Applauding the Saints

Jeremiah, portal of Moissac abbey on the Le Chemin de St. Jacques (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At least once in our lives we have dreamed of becoming saints… Stumbling under the weight of the contradictions of our lives, for a fleeting moment we glimpsed the possibility of building within ourselves a place of simplicity and light.

–– Carlo Caretto[i]

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentments? Did I forgive? Did I love?

–– Henri Nouwen[ii]

 

On the Feast of Pentecost in 2001, I attended the papal mass in the densely packed outdoor plaza of St. Peter’s Basilica. As the grand procession made its way toward the altar, the assembly began to applaud. While the sound of one hand clapping may induce a spiritual state, the sound of many hands can be jarring in a worship setting, at least for contemplatives. Pope Benedict XVI, never a happy-clappy man, called it “a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”[iii]

But Rome has a long tradition of applauding the pope as he enters for mass, and this day was no exception. However, this papal entrance was unique, for there were not one but two popes coming up the aisle––the reigning pontiff, John Paul II, but also the mortal remains of the beloved John XXIII as well. On the anniversary of his death (June 3), John’s body was being transferred from an underground crypt to a more public location under the altar of St. Jerome in the basilca’s central nave. But for the duration of the mass, it rested by the outdoor altar in full view of the assembly.

John XXIII died in 1963. When his original coffin was opened after 38 years, his body was found to be remarkably intact. It was dressed in red and white pontifical robes and placed in a glass coffin designed to block UV rays from the Roman sun. His face was protected by a wax mask, displaying the smile which had once dissolved the gloomy severity of a fortress church.

The living pope got his share of the applause, but the most affectionate attention was directed toward the “Good Pope John,” who would be canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2014. John’s humility, humor, and love of the poor were striking qualities in a pontiff, but he was best known for initiating the landmark reforms of Vatican II.

John XXIII famously said he wanted to “open the windows” of the Church so that fresh air could blow through its stuffy rooms. So it seemed to me a clear act of divine whimsy when a sudden gust of wind swept through St. Peter’s Square at that Pentecost mass, blowing the caps off the heads of cardinals as we chanted the Creed.

Ironically, John himself discouraged the custom of applauding him or any other pope in church. In templum Dei, he said, the focus should be on God, not ourselves. While we may want to celebrate the saintliness of exemplary persons, the true saint always deflects such praise. Not I, but Christ in me, they tell us.

This deflection is not an act of false humility. Saints are too busy chasing God or serving others to check their spiritual Fitbit. Saints never know that they are saints. They only know that something absolutely essential is calling them, and their life becomes the record of their response.

The first officially recognized Christian saints were the ancient martyrs, who took Christ’s “lose your life to find it” in the most literal sense. As Thomas Becket says in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the martyr is one “who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God––not lost it, but found it. . . . The martry no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.”[iv]

Although physical martyrdom is still a widespread occurrence around the world, self-sacrifice need not be lethal. Most people engage in some sacrificial practices for God or neighbor, but few of us take it as far as the asceticism so vividly imagined in Don DeLillo’s novel, The Names:

“Go naked in a scatter of ashes, stand in the burning sun. If there is a God, how could we fail to submit completely? Existence would be decrease, going clean. And adding beauty to the world, Kathryn might say. To her the spectacle had merit even if the source was obscure. They would be beautiful to see, leaning on staffs, mind-scorched, empty-eyed, men in the dust of India, moving to the endless name of God.”[v]

The late medieval mysticism of Marguerite of Porete was steeped in this kind of radical self-emptying. What she called the “annihilated soul” (âme aniente) has “neither what nor why”–– it wills nothing, knows nothing, possesses nothing. Such utter evacuation of ego makes space for the Divine to dwell. The Soul, she said, “was created for nothing other than to have within the being of pure charity without end.”[vi] This was a forbidding, perhaps impossible spirituality.

Ecclesiastical authorities repeatedly warned Marguerite to stop circulating her troublesome ideas and writings. Nevertheless, she persisted. Certainly the outspokennes of a free-spirited woman was enough in itself to disconcert the male hierarchy. But the radical nature of her mystical spirituality seemed a very real threat to the stability of Christian community. Imagine a congregation of annihilated souls trying to manage the mundane duties of parish life. What happens when the church needs a new roof? What do they teach in Sunday School? Would a visitor feel welcome––or terror––at the liturgy?

Marguerite was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310, “the earliest recorded death sentence for mystical heresy in Western Christianity.”[vii] While we abhor such an outcome, we may share the underlying concern about a spirituality of utter self-negation. Few of us are called to “go naked in a scatter of ashes.” If this life is a gift and not a prison, shouldn’t our spiritual practice affirm and embrace the blessings and epiphanies of embodied existence?

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right,” wrote 17th-century Anglican Thomas Traherne, “till evry Morning you awake in Heaven: see your self in your fathers Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys.”[viii] Traherne is miles from Marguerite of Porete, yet they both share the one thing common to all the saints. They turn their faces Godward.

“I ought therefore evermore . . . . to remember God, and aim at His Glory as my Supreme End. When I forget Him I walk in Darkness, when I aim at myself it is in vain Glory.”[ix]

Tomorrow is All Saints Day. We will remember and celebrate the great company of our ancestors and mentors in the blessing way. We will praise their godly qualities, be inspired by their examples, and take heart from the fact that they were and are “just folk like me”[x]––forgiven sinners, “stumbling under the weight of their contradictions” yet keeping their eyes on the prize.

Yes, we applaud their sanctity, but listen! Our applause is being drowned out by a mightier sound. The company of heaven returns the compliment. While we make our own stumbling way deeper and deeper into the Mystery, the saints are now applauding us.

 

 

Related post: For All the Saints

 

[i] Robert Ellsberg, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 29.

[ii] Ibid., 146-7.

[iii] Joseph Ratziner, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 198.

[iv] Quoted in Martyrs: Contemporary Martyrs on Modern Lives of Faith (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 4-5.

[v] Don DeLillo, The Names (New York: Vintage, 1989), 92.

[vi] Joanne Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 78, 83.

[vii] Ibid., 27.

[viii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations I.28-29, q. in Denise Inge, ed., Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2008), 125.

[ix] Ibid., Select Meditations III.75, in Inge, 262.

[x] Lesbia Scott, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”

The Desert and the Flood (Homily for Lent 1)

Death Valley flowers

Today’s Old Testament reading takes us to the end of the great Flood in Genesis. Many people have trouble with this story, because they read it as a tale of crime and punishment, with an angry father god who will get us if we don’t behave.

But the rest of Scripture won’t let us read it that way. The rest of Scripture, including the ending of the Flood story itself – the rainbow and the promise – shows us the face of God as the face of love. God doesn’t want to kill us. God wants to make a covenant with us. God wants to marry us.

So what is the Flood story really about? It actually generates a multitude of meanings, but one of the central ones has to do with violence. Genesis says that God looked upon the earth and saw that it was filled with violence. Sound familiar?

Violence is what happens when we put ourselves in the center instead of God, and try to make the world over in our own image. We are unable to honor or even see the existence of other beings as independent of our own desire. We lose all curiosity for anything outside ourselves.

Violence is intolerance of difference: other selves, other perspectives, other cultures are treated as obstacles to our desire, and must be made either to serve us or be swept away. This intolerance of difference, of otherness, may be seen in the rhetoric of terrorists, as well as its mirror image in the anti-Muslim ranting of certain American politicians. It is may also be seen in the recent outbreaks of overt racism in this country. Fear and hatred of those not like us has become far too common.

Such boundless self-assertion, says the Bible, is the foundational violence that threatens to swallow the whole earth. The Flood is not a punishment imposed from the outside; it is what we have made of ourselves.

When we are hostile to those who are not like us, who are not useful in the boundless expansion of our swelling desire, we destroy the balances and boundaries of which the world is made. You can see this violence in relationships, on the freeway, in the crucifixion of Nature, in the current phenomenon of endless war. If we let creation’s harmonious balance be smashed by human violence, we will all be washed away, the innocent and guilty alike. Not even the billionaire profiteers will be able to hide on that day.

A world drowning in its own violence.
Is this an ancient myth, or the daily news?

But the Flood story has a surprise ending. Instead of destruction, new possibility. Instead of anger, love. Instead of violence, reverence for all beings with whom we share the planet. God tears up all the sad old tragedy scripts and gives us a comedy instead. God invites us to join in the re-imagination of the world. God writes a new story in our hearts.

This is why the Epistle of Peter links the waters of the Flood to the waters of baptism. Both are the ending of an old story and the birthing of a new one. When our old selves drown in the depths of the font, we are reborn in Christ. No longer I, but Christ in me, as Paul says.

But before Christ could become our future, he first had to become himself. We are all tempted to live some other life than our own, to wear other people’s faces instead of becoming what God made us to be. Jesus was no exception. He could have lived some other life. Tradition says that he was tempted to dominate others and to escape the Way of the Cross.

“You don’t have to suffer,” Satan told him. “Not you. You were born King of the World. Think of the good you could do with all that power.”

But if Jesus had not lived with the poor and the outcast, if he had spent his time making rich and powerful friends, would he have been Jesus? If he had led a violent uprising to overthrow Roman tyranny, if he had devoted his life to reforming the religious establishment, would he have been Jesus? If he had turned stones into bread, or not risen from the dead, would he have been Jesus?

“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
writes poet William Stafford.[i]
Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

Well, what Jesus did was his life. So, we may wonder, how do we do our own lives? To answer that question, we must go, with Jesus, to the desert.

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

Only in the desert is the silence deep enough for you to hear the whisper of your innermost heart. And what is your heart trying to tell you? Listen. Listen to your heart.

As Parker Palmer says:

“Before you tell your lives what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you … Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about… Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…”[ii]

We’re always making up stories about ourselves. Sometimes we’re heroes, sometimes we’re victims. But all of these stories are fictions that make us deaf and blind to what our life is actually trying to tell us. What are the stories that you need to let go of in order to let your life speak? If you are going to give up anything this Lent, give up those tired old stories about yourself. They are no longer true.

When we are baptized, we die to our old fictions; we let go of the old stories by which we try to direct our lives. That’s why the Flood story is one of the great images for baptism. There are all those people of Noah’s time clinging to their own fictions, sinking down under the weight of their false identities just as we ourselves sink under the weight of our own fictions.

And when in baptism we are freed from the burden of our false selves, we rise, newly buoyant, to the surface; we are pulled out of the water and given a new story, a new name, which is our true self, our true life, which has been wanting to speak to us all these years.

That is the work we have come to do, as we begin our long Lenten journey, as we step out into that desert where every fiction will be stripped away. At first it will feel like loss, like too much giving up. We may even want to turn around and quit, like the Israelites who complained in the midst of their own desert journey: Let’s go back! It wasn’t so bad, being slaves in Egypt!

But with God’s help, we will keep going, deeper and deeper into that desert, determined to save the only life we can save,[iii] and there will come a day, some 40 days hence, when we will reach the other side. And there we will hear a voice, a voice that calls us each by name.

Come to the waters, the voice will say.
Come to the life-giving pool of the baptismal font.
Come to the Easter waters, and dive in.
Wash yourselves clean of the old fictions, the tired stories,
and rise again out of the watery depths,
newborn, with a new name,
a name which is: Not I but Christ in me.
And this new name, this new self,
is what our life has been trying to tell us all these years.

As Derek Walcott describes it,

The day will come when with elation you will greet
yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome
Saying, “Sit here, eat, you will love again
the stranger who was yourself …
the stranger who has loved you all your life …
who knows you by heart.[iv]

The desert is wide, the journey long, but keep on keeping on, because it will lead you, step by step, into the heart of the Beloved who has loved you all your life, who knows you by heart.

And when we finally draw near the end of our Lenten journey, everything that the desert is about, everything the Christian faith is about, everything our very lives are about, will be intensified and distilled in the incomparable passage from death to life which we call the Paschal Mystery: the life-giving mystery experienced both ritually and personally in the Great Three Days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

Right now, in these first lean and hungry days of the Lenten desert, the transformative joy of the Easter feast may seem unimaginable. But beyond the hunger and thirst, beyond the trials and temptations, the doubts and the stumbles, beyond even the faded Hosannas and the terrible shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!,” there will rise the jubilant Alleluias of the Easter Vigil, breaking at last the stony silence of defeat and death.

The great journey begins here. Now.
And when it’s over,
you will be somebody else:
Not I, but Christ in me.

[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me”

[ii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 2000) 3-4

[iii] Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

[iv] Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”