Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY --- Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
All Saints - Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Revelation 7:9-17 --- 1 John 3:1-3 --- Matthew 5:1-12
It is hard approach All Saints Day without having to pass through its much celebrated, and much distorted, prelude – All Hallows Eve, better known as Halloween. Mischief and mayhem, ghosts and goblins, and above all – as much candy as anybody can stomach... These are the stuff of Halloween, at least in secular American culture.
Halloween, with its focus on what you can get, makes a mockery of our religious tradition. But sometimes our religious traditions need to be mocked...
The roots of Halloween, and of All Saints Day for that matter, are a bit obscure, though it appears that Celtic spirituality played an important role in the start of both traditions.
It is hardly surprising that Celtic tradition, with its very high regard for those who have gone before and far less linear approach to time, would peculiarly honor saints. The custom of All Saints seems to have spread eastward from Ireland.
And its not so surprising that in the enterprising and poverty-ridden Celtic lands, somebody figured out how to make money along the way. Perhaps starting in Scotland, poor people went about on the eve of All Saints asking for money. In exchange for some cash, they would pray for the souls of your loved ones in purgatory. An All Hallows Even tradition is born... Halloween also appears to have spread east, and then west, from Ireland and Scotland.
Add some Reformation and some ingenuity by American candy makers to the mix and today we have substituted candy for coins and any idea of prayer, for souls in purgatory or anywhere else, has flown out of the equation altogether.
Yet here we are, faithfully keeping All Saints Day, which has come from humble Irish roots to be a principal feast of the Church.
The focus on souls in purgatory, or on ghosts and goblins, or just on candy, makes an interesting prelude to this feast. At best, it seems to call us to focus on what we can do for these pour souls, whatever poor souls we may have in mind. At worst it seems to focus us on what we can get – who can get the most and the best candy.
But the focus on what we can get, rather than what we can give, may in fact be the right preparation for All Saints Day, as counter intuitive... as unchristian as it may appear.
Bernard of Clairvaux, that is Saint Bernard... notes that our praise, glorification, and celebration can mean little, if anything, to the saints. Earthly honor, he observes, can be of little value next to Heavenly honor. He concludes that the saints have no need of us. According to Bernard: “When we venerate [the saints], it is serving us, not them.”
And that, for Bernard, is exactly why we should venerate saints (including, of course, Bernard himself).
As Bernard sees it, venerating the saints, calling them to mind, inspires us to want to be in their company – to want to be like them. Ultimately we want to join the saints not in their communion with each other, but in their communion with Jesus, with God.
So a bag stuffed with candy may not be exactly the desired outcome, but a person stuffed with spirit may be the spiritually evolved cousin of that trick-or-treat bag...
We are taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but when God, or the Saints of God, are offering gifts, it is surely better to be ready to receive. On All Saints, more than any other time, we are called to open our hearts to the gifts that we receive from the saints. And to the extent that we are preoccupied with what pious gifts we can bring and solemn liturgies we can produce, we are just getting in the way.
So who are these saints anyway?
In the early church it was not so complicated to become a saint. All you needed was enough enthusiasm at the time of your death in the great congregation and you were acclaimed a saint. A spontaneous process, of course, doesn't sit well in a hierarchical system, so as the Church became more powerful and more centralized in the middle ages, a more controlled process of ordering saints came into use.
There has been a little bit of a tempest in the teapot of the Episcopal Church recently over the publication of “Holy Women, Holy Men.” It appears that a great effort was made to be more inclusive and more representative in who we honor as a saint in our calendar.
Including JS Bach sits well with me – no greater musician has ever written for the Church, but Henry Purcell seems a bit more iffy. Ralph Adams Cram, architect of our little church, was surely an inspired builder who's buildings still enliven the spirits of others, yet I'm not sure his life is particularly inspiring, or even particularly interesting. There is no question that John Calvin has had a huge impact on countless Christians, but I suspect he would be among the first to ask to have his name removed from a list of saints.
For me, the great service provided by Holy Women & Holy Men is that it calls us to think differently about saints. Our natural tendency is to want to call somebody a saint because they deserve the honor. But as Bernard of Clairvaux notes, our honor is of no value. That is not the point of having someone in the calendar.
Perhaps what we need is a greater embrace of Halloween – the image of standing before the saints with our goodie bag in hand asking for a treat may be the best approach to All Saints Day. Maybe I need to be more like the innocent child searching for treats than a sophisticated adult deciding who is, or is not worthy of sainthood.
Does Bach inspire me in the way that Patrick, or Columba, or Martin Luther King do? I really don't know, but he does inspire others. I do know that, much as I admire the work of Ralph Adams Cram, he surely does not. But the simple wisdom of Halloween is that I don't linger at the places where the treats don't work for me. I just move on.
Wyston Hugh Auden is somebody who may not actually be on anybody's list of saints – though a more inspired and inspiring poet in English language would be hard to find. His poem, “A Hymn to Saint Cecelia,” the patron saint of musicians, describes the relationship with saints as only a truly inspired and gifted poet can.
“Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire. Translated daughter come down and startle composing mortals with immortal fire.”
I pray for Cecilia to appear to me. I pray for John and Charles Wesley to appear to me. For Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. For Benedict, Scholastica, and James Huntington and W.H. Auden. The list goes on and on.
They don't need me – I need them. I need their strength, their vision, and their ability to startle me out of the cocoon of my own ego. God grant us all the wisdom and humility to open our hearts to receive the gifts that the saints around us so freely offer.