Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
RCL - All Saints - Sunday 01 November 2009
We are here this morning to praise the saints, and so, as I speak this morning, I want each of you to think of a saint you have personally known – a holy person who touched your life, who helped you in your journey of faith, or who challenged you, or who opened up something new to you. Someone whose life brought you closer to God. In doing so, I want us to recognize something wonderful – that there are so many saints, so many, many saints. Who can count them?
But we can try. Yesterday I googled the question, How many saints are there? At the top of the pile of possible responses something called wikiAnswers gave two possibilities: for Protestants, everyone who receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour becomes a saint. This concept has the advantage of being based in scripture, where by one count there are between 40 and 50 uses of the word “saint” for “member of the church”. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” says St. Paul at the beginning of the Letter to the Romans. Such a large number! Who can count them?
For Roman Catholics, there are apparently some 10,000 saints recognized by name, which is a suspiciously round number, encouraging me to think that our wikiAnswerers haven’t counted one by one, but have a process analogous to the crowd counting in our nation’s capitol when there is a march or demonstration, in which the number reported seems to depend on your point of view. But let’s take the 10,000 as a starter. That’s just the named saints. Think of all the saints whose names we don’t know, beginning with the baby boys of Bethlehem, slaughtered by Herod because they were in the same age cohort as Jesus. It’s often that way with martyrs – they’re in the way of power, and so they’re mowed down like the grass of the field – not only do we not know their names, we don’t even know how many there were. Such a large number! Who can count them?
In our worship here at the Monastery there are so many saints we have to lump them into categories: apostles and evangelists, patristic martyrs, martyrs, doctors of the church, missionaries, monastics, teachers, pastors, confessors. The Blessed Virgin Mary gets her own category. And that doesn’t include Israel’s holy patriarchs, prophets, priests and kings, its matrons and mothers and women of war, our ancestors in the faith. Not every saint fits easily into these categories, but quite a lot do. The point is, there are so many that we can’t deal with each one individually, but we have to perform a sort of spiritual taxonomy to accommodate them, like lepidopterists with butterflies. Such a large number! Who can count them?
The saints can also provide a lens through which to view the history of the Church. St. Paul and the other writers of Epistles expected that people called into the Fellowship of Jesus Christ would be saints. This is an attractive notion, but over time it proved to have its problems as an adequate description of Church membership. In the succeeding age the dominant type of saint is the confessing martyr, the believer who suffers for his faith, of whom Stephen in Acts is the proto-martyr. As Christianity assumed power, saintly action moved from the martyrdom of blood to the martyrdom of askesis, to the desert fathers and mothers, to Anthony and Pachomius in Egypt; to the study, to brilliant theologians like Basil and Gregory Nazianzen and Augustine; to church leaders like Pope Leo the Great and preachers like John Chrysostom; and even to politicians, like Constantine himself. As the Roman empire disintegrated, at least in the West, and society became less sophisticated, a new kind of saint arose, the fearless missionary wielding God’s power, like Martin of Tours, and in the East the ascetic channeling divine power for the people, like Simeon Stylites. As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the need for saintly power, to the point that no church was complete without a saint present in bodily form, offering access to the throne of grace to every ordinary needy person who came and prayed and wanted to change. Monks and mystics, scholars and the very simple, royals and peasants, famous church leaders and the nameless faithful, they are all there. Such a large number! Who can count them?
And with the Reformation and the beginning of the modern world, a new kind of saint: the person made holy by opposition to the Church itself, the follower of truth for the sake of the Gospel as that saint understood it, the Protestants first, and then the Catholics, speaking truth to power: William Tyndale the translator of the Bible and Thomas More, the upholder of papal power, both of them speaking the truth to Henry VIII. We can still hear the screams from England’s martyr fires and from the autos da fe of the Inquisition, we can still see the blood running in the streets of Paris in the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, we can still smell the reek of gunpowder, destruction, famine and death from the Thirty Years War which destroyed as much as 30% of the populations of Central Europe in the name of the Faith. So many lost for faith. Such a large number! Who can count them?
And in our own day: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Janani Luwum, Martin Luther King, to name only the most famous. Such a large number! Who can count them?
There is so much holiness. The famous, public holiness of the martyrs, the holiness of blood, but also the quieter holiness of dedication to the welfare of others, the holiness of those who choose their work to benefit the rest of us. And the quietest of all, those who choose the path of love rather than the path of self, for whom philia replaces eros, and for whom then agape replaces philia, working selflessly with little reward or regard, grandmothers, teachers, friends of the destitute and the lost and the lonely and the innocent and the ignorant and the irresponsible, who stand like beacons of light in a world that seems to be not very friendly to its children. Think of the saints I asked you to find in your own life. Our own encounters with holiness show us another way, a better way, a possibility that the world is different than we thought, that the world is in fact God’s world, shot through with rays of love and hope and joy. Such a large number! Who can count them?
I have spent so much time enumerating saints – and I’ve left quite a lot of them out – because I want us to consider that as Christians we are called to a different reality. The “world” is always presenting itself to us as a problem. It wants us to believe that life is a problem to be solved. Most of us here today are from New York. Is anything ever good enough for New Yorkers? Of course not. Life is problems. If they can be solved, there will be more problems to be solved, and then more problems, and then more problems. The multi-headed hydra should be our mascot: solve one problem and nine others spring up in its place. Problems without end. Or so we are told.
But the way of faith – the way of the saints – presents a different reality: a world infused with God’s inbreaking love and undefeatable goodness, a goodness which never stops calling out for witnesses, which never stops recruiting collaborators. Who could have imagined how much holiness the revelation of God to his people would let loose in the world? Who could imagine the millions of lives that are entry portals for the love of God into the world? Who would have thought the transcendent holiness of God could be found in the murky depths of the last days of Nazi Germany, or in a car on a dusty rural road in Uganda, or in an inexpensive motel in Memphis? And yet the bright light of God shone there. And where else might it shine? For in truth, God’s goodness in the world is not limited by the capacity of the Christian community to express it.
I want to suggest that a large part of our work as Christians is to learn to see the signs of sanctity. We need to develop an eye for saints, as the botanist develops an eye for plants. I remember driving upcountry in Liberia from Monrovia to Bolahun years ago with Brother Laurence. The vegetation on either side of the road was just green to me. It didn’t seem much like the African jungle of my imagination, and I was disappointed. I was looking for Tarzan, I suppose. Or an elephant, at least. But then Laurence started to show me, like the science teacher he was, which trees were the rubber trees, and what that meant in the economy of Liberia, and my eyes were opened.
We have to be trained to see. And once we are, our consciousness is changed. Too often we accept the “world’s” terms and see mainly problems, which are so great that we are overwhelmed. But truly those problems are only part of the reality of God’s world. What if we change our focus and train ourselves also to see holiness, also to see joy, also to see generosity? Who in the circle of our friends is being kind, right now? Who is bearing a burden they don’t have to bear? Who is giving so that another may have? That is holiness. Train ourselves to see. Who in our community is working harder? Who is giving sacrificially? Who is quietly going about their daily work with integrity and skill when they could more easily slack off? We can all see the great heroes of holiness. We need to learn to see the holiness around us now. The Holy Spirit is at work. Let us train our eyes to see.
And when we do, the world is different. Instead of the grey place of problems, it is the field of God’s love, filled in unexpected ways with the love and power and joy and light and life of God. The world is alive with holiness. It breathes holiness. Its life is God’s holiness in the lives of His people. Is there any more unexpected place to find God than on a cross? Then why should we be surprised to find God around the corner, down the street, in this very room? Look around you. The Holy Spirit is here, at work, now, this instant.
I cannot put it better than that great prophetic sonnet of Gerard Manley Hopkins (God's Grandeur - poem from 1918):
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.