We think we know a lot, but what we know is very little. Even all those who have striven all their life to bring progress to mankind — learned scientists and highly educated people — all realize in the end that all their knowledge is but a grain of sand on the seashore. All our achievements are insufficient. — Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Our texts for this All Saints celebration are truly texts more suited for an All Souls celebration. That probably does not bother normal protestant sensibilities. One probably ought not be troubled that it not bother many but it is also not out of place to point out the difference between Saint and saint.
We read from John 11 this week. The raising of Lazarus. In itself, the actual resuscitation of the man is very unremarkable in the details of the telling. “Come out” and out he comes, dressed like a mummy. (All Hollows Eve is close, people. Go as Lazarus this year.)
Maybe the important sentence in this reading is: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” That sentence ought to go straight to all our souls and hearts. “Believe and you will see the glory of God.” Will you believe Martha? Did you believe? Is this the Glory that you seek?
The air of Mary and Martha’s complaint hangs in the air: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” (11:21, also 11:32 and 11:37) This is the complaint heard at hospital beds every day in one form or another: “This is not OK! He should not have died.” In modern days, the complaint is pointed less often at God as it is pointed at the medical profession. Malpractice lawyers thrive because of it — and because of all those “come to us we’ll sue them for you” commercials on the television.
It would seem that a common attitude of the age is that death ought not have a place in our time and place, unless . . . Well, unless suffering is relieved or unless death follows the rules and those rules proscribe the death of children before parents and the death of anyone even of advanced age whom we love who is not suffering greatly. Then we might make an exception. For what it is worth, people whom we do not love or whom we outright hate can die in hole anytime they like; no problem with us.
Missing from the equation is a robust spirituality that includes death as one of its factors. We are mortal beings that love mortal people and a world has been submitted to decay and is crying out for redemption. (Rom 8:20; 22)
Henry Nouwen writes:
We are not made to love immortal things. Only what is irreplaceable, unique, and mortal can touch our deepest human sensitivities and be a source of hope and consolation. God only became lovable when he became mortal. He became our savior because his mortality was not fatal but the way to hope. (Nouwen “Turn My Mourning” into Dancing, 2001, 107)
I struggle with this as it suggests that we love things precisely because we know we will lose them at some point in the future. We love people because they are irreplaceable, knowing that the time will come when we will be without them. I have come to believe that Nouwen really speaks more about love than death here. I believe what he is touching here is the irresistible nature of love. Love will win every battle in the end.
This can be seen in precisely the human capacity to participate in love. Death is inevitable and at most levels of our conscience we know this, as much as we keep its reality and presence at arms length. Perhaps it is because we know mortality so well that we engage in death’s denial so extensively. Yet, we dare to love anyway. Love is the great: “in-spite-of.” The more we love the more we are at risk to mourn. He who loves all things will mourn the decay of the rock into sand for surely he loved the rock. (Theophane, “Tales of the Magic monastery”)
It is also the great teacher. In the absence of love there is no loss; we do not mourn the loss of a thing we never cared for after all. Yet, it is losses that are the great missionaries to us that teach us to live. Not to love is not to learn and therefore not to live. The deaths of those we love the most and who love us the most are indeed the greatest treasures for those who dare to look. The treasure we find invariably is that in loving the other, we have participated in the very heart of God, for “God is Love.” (I John 4:7-8)
More than that, in the death of generations past we find our own call and vocation to become the “elders.” At some point we all have to come to realize that if there is such a thing as wisdom or a sense of responsibility then it is up to us as those who no longer have others to look to for such to be the repository these things. Death sometimes is the voice that says: “Tag! You are it.”
All Souls’ Day is a reluctant festival. It is a solemn commemoration added the day after All Saints Day. Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, set November 2 as the day that Cistercian Monasteries would pray for the souls of all the brothers that had died through the year. The date caught on in all monastic orders and eventually in the church in general. The proximity to All Saints Day was probably not an accident. The latter had been celebrated since the 4th century though not on November 1st. That date only came about in about the 8th century and was set down as a uniform day of obligation for the church in western Europe in the 9th century.
Originally, on All Saints Day relics of martyrs were taken out of their vaults in memory of the martyrs’ self sacrifice and witness to Christ in suffering. In a strange way, All Saints is a celebration of visions of Christ made manifest in the life of otherwise ordinary people who, in their dying and, in later centuries, also in their living — a number of Saints died a natural death — here on earth. To call someone a Saint is somehow to say that in looking at something in their life a window into heaven is opened and we see the Glory of Heaven (Jn 11:40) for just an instant in this life through them, though that glimpse is always brief.
As children of the Reformation, we still admire the Saints. However, we lack any mechanism that would officially declare anyone a Saint and, even more importantly, we considered those whom the God Lord has claimed in Baptism as cleansed of guilt and sin and therefore holy to the Lord. (Zech 14:20) To be holy is to be a saint (note small “s”).
A “Saint,” says the dictionary, is a person who is recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness, or likeness to God. It is left to the lot of us to recognize those around us who fit that definition. A “saint” is a baptized child of God. The “Saints” leave no holes in our souls where once lived our love for them. The “saints,” however, do leave those holes. But both ought by life, death, mourning and consolation example and warning point us to the true place where life and immortality come to light: The Love of God in Christ Jesus (Rm 8:39) and Saint and saint both strive to live the nature of God: Love, through which is seen the Glory of God. (I Jn 4, Jn 11:40)