1 Jn 3:1-3
Traditionally, November is the month of the faithful departed, those we formerly called the “poor Souls,” usually meaning they were probably in purgatory. Today, which is to say tomorrow, we celebrate the Feast of All the Saints, the Hallows, as they were called in English in times past. All the Hallows, those saints known and unknown who enjoy the light of glory in the presence of God unveiled. I suppose there’s a very fine line between All the Saints and the Poor Souls, just as we celebrate the feasts back-to-back, so to speak. Between them, we commemorate all the faithful departed.
There are a few more all the time, it would seem. The news of the Russian airliner crash this morning provided a somber beginning of the weekend. The death toll of the poor migrants struggling to reach Europe from Iraq and Syria is a now a constant reminder of the precariousness of life, especially children’s lives, as desperate families seek a better, safer life. Seeing little kids running from door to door in Oak Park and River Forest begging sweets today did not cheer me up a great deal, although I think it is important to laugh in the face of death if we can. But it’s not easy.
A couple of days ago, I was looking through my stack of mass cards for deceased Dominicans of our Province. It has grown noticeably in recent times, and one gets a hint of advancing age when it begins to seem that most of the people I know are in one or other of those camps. Just today, I received word that a very good friend, the husband of a former colleague at Loyola University, had died this morning in Tacoma. One of my cousins died two weeks ago in Albuquerque and the wife of a deacon at the church I served for 16 years died last week in Carol Stream. Others of my age can claim similar experience, I’m sure.
Even more than taxes, death is the great certainty in life. But for Christian faith, death is not the end of life, but its true beginning. But if saints are people in heaven, those already saved, why do all this? Again, it’s because it’s about us, not them.
Famous saints — the great prophets, martyrs, evangelists, founders, missionaries, pastors, and preachers are holy women and men who have earned recognition by authority. They are held up for admiration and imitation, difficult as that might be at times. It has taken far too long to enter Oscar Romero’s name in that list and, despite her disinclination, that of Dorothy Day. But what about those who are not known or remembered, whose names are written in the Book of Life, but not in the Roman Canon?
That brings it home to you and me. For we are called to join that countless throng of holy ones celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb, but in our time and place and according to the mysterious plan of God. We have our orders, but they are often sealed. We do our best. Whether we get canonized is not at all important. How we live is.
It is not being recognized, being canonized, that makes someone a saint. It’s what they have done with their lives that earns them a place of honor on that list. And on the much, much greater list known only to God and the blessed saints in heaven. But as Meister Eckhart once said, “It is not what we do that makes us holy, but we ought to make holy what we do.” [Talks of Instruction, 4] Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day are saints not because they strove to be, but because they did what they felt compelled to do as true followers of Jesus Christ.
The Feast of All Hallows also reminds us that sanctity, like salvation, is a community affair, a communion of saints. It’s a “we” thing, not a “me” thing. And the gospel for today reminds us in no uncertain terms that when we look for holiness, we should consider first those who are poor, the lowly who suffer persecution and are starved for justice, who mourn, who make peace, the meek and merciful. We will find more effective models of holiness not on pedestals or cathedral roofs, but in the marketplace, the barrios and slums, in the streets of San Salvador, Baghdad and the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. You may even find a few sitting next to you.
I don’t feel particularly lonely because so many of the important people in my life are now numbered among the Hallows, but I miss them. And I often feel their presence, for as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses [Heb. 12:1]. And we pray that one day, they will receive us into that joyful throng. That will be the day of everlasting rejoicing, when death is no more and every tear has been wiped away. In the meantime, as we anticipate, we celebrate, we even emulate. So be of good cheer. “…let us throw off everything that holds us down and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”