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XVI, never a happy-clappy man, called it “a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”[iii]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.”

For all the saints

Fra Angelico saints

Dorothy Day, the feisty co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has been called the most interesting and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism. Deeply nourished by a discipline of liturgy and prayer, she devoted her life not only to serving the poor on a daily basis, but also to challenging the very forces that create poverty in the first place. She was a pacifist and activist who sometimes practiced civil disobedience to resist militarism. racism and systemic greed. For her faithful witness to the way of Jesus, she was investigated, jailed, and even shot at. Basically, she understood that the Christian life not only produces thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; it also produces actions that make a difference. It produces people who make a difference.

But “don’t call me a saint,” she warned. “When they call you a saint, it means basically that you’re not to be taken seriously.”

The same sort of neglect has been applied to the Beatitudes, and all the other teachings of Jesus: they are dismissed as unattainable ideals rather than guides to the way we might actually live our lives.

And what do you say? Is it enough for the friends of Jesus, the friends of God, to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the great athletes of sanctity whom we ourselves could never hope to imitate? Or is it about time for the rest of us to get in the game?

When we gather for worship, we may be consoled, we may be inspired, we may be refreshed. Sometimes some of those things happen, sometimes all of them happen, sometimes none of them happen.

But what always happens is, God speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, and then sends us out into the world with an assignment: to do the work we have been given to do.

So what exactly is our assignment, on this Feast of All Saints, 2014? It’s right there in the gospel. First of all, Jesus says, you need to turn the world’s values upside down. You need to look at everything in a new way.

The poor will be blessed with the gift of the kingdom,
while the rich will have to learn the hard way that life can’t be owned.

Everyone who weeps will find out what grace and comfort mean,
while those who are smug and self-satisfied
will be unable to grasp their deepest need.

And if you are marginalized and scorned because you follow me, says Jesus,
you are in such good company,
for that is exactly how the saints were treated.

Jesus never gives easy assignments. Discipleship isn’t kindergarten. It’s graduate school. And if you want to get your PhD, here’s the deal:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone needs something, give it to them;
and if anyone should relieve you of your attachments,
don’t make a fuss.
Just let it all go.

When Jesus says such things, is he really talking to us? The saints have always thought so, and they have responded accordingly.

So many of their biographies begin with them giving all their money to the poor, and then the rest of the story tells how they keep giving themselves away to God. Saints are the ones whose discipleship knows no limits. They can seem extravagant, immoderate, audacious, even a little weird.

Risking everything. Pouring out everything. Holding nothing back.
Trusting completely the One they follow, even when the way is rough and steep.
No longer looking out for number one,
but giving themselves away in works of love and mercy.

And you mean to be one too, don’t you?

You never know when you’re going to get the call. It could come in a sudden flash of revelation, or it could come on the freeway when someone cuts you off and you must decide whether to respond with anger or with love.

But when the call does come, you know what to say.
People in the Bible said it all the time.
The saints said it all the time.
Here I am.

Here I am. At your disposal. Your will be done.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about how the call came to him: “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” After that, King said, “I was ready to face anything.”

And some of you will remember Dag Hammarskjöld, elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, who was a tireless worker for world peace. In 1961 he died in a plane crash on his way to deal with a crisis in Africa, and it was only after his death that the world learned that he was not just a famous and effective public figure, but a Christian mystic as well, with a profound and faithful inner life.

Hammarskjöld wrote this about his own call:

I don’t know Who – or what – put the question. I do not know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Most of us don’t get such a definitive summons. Sometimes it comes as gradually as the dawn, making its way slowly into our awareness. But wherever we are in that process of awakening, we are being called every day, every hour, to sanctify the moment with a word or an action that makes God visible to others, and plants another seed of resurrection in the soil of ordinary time.

It doesn’t always have to be extraordinary or monumental. Henri Nouwen, in a short list of questions, shows just how simple the work of a saint can be:

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?

But you may be thinking: What’s it going to cost me to follow Jesus?
Well, that’s the tricky part. It will cost no less than everything.
But it will also bring perfect joy.

Whatever saints need to give up, whatever their ordeals, whatever their sufferings, saints are not, by and large, a gloomy lot. Even under the most extreme duress, they manage to sound a note of joy.

Sheila Cassidy, a British physician, forged a striking image for this saintly joy in her own experience in a Chilean prison in the 1970’s. She had been imprisoned for treating a wounded revolutionary, and for a while she was tortured. When the torture finally stopped, and she was able to collect herself, her first impulse was to scream out to God for deliverance, begging to be released.

But then another response rose up in her. In her words, it was “to hold out my empty hands to God, not in supplication, but in offering. I would say, not ‘Please let me out’ but ‘Here I am, Lord, take me. I trust you. Do with me what you will….’ In my powerlessness and captivity there remained to me one freedom: I could abandon myself into the hands of God.”

And the image that emerged for her from that moment was of a bird in a cage, which could either “exhaust itself battering its wings against the bars, or else learn to live within the confines of its prison, and find, to its surprise, that it has the strength to sing.”

And how does it go – the song of the caged bird?
I believe it sounds something like this:

I see God in … the marks of … love in every visible thing and it sometimes happens that I am seized by a supreme joy which is above all other joys.

These are the words of a Dutch priest. He wrote them in the concentration camp at Dachau, before he was killed for preaching in defense of the Jews. Such profound joy under duress is not unique among the friends of Jesus. Saints and martyrs have sung this song in every age. Even in the hour of trial, even at the brink of the grave, they have sung this song, because they knew the secret.

They knew that beneath everything, within everything, beyond everything,
there is a Love which is stronger than suffering,
stronger than evil, stronger than death.
It has brought all things into being
It sustains us on our journey
It will guide us safely home.

This Love calls us in every moment – indeed, it is calling right here, right now – to follow, to serve, to embody, to manifest, to surrender. All the saints before us said yes to this call, over and over again. And they are cheering us on to do the same.

Will you say yes to Jesus, yes to God?
Will you stand with the saints today?
Will you join their song?
Will you share their work?
Will you bear their sacrifice?
Will you embrace their perfect joy?