All Saints Sunday
Rev. Michelle Floyd
One of my favorite artworks around All Saints Day is Fra Angelico’s piece entitled “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs,” which Father Doug used on the front of the bulletin today. I love that the saints in the paintings have personality, carry items that identify them, and are focused on something beyond the perspective of those viewing the painting. There’s a sense that what those in this great crowd of witnesses are viewing is more real than what we see in this world. This piece accomplishes what good works of art do, fill our thoughts with the wonder of the unseen world and allows our imaginations to be filled with God’s splendor and beauty.
When Doug asked me to focus on All Saints Day, I was excited because it’s not a tradition I’ve grown up with, but over the last two years, I’ve had the joy of learning about the saints. I deliver the homily at the noon eucharist on the 4th Wednesday of the month and it seems like at least half of the Wednesdays in the year, a saint’s feast day is on or near my Wednesday. I’ve had the great opportunity to discover early church fathers and mothers like St Brigid of Ireland, St Polycarp, St Photini, St Matthias and so many others that bring their distinct gifts to the Church.
For those of you who are like me and know little of this tradition, let’s trace some of the early history. I have read that people in the early church felt a great responsibility to honor all of those who had gone before and paid with their lives to further the gospel of Christ. So, while origins of All Saints Day are uncertain, we know that by 379 the Eastern Church was keeping The Feast of All Martyrs on May 13th.
The first evidence for the November 1st date of celebration and of the broadening of the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, occurred during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731–741), who dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, Rome, on November 1 in honor of all saints.
In Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, our liturgical calendar includes feast days throughout the year that keep the memory of specific saints and as I mentioned, acknowledges and celebrates the gifts that person gave to the church. On All Saints Day, we keep the memory and thank God for all of the saints who may be known only to God.
Recently, I’ve heard several folks quote, the French Catholic novelist Leon Bloy, who penned this line in his novel La Femme Pauvre, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” It is quoted with conviction and while I take it to heart, I’ve found myself wondering if I fit in with this crew of known and venerated saints. I’ve never turned water to beer like Saint Brigid, I haven’t gone into trances when I’ve received the Eucharist like Catherine of Sienna. Does being a saint mean that I’m doing mystical things and performing miracles? “One problem with our great feast day today is that it can make sanctity seem like something that is the special preserve of a handful of spiritual heroes—and not the ordinary goal of the Christian life. But the whole purpose of the Church—priesthood, the Mass, the sacraments, good preaching, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy—is to make saints.”(Bishop Robert Barron)
Kierkegaard wrote that “the Saint is the one who’s life is about one thing.” As I’ve studied the lives of saints there are two things I find they all have in common, they are possessed with a passionate love for the world and they are undergird with an intimate relationship with God. Bishop Robert Barron suggests that the one thing is more than simply a pious thought; it speaks of the deepest desire of our hearts for God and for human excellence, it is found in the Hebrew word hesed which means ‘kindness or love between people’, specifically of the devotional reverence of people towards God as well as the mercy of God towards humanity. The saint is singularly focused on tender mercy. To be a saint is to habitually will the good of the other. Let me say that again, to be a saint is to habitually will the good of the other.
“Love God, love others,” rolls easily off the tongue, but I can personally attest to the fact that living with other humans is not effortless and at times seems near impossible.
I recently read a story from our desert fathers and mothers who described a group of brothers who were having great difficulty learning how to fulfill Christ’s instruction to turn the other cheek and resist returning evil for evil. The conversation as follows is between Anthony the Great and fellow monks:
The brothers came to Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.”Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matt. 5.39) They said, “We cannot do that.”The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.” “We cannot do that either,” they said. So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,” and they said, “We cannot do that either.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.”
Anthony broke down for the brothers a process of learning how to love. It is like climbing a ladder, do this one thing and it will lead you to do the next. The brothers had a desire for salvation, but would exert no effort in practicing what would lead them to truly be transformed. Their lack of effort led Anthony to declare them invalids and send them to pray for healing. Though we accept Christ and make decisions to follow him, our hearts are hard and have great difficulty remaining focused on habitually loving God and others tenderly.
Later Anthony instructs them that a freely chosen action repeated over time is what wears away the hardness of our heart and opens us to love as God does. The desert fathers and mothers remind us that though we are sinners, it is possible to learn little by little to become people who do good for others and chose to be transformed by God through work and persistence.
The Eastern church recognizes that both grace and human freedom go together. Grace does not conflict with our capacity to chose, but brings our freedom to life, creativity, and activity. God who loves us, wants us to share in his work of loving others and uses the qualities he formed in us to uniquely love the world. To become His saints in this world. (God’s Many splendid Image by Nonna Verna Harrison)
In discussing the life of the saints, Bishop Barron tells us, “Everything in the saints life is gathered into one great principle – to be clean of heart and know what we are about.” To know what we are about. It’s challenging to decide, what am I about? I understand that I am to be about love and singular in that vision. But how has God, called each of us to walk that out? How are we each equipped? It’s important for us to spend time asking God to show us how he made us. I find it to be hard work as I’ve spent the summer contemplating on these questions as I work to form a rule of life. Having input from those around me has allowed me to gain insight into what I’m about. Spending time reflecting on our God-given bents and talents frees us to pursue the holy desires God puts in our hearts and attunes us for the steps we are to take on the path of love.
St Therese of Lisieux grew up in a loving family committed to the church and faith in God. Therese’s family faced tragedy after tragedy losing four children and eventually Therese’s mother dying when she was only four years old. Her mother’s death sent her into deep sorrow, her happy personality was replaced with silence, sensitivity, and great bouts with sickness. She struggled for ten years with anxiety, illness, and depression. After the midnight Christmas mass when she was 14, overheard her father say that this would be the last year that he would put gifts in their shoes around the hearth, a beloved Christmas tradition in her household. Normally, this sort of realization would have sent her into a fit of anxiety. However, she said that Grace intervened as she was climbing down the stairs of her home and the shadow of depression and self doubt lifted. In her biography she wrote, “My heart was filled with charity and love for Jesus. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself.”
At 15, she petitioned her bishop and the pope to allow her to enter the convent, though they were all hesitant to grant her request because she was so young, her appeals were finally granted and she began her life at the convent Le Carmel. Though she fell asleep during prayers and found living with the other sisters difficult, she surrendered her life to Christ with the hope that he would act through her. She never left the convent grounds once she entered and was known only to her family and the sisters at the convent. In her studies of other saints, Therese becomes more and more aware of her littleness. “It is impossible for me to grow up, so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new.”
She contracted tuberculosis at age 24 and in the midst of her illness Mother Marie de Gonzauge asked Therese to write her biography. She completed Story of a Soul, before she died in September of 1897. Her little ways impacted those in her community at Le Carmel, but after her death, the distribution of her influence spread to those around the world. Her message of God’s love and loving others resonated with people who had long heard the message of a punishing God. Therese’s little ways made relationship with God accessible for all. Her practice of daily kindnesses helped people understand the process of being formed in God’s love to love others.
She wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
She observed the great saints, St John of the Cross, Catherine of Sienna, St Peter, and St John and declared them giant trees in the forest of God. She said that she was not like them, but merely a little flower in the floor of the forest.
The “little flower,” became so influential after her death that she was declared a Doctor of the church in October of 1997. Her humble presentation of the accessibility of sanctification through small, intentional kindnesses and her great love for Jesus, taught countless people from across the world how to follow the teachings of Christ in daily life.
Being called to the little way, increasingly flies in the face of a culture that marks success by bigger and better, not only as individuals but corporately. The loss of the local parish has changed our view of church community, as well as our expectations of parish life. I was talking with my rector, Jack King about the draw of “big ministry” and how we as clergy walk to a different beat alongside those expectations as we minister. His reply resonated with me deeply and I asked his permission to share it with you today.
“We are small, sacramental, traditional, and we devote tremendous attention to the soul. Devotion to stability and place is a rarity these days. I think that’s a vocation for our people, too—to choose stability and loyalty to the parish as a witness.”
Choosing to be a part of small, holistic ministries that remain focused on forming our souls in love for God and our neighbor is to choose the little way. To will another’s good requires that we also desire to give them our very selves.
As Paul writes in 1Thessalonians 2:8, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” That’s the essential meaning of communion and of covenant. It’s the life of our parishes, it’s the little way that changes our hearts and leads us to live as saints.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen