Br. Will Owen, n/OHC
The Feast of All Saints - Sunday, November 1, 2015
|All Saints Day candles in Poland|
are too small
to hold me.
I am so vast
In the infinite
for the Uncreated
I have touched it,
it undoes me
wider than wide
is too narrow
You know this well,
you who are also there"
That’s from Hadewijch of Brabant, a 13th-century Flemish beguine who wrote a cadre of mystical love poems to God that boldly convey the union with the Uncreated that is the birthright of all creation. The oneness of creation with the Uncreated is the heart of holiness and the goal of the sanctified life.
It’s quite the task to speak to the glory and witness of all the saints, by which I mean those people, known and unknown, living, dead, and yet to come whose lives, like Hadewijch’s poetry, hold up for us a model of holiness. To speak of all of the saints is really to speak of the huge and incredible—really the impossibly innumerable—ways that God’s grace moves through and in each of our lives to draw us and the world toward a more perfect wholeness and unity. To speak of all the saints is to speak of the vast and glorious work of redemption—not only of humanity but of the whole creation.
That’s why I find it particularly appropriate that we hear the apocalyptic readings from Isaiah and Revelation today. Apocalypse, as most of you probably know, simply means “unveiling,” in the case of the apocalypse in today’s texts, the unveiling of the reality of the new creation. Narratively we conceive of this unveiling as something that will happen in the future when Christ returns to make all things new. It is then, as John says, that the first things will pass away and that the heavenly Jerusalem will descend to earth. And although narratively it makes sense to speak of this unveiling as something that will happen sometime in the future, it would be more accurate to say that the new creation is a reality at all moments in time.
All creation and all redemption are one eternal movement of God’s Spirit, a movement that exists and has existed in every moment—from the creation of the universe at the beginning of time; to the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord; to the new creation at the apocalypse—all are part of one eternally present movement of God’s Spirit. Revelation and unveiling—these are the moments when this reality announces itself to us in the midst of our human lives, when we can see, if only for a brief moment, the luminosity of our own selves and of all the created world—the shining garment of God’s body that is present in all people and all things, if we only have eyes to see.
With God’s help, those we call saints unveil this new creation in their bodies and their lives. They themselves are an apocalypse. And they show us that the new creation is born in us, not in spite of our struggles, shortcomings, and sins, but—unbelievably—through them. For the saints did not become holy despite their humanity. They became holy through that humanity. To put it another way, struggle, pain, limitation, finitude, and sin are not barriers to grace—they are gateways to new life. For our struggles connect us with our need for mercy and grace. They remind us, often painfully, sometimes humorously, that we are not self-created or self-sustaining. The more we engage our shortcomings with integrity and contrition, the more room we create for God to flood our lives with her love. The painful places in our lives are the places from which we cry out to God in longing for new life. And because of this movement, it is specifically from our so-called vices that our virtues are drawn out of us.
Saint Augustine strikes me as a poignant and powerful example of this dynamic. He struggled his entire life with his sexuality. It was the means he used to resist the influx of grace into his life. And ultimately it became the doorway to his salvation. By struggling with his sexuality Augustine came to see that below the craving for sex and companionship was a powerful, aching longing for union with God. As he allowed himself to inhabit that longing more and more fully, he allowed God to draw out of him extraordinarily moving descriptions of union, wholeness, and love. His longing, which seemed like the absence of God’s love, was actually the seed of that love’s presence. For longing contains within it a foretaste of its own fulfillment, and it draws that fulfillment nearer.
In her first novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson offers a scene that reads like a contemporary gloss of the biblical apocalypse:
Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden. Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.In the end I believe we will come to see that all is grace. Everything—the heartache, the laughter, the love, the longing, all our sinfulness, all our shortcomings, all our resistance—all are a part of God’s loving call of return to us. Every atom of our lives can draw out of us a yearning cry, like Augustine’s, a song of longing for God that joins with her own song of longing for us, a song that like the song that brought the universe into being, calls forth the new creation here and now. With the saints we will come to know that God’s redemptive work is being accomplished, and has been accomplished, that we are already holy, even and especially in the midst of our humanity.
Luminous moments of apocalypse occur all around us and within us, all the time. The saints themselves are such moments. They are the living stones of a New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven to declare that God’s place is among and within her creation. We are those stones, too. With Hadewijch and Augustine, with Holy Mary and Benedict, with Blessed James our founder and Alan Whittemore, with you, and you, and you, and all of you—with the whole of creation we reach out to the Uncreated. She undoes us. Wider than wide. Everything else is too narrow. We know this well. We who are also there.