Today, we observe All Saints Day. Of course, today really isn’t All Saints Day. It’s the Eve of All Saints, All Hallows Eve, or what we have come to know as Halloween. But, because All Saints is a Solemnity, the highest order of feasts accorded by the Church in its liturgical calendar, we are observing it on the Sunday closest to its occurrence.
The origin of this feast in the Western Church dates back to the seventh century when Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all martyrs. Like so many Christian holidays there were connections between dates chosen for Christian observance and earlier non-Christian practice. Earliest observances of All Saints Day occurred in May connecting it with the Roman festival of Lemuria. Only, later was November 1 chosen for All Saints to mark the occasion when the pope presided over the transfer of holy relics in the city of Rome and what was memorialized as a general commemoration “of the holy apostles and all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.”1
Even though we don’t have them here at Concord Avenue I want to assure you, if you need assurance, that the full array of stained glass windows, shining more brightly than any living person can remember, await our return to the monastery chapel. Those beautiful windows are a gallery of heroes especially dear to our community’s heart. They portray great monastic saints. One of those windows includes our own founder, Richard Meux Benson.
The windows remind us that we are descendants of a long tradition stretching across at least fifteen hundred years; back in fact to that time when people began to observe All Saints Day. They also remind us that we are part of a wider communion of saints that unites us to those who have borne witness down through the centuries to the truth of Jesus Christ. Our belief in a communion of saints asserts that the boundaries between the present and the eternal, between this world and the next, are an illusion.
The communion of saints was a vivid reality to early Christians. Fearing any challenge to its absolute authority, the Roman State made Christianity a perilous vocation. Some shed their lifeblood for their beliefs and martyrdom was virtually a defining characteristic of sainthood. Tertullian called the blood of martyrs the seed of the church.
Early Christians venerated the memory of the martyrs and this is the origin of the cult of the saints. These men and women seemed to assume transcendence and power that extended even beyond death. This sense of power led to the invocation of their names and the belief in miracles often associated with their relics.
Unfortunately, saints seem quite irrelevant to many Christians today. Part of the reason, doubtless, stems from our tendency to make these people unreal. I suppose that it doesn’t help that many of them are encased in stained glass windows. We tend to think of saints as caught up in some sort of Beatific Vision when not engaged in prayer or good works. They take on the trappings of perfect Christians. And for most of us, that is something unattainable. In point of fact, they were flesh and blood people. When they were alive they were simply a man called Peter or a woman called Teresa.
Although there seem to be patterns of sainthood, many saints were despised in their own time. Many of them paid dearly for their particular vision of the Christian reality. Some suffered persecution at the hands of the institution that now honors them. Only time and distance have given them their haloes.
I’ve been thinking about what makes a saint a saint. The most popular idea and certainly the one that I grew with seems to have something to do with being good. Saints are good people or people who did good things, lived goods lives, and inspired others to do so. But it seems to me that there has to be something that in a sense precedes being good and doing good works because not all saints were always good or always did good things. How did they manage to become Christian heroes?
When I was a novice I was asked to read lots of different books and articles most of which, I am sorry to say, I have largely forgotten or only remember with great difficulty. But one of several books that I read and which I go back to over and over again is Poverty of Spirit by the German Dominican, Johannes Metz. I think Metz articulates eloquently one of the essential qualities of holiness or, if you will, saintliness.
Metz says something like this: human life begins with conception and birth. But being human and living fully alive as a human being, what Irenaeus famously asserted to be “the glory of God,” is both a challenge and a summons. It’s not a given. We do not possess our being as something that is just “there” or is “read- made” the way animals do. Metz goes on to say that, “From the very start we are something that can be, a being who must win selfhood and decide what it is to be.” In a sense, “We must fully become what we are – a human being. The freedom that we have to make choices for ourselves is the arena in which we can either claim or reject that being. And the first step in exercising that freedom “reveals itself at work when we accept and [and here’s the important piece] approve with all our heart the being that is committed to us, when we make it so much our own that it seems to be our idea from the first.” In other words, we can begin to make real choices only after we have come to accept fully who we are with both its possibilities and its limitations. And only then can we exercise our ability to choose with the freedom which God intended for us.
It seems to me that here we have what is sometimes called “testing.” But the test in this case isn’t so much in choosing to be “good” as much as choosing to be who we are; in choosing to embrace our true identity. We can see this in the biblical story of our origins. What’s portrayed for us in Genesis is temptation that has little to do with a moralistic notion of “being good.” The story of eating the fruit of the tree has the ring of a summons to accept the limitations of both being human and giving to God the place due only to God. In urging Eve to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, Satan tells Eve, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” In other words, “You don’t need to be just a human! Why not be God?” Be God and avoid all the messiness that goes along with embracing both the promise and the limitations of being a human. It’s the same offer that Satan makes to Jesus in the temptation in the wilderness.3
Saints are people who consciously, often not easily, choose to embrace the being they’ve been given with all of its gifts and all of its limitations. In accepting ones being, in choosing to be completely human, saints have embraced holiness. Saints are people who have accepted the challenge of being a human with all its promise and limitations and “lovingly accept the truth of” their Being (that’s Being with a capital “B”). This is what Metz calls an “attitude of ‘love of self’” An attitude with both ethical and religious implications that amounts to nothing less than a “categorical imperative” of Christianity: “You shall lovingly accept the humanity entrusted to you! You shall be obedient to your destiny! You shall not continually try to escape it! You shall be true to yourself! You shall embrace yourself!” And that, I would say, is what saints do!
Another defining characteristic of holiness is its unself-consciousness.4 Holy people don’t realize that they are holy. To be conscious of holiness seems to cause it to go sour and become self-righteousness. This seems to be at least part of the reason why holy people run from the title “saint.” Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement protested the title, “Don’t call me a saint,” she said, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
It’s easy for us to put saints on pedestals because that way we can keep their living witness and challenge to us at arm’s length. We can more easily dismiss them. I think that putting them on a pedestal tends to make our imaginations weaker and less vital. Saints were men and women who understood the challenge of living the gospel in the context of their own place and time. They are remembered because they lived it with imagination and devotion. They used what they had been given to live their lives into the freedom of the kingdom.
Yesterday, we commemorated saints of the Reformation Era. In my opinion, a curious observance, as most reformers were intent on abolishing such commemorations. The 1549 Prayer Book effectively eliminated saints’ days except for those with specific New Testament associations and today’s observance. Like so many reforming movements, the baby went out with the bath water.
Today we have restored many saints’ day. We understand our need for Christian heroes again. We also realize that there are countless numbers of men and women who are not among the canonized but who nevertheless enjoy the privilege of sharing in the glory of the ascended Christ. We honor those persons today as we venerate their memory and their witness.
1. “All Saints Day,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 41-42.
2. Johannes Metz. Poverty of Spirit. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1998).
3. See Metz, 9-15.
4. The idea of “unself-consciouness” is found in the works of Anthony de Mello, SJ particularly in The Way to Love.
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