
But it wasn’t these actions that made him a saint. It was the fact that he would dress in a plain linen tunic and go out into the streets and wash the feet of the poor people who gathered around him. He did this frequently, and one can imagine that some of his courtiers found it disinteresting, yet for many of them it was an example of righteousness, and more than righteousness, holiness – and it became an example that they wanted to follow.
What is a saint, exactly, and how is being a saint different from being a king? And if we assert that there is a difference, and that it’s better, far better, to be a saint than a king, then what do we make of the fact that Jesus was called the King of Kings, and today we celebrate Christ the King?
The best definition of a saint that I know of comes from Sam Wells book Improvisation. A saint, says Wells, is not a hero. The hero, says Wells
is at the center of the story. It is the hero’s decisive intervention that makes the story come out right. Without the hero all would be lost. So if the hero makes a mistake, if the hero bungles or exposes a serious flaw – it is a disaster, a catastrophe, probably fatal for the story and, if it is a big story, pretty serious for life as we know it. By contrast, the saint expects to fail. If the saint’s failures are honest ones, they merely highlight the wonder of God’s greater victory. If the saint’s failures are less admirable ones, they open out the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration that is what Christians call a new creation. A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance; the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation.
Louis wasn’t a saint because he tried to invade Egypt and led his troops in battle. Both of his crusades were failures. If he had thought that the survival of the world, or Christendom, depended on his eventually retaking Jerusalem, then he would have retired from the Seventh Crusade (the first crusade he went on) in total misery, and lived out his life in the belief that he was an abject failure, and that the world was doomed. But he understood – and this is a hard thing for a king to understand – that he wasn’t the center of the story. Ultimately, the story wasn’t about him. It wasn’t even his story. It was God’s story, Jesus’s story, and he, Louis, was just a bit player. More than that, it was a story that was, in a sense, already finished.
As Sam Wells points out, Christians are living in the fourth act of a five act play. The first act was creation, the second was the establishment of Israel as a chosen people, the third act was the coming of Christ and his life on the earth, and the fifth and final act will be the eschaton, the end of time, when Christ will come again in clouds descending and all of creation will be restored to the original beauty that God dreamt when first setting out to make heaven and earth. We are actors in the fourth act, not responsible for creation, since God has already created, and not responsible for the ending, for bringing everything to fulfillment, because Jesus has promised that he’ll do that. The only thing that we’re truly responsible for, in this fourth act, is imitating Christ. That is, trying as hard as possible to be saints.
When Louis washed the paupers feet, he was imitating Christ. We might tend to disparage this, to point to the horror and stupidity of the crusades and say that they, in some way, canceled out a few clean feet on the streets of Paris. But light only comes through the cracks. When Louis was able to set aside the mantle of kingship, when he was able to forget about being heroic, when he was able to let light seep through the facade of greatness, then he became saintly.
To say that Christ is the King is to say that no one else is. It is to say that Christ is the only hero we need, and we don’t have to be worried about being heroes ourselves. I am not the hero of my own story. Jesus is the hero of my story. I can fail in all sorts of things, and the world won’t end. So can you. I’m not called to be tremendously successful, or to have people admire me. I’m not called to create great art, or preach great sermons, even though I would like to. I’m called, simply and intimately, to be a follower of Christ, to wash the world’s feet. I will sometimes fail in that. We will all, sometimes, fail in that. Hopefully, our failures will be honest ones. If they’re not, if we fail because we’re selfish, or lazy, or distracted, then at least they can call us into a cycle of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. And when that cycle has worked its creative powers, and we feel ourselves refreshed again, there is really only one thing that we should do. Find a way to kneel down, and wash the world’s feet.