ALL SAINTS SUNDAY, C, 2019
For better or for worse, my children bear Northland nature names. Gavia is the scientific nomenclature of the common loon – my husband campaigned to make her middle name immer, which would complete her association with the bird whose plaintive song inspired us late in that pregnancy. Linnaea borealis, the twin flower, lives on several continents, but always only in the northland, preferring cool, moist climates. Cool and moist certainly sounds like familiar surroundings these days. The flower Linnaea borealis was named for Carolus Linnaeus – the father of the modern method of grouping and naming species. Humans named groups of things long before Dr. Linnaeus came on the scene – some times more logically than others. Easy enough, for example to see where group name parade of elephants comes from, or a tower of giraffes, an exaltation of larks, a romp of otters or even a pounce of cats. But what did the poor crows do to deserve to called a murder or ravens to be called an unkindness? I frankly don’t think I’d care much for an audience of squid. Consortium sounds rather too dignified to represent a bunch of crabs, conspiracy too sinister for sprightly lemurs, and business too serious for mischievous ferrets. And what is a murmuration when its not a bunch of starlings, anyway?
Today we honor a different group: the communion of saints. All Saint’s Day actually falls on November 1, but since it’s one of the 7 principal feast days of the church, we move the observance if necessary. Interestingly, November 3rd is actually the feast day of Richard Hooker, a 15th century Anglican priest whose claim to fame is his defense of via media – the middle way that the Anglican Church navigates between Roman Catholicism and Puritanism. A certain ambivalence within the Episcopal church with regard to saints I think is reflected in our negotiation of that middle way. We don’t seem, as a rule, to adopt the passionate personal devotion to individual saints that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters stereotypically do, but we are not quite ready to ignore that blessed communion either.
Rightly so. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.”
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer, converted to catholicism in his 20’s. In the autobiography he wrote at the direction of his abbot, Merton describes a conversation between himself and poet Robert Lax that occurred when Merton first began to contemplate what his conversion meant…
I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain)
Blessed are you – the poor, hungry, weeping, hated. These are the vulnerable people, the people who know their dependence on God, who have fewer attachments to release. One theologian writes, “Vulnerability, I should warn you, is a nice sounding word that names a condition most of us would like to avoid. Vulnerability names the condition of need and dependence that is often not comfortable and that our culture regularly invites us to imagine that we can and should avoid.” (David Lose) But vulnerability is also what makes us human, what makes us need to connect, part and parcel of love.
Woe to you who are rich, consoled, satisfied, laughing, popular. In this context, according to one scholar, “‘woe’ functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word ouai does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement. (Matt Skinner). Look out: devotion to money will kill your soul. Yikes: dependence on the illusions of self-satisfaction and respectability will drive you away from communion with God. Uh oh: Allow yourself to be vulnerable to the life changing, radical love of God; to protect the poor, comfort the sorrowful, feed the hungry, love your enemy – You may find you’re a saint after all, one of the communion.
To be a saint is to be sanctified;
set apart for a sacred purpose.
That would be you.
Every breath of your life is for a sacred purpose:
to shed light, to radiate God’s love.
You don’t have to be influential,
or pious, virtuous or pure.
You have to be yourself.
The You of you is what God has made holy.
You are God’s Beloved.
All you have to do is act like it.
Everything you do today is an opportunity
to embody God’s love,
not by your effort or skill,
but by the love you embody.
The light of God is in you.
Be transparent to it.
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light). AMEN!