Our Imperfect Saints

Autumn makes me think of my grandmother’s pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies. She’d cover them in orange buttercream frosting and then decorate the tops with Jack-o’-lantern faces using a rich cocoa icing. I loved those cookies. My grandmother sold them for 35 cents apiece at the local pumpkin festival, and they sold out every year.

My grandmother loved making things that made people smile. As a child hovering around her in the kitchen, I wanted to learn to do whatever she did. We’d stand at the kitchen counter together. Talk of baking would flow in and out of her questions about my schoolwork and what my friends and I were doing. She’d listen with a smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes, prompting me to say even more. I treasured those hours together.

I’ve often thought of my grandmother as one of the “saints” who went before me. I’ve thought of her faith as the thing that let her move through the world as she did, allowing her to smile as she smiled. Experience has shown me, of course, that faith involves more than smiles. In fact, I’m finding that both my faith and my grandmother’s legacy are becoming more and more complex as I live into them.

I knew even as a child that my grandmother had days when her smile wouldn’t come, when her attention strayed to things that furrowed her brow. Attempting to talk with her at the kitchen counter on those days, I’d try to tell better stories, describe happier things, say something to draw her back. When her attention returned, however, she’d often caution me about the neighbors or friends I’d spoken of, warning me that they couldn’t be trusted. I knew she heard things, saw things, and even smelled things that weren’t real. I didn’t understand what was happening, and I said nothing.

When I reached high school, a biology class introduced me to descriptions of mental illness. The lists of symptoms captured my attention. I saw in them, for the first time, possible explanations for the behaviors I’d noticed in my grandmother. The descriptions left me wondering what she experienced. I spoke with some family members about what I’d read, but I still said nothing about my grandmother.

Many people and many families say nothing when a family member is suffering from mental illness. They don’t understand what’s happening with a loved one, and so they remain silent. I completely understand the silence.

As a college student, I remained silent for a long while about what was happening in my own life. Energy and euphoria for a few days, then exhaustion and tears for the next week – I’d never before experienced such extremes. I didn’t understand what was happening with me, and I kept most of it to myself for quite a while.

Twenty-some years later, I’ve become much more familiar with the experience of navigating a mood disorder. I don’t have the paranoia or more extreme symptoms my grandmother experienced. I also don’t know to what extent my mood disorder involves a genetic predisposition toward certain kinds of mental illness. What I do know is that I’m still coming to know and appreciate my grandmother and her faith even years after her death.

My grandmother and I can place ourselves in a story and a history as old as the Bible. I look to Moses, Sarah, Abraham, and the Israelites who struggled and persevered faithfully, never seeing the fullness of God’s promise in their lifetime. I think about the disciples, who loved in the face of mockery and suffering, embodying Christ’s unending love. The Bible is full of stories pointing to God’s desire for fullness of life, for an ongoing healing and blessing (“perfecting”) that Christ’s followers have been empowered to live. These stories remind me as they may have reminded my grandmother: God does not promise a perfect life free of suffering, but God promises to be with us as we persevere in love. 

As Paul writes in the letter to the Hebrews, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2a). Like that great cloud of witnesses who came before us, we also make our way within God’s still-unfolding redemption, a way shown by the love of Christ and inspired by those who have persevered that their lives might point to that love.

I think of my grandmother’s life as pointing to that love. I suspect she struggled for as much fullness of life as her mental health allowed, and so I continue to reflect on a faith that allowed her to face her struggles and persevere: raising a family, frosting sugar cookies for the pumpkin festival, and leaving her granddaughter a legacy of so many smiles and so much love. Memories of what she did, and made, and shared, never cease to encourage me about what’s possible.

The unfolding work of God happens even and especially in the context of imperfect and painful legacies. I’ve sometimes experienced a legacy like mental illness as a burden, and yet I wonder if that sense of a weight might not be laid aside, much like the weight that Paul speaks to the Hebrews of laying aside. What if a difficult legacy came to us more as an ingredient of our days, as an element in our work to embody God’s love and healing? We could run the race that is our days drawing strength from every ounce of love and perseverance in our ancestors without expecting them to have been any more perfect than Moses, Sarah, Abraham, or the disciples. We could run on behalf of them and so many others, knowing that none of us has yet beheld all that’s possible.

That’s a massive scope to keep in mind, of course. Many days, I find I do best when I back up and focus on smaller pieces of that bigger picture. Like baking. I bring out the cookbooks and cookie cutters my grandmother left me. I roll out dough knowing that I still don’t quite achieve the consistent thickness that she did. I’ve found, though, that even oddly shaped cookies, hung on a doorknob or left on an office table, will bring smiles. Perhaps neighbors and colleagues notice the love behind the gesture. Like my grandmother, I love giving smiles. Though little things, those smiles nonetheless remind me of what powerful blessing we carry and how far we can run with the examples of love we have, by God’s grace, been given.

This essay originally appeared in the October 10, 2022 issue of Bearings Online.

Author: Callie J. Smith

Callie J. Smith is novelist and spirituality writer. She's ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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