When I think nowadays of what I am thankful for it turns into a list of saints – living ones included. Saints include people around us who draw us deeper into holiness ourselves, even as they themselves appear as a kind of sign or symbol of God’s presence in the world. Saints – believers – are sanctified people – people set apart for a holy purpose.
Some of them would gladly tell you that they do not deserve the label of “holy person.”
They might say, “Oh, yes! Make me a saint – but not yet.”
Or they might say, “I just don’t deserve this” – meaning they don’t deserve to be put through the training program they figure sainthood would imply. It is too hard, they would say, for human beings to bear.
Nevertheless I find myself making a list of unknowing saints. These are people in whom God is at work for visible or invisible holiness to take place.
As Jesus began to teach on the mountain, he enumerated for his disciples some of the kinds of people whom God makes saints – whom God blesses. They are people like the Psalmist knew – the humble and meek, who are called to rejoice; the afflicted – who will be heard and are vindicated; the hungry or thirsty or poor – who will receive fullness.
The Lord is their Shepherd; they shall lack nothing.
Those who trust in him – those who believe in him with their whole hearts – will not be punished, but saved.
To whom does salvation belong? From whom does it come?
Salvation, the multitude cries, belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb, to the One who judge, the One who redeems.
Those who have suffered hunger or thirst, sunstroke or heatstroke, they will be guided by the good shepherd to a place of wellbeing and comfort.
So saints are those whom God redeems. Sanctity is not a reward for meritorious service. God saves: the saints are justified by faith not by works. There is no boasting save in the Cross of Christ, the paradoxical victory that looks so like defeat – that pulls us beyond the end of the world, beyond death itself, onto new and holy ground. Holy ground – where we already stand, if we only knew…
We are God’s children, now – already – and we have hope in him, the One who will be revealed to all as God’s son and our Lord.
This is the vision of Revelation.
Sometimes seekers of holiness have their own great cloud of witnesses about them – assembled as friends of the heart or companions on the way.
When I would go visit a professor of mine in college, Donald Nicholl, I could see that in his office he had assembled around his desk photographs and portraits of “friends” – as he called them – people whom he wanted around him as witnesses or encouragers. And decades later his widow Dorothy showed me the room where he spent his last days, still surrounded by a cloud of witnesses as he laid on his daybed and composed himself for eternity. Dorothy kept her own cloud of witnesses about her into her final years.
The “saints” on their walls might be different from yours or mine. Some were familiar faces, some were notable people they introduced me to, and some were unknown. All bore witness to the reality of God and of our presence in God, and God’s presence in us.
They became as windows or lights, letting some of the eternal brightness shine into our lives, and our worlds. They do not have to be famous or extraordinary to give us a vision of effulgence – the brilliant radiance of the people of God. In fact it may help some time if they are not, if they are just regular people.
One day in 1959 a monk was waiting for a ride home to the monastery. He had been to the dentist. He was standing on a downtown corner in Louisville, Kentucky.
And this is what he wrote, in his book, "Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander":
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream ...
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.”
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.
I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.
The monk, Thomas Merton, was seeing his fellow human beings “in aspiration” as Donald Nicholl would put it – he was seeing them “in the Spirit” as they were made to be, as they were called to become – as people who could blossom into the fullness of life as God intended them to experience it.
Robert Ellsberg makes this point in his essay on the feast of All Saints, in his book of the same name:
Since the early centuries of the church the liturgical calendar has reserved one day to honor, collectively, all the saints, both those officially recognized and those known only to God. Thus we are reminded that the true company of saints is far more numerous than the list of those who have been formally canonized. There are many anonymous saints who nevertheless form part of the great “cloud of witnesses,” surrounding us with their faith and courage and so participating in the communion between the living and the dead.
This collective feast, All Saints, is also an occasion to acknowledge the varieties of holiness. Though they share a certain family resemblance, the saints are not formed in any particular mold. Some are renowned for contemplation and others for action; some played a public role while others spent their lives in quiet obscurity. Some demonstrated the vitality of ancient traditions while others were pioneers, charting new possibilities in the spiritual life. Some received recognition and honor within their lifetimes, while others were scorned or even persecuted.
The feast of All Saints does not honor a company of “immortals,” far removed from the realm of ordinary human existence. The saints were not “super” human beings but those who realized the vocation for which all human beings were created and to which we are ultimately called. No one is called to be another St. Francis or St. Teresa. But there is a path to holiness that lies within our individual circumstances, that engages our own talents and temperaments, that contends with our own strengths and weaknesses, that responds to the needs of our own neighbors and our particular moment in history. The feast of All Saints strengthens and encourages us to create that path by walking it.
We are called – all of us – into the fullness of the joy of being God’s children, of being set apart for a holy purpose: to become what we are called to be, to become saints. And so,
“There is only one sorrow – not to be a saint.”—Léon Bloy
And in the end there is one joy, to be shared by all: to greet one another, in the Spirit, as the people God has created and called us to be, as his own beloved children, as Saints.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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Ellsberg, Robert, "All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time," New York: Crossroad, 1997, 475-476.
Merton, Thomas, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" (1966).
From the Shorter OED:
fullness: 1. The condition of containing something in abundance. b. In biblical language, all that is contained in the world. [J Wesley: The Earth and all her Fullness owns Jehovah for her sovereign Lord!] c. Abundance, plenty. 2. Completeness, perfection. [G. Priestland: Christianity … hasn’t yet been tried … What right have we to expect its fullness in our time?]
in the fullness of time – at the destined time; eventually.