Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Saints and Souls

It was that time of the year again: November 1 and November 2. In my religious tradition, those are All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively. All Saints Day remains a "Holy Day of Obligation" -- meaning it's so important to hear the Scriptural texts appointed for the day, that we're obliged to go to Mass.

How sad that hearing the Good News has come to be seen as a burden!

This year, 01NOV fell on a Sunday, so people were supposed to show up, anyway. The little chapel building here at Camp was almost standing-room-only. (Rather than being seen as some resurgence of religious fervor or observance, it must be remembered that there are approximately twice as many Soldiers here as is usually the case....)

My predecessor on Post graciously allowed me to preside at the liturgy, and I believe we prayed some good prayer. All Saints Day reminds us of the Community and communion of believers who've managed to live lives of selfless service and grace, no matter the odds against such living.

As friends of mine who go to a lot of AA and Al-Anon meetings say, "if it can work for them, it can work for me, too!"

All Saints Day is great.

But then we come to All Souls Day.

Over the years I've come to understand this feast less and less, to be quite honest. The best I can manage these days is that All Saints Day is about people I've never met, and All Souls Day is about Aunt Minnie and Uncle Zeke, whose foibles were all too evident to everyone who knew them.

So the best we can hope for them is that perhaps, maybe, somehow, God wasn't quite paying attention to them, and they managed to slip into Purgatory for eternity minus a nanosecond.

Saints are then people I've never met, and Souls are the people I know all too well.

"We certainly have never met a Saint, right?" I asked those present. I continued, "We certainly could never see one looking back at us in the mirror! Right?"

Everyone nodded. Of course.


I'm often reminded of Fr. B, as he's been known to a couple of generations of college students in the midwest, and I especially remember him fondly around this time of the year. Fr. B entered the Jesuit novitiate the year after I did, but he was already a priest, and had been ordained for a number of years before becoming a Jesuit. (It took me 13 years to get ordained -- just another indication that I'm a slow learner.)

Fr. B (I'll call him "Al," I think) always addresses students -- and adults -- as "Saint." I've met even non-Catholic students from that school, years after they've graduated, who'll ask me about Fr. B, and whether he's still calling people "Saint." I always answer in the affirmative, and they inevitably smile.

Because he's such a Mensch, so genuine a human being, Al is able to speak to the heart of his listeners with authority and authenticity. He's been through the wringer, as he'll share if asked, and that enables him to recognize the depth and breadth of God's love for him, just as he is.

He then communicates that to those whom he meets.

In his down-to-earth and unvarnished manner, Al reminds people that we're sinners, sure, but loved by God in-the-midst-of that sinfulness, and not just tolerated (at best) in-spite-of it. "Saint," he says, "you are a gift from God, and a gift to God."

I suspect that Fr. B really has taken to heart the second reading appointed to be read this year on All Souls Day, from the 5th chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans:

Brothers and sisters:
Hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person
one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
How much more then, since we are now justified by his Blood,
will we be saved through him from the wrath.
Indeed, if, while we were enemies,
we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,
how much more, once reconciled,
will we be saved by his life.
Not only that,
but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have now received reconciliation. (NAB: Rom 5:5-11)

Did you catch the line that says, "While we were still sinners Christ died for us?" I suspect Paul was referring to people who probably weren't (aren't!) at their best -- people just like us. And he goes on to write: "How much more then... will we be saved from the wrath." He continues a bit later, "...we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."

I believe Paul is referring to Aunt Minnie and Uncle Zeke here. Yes, even them!

There's no waffling in what he writes; there's no indecisiveness. It's also completely unconditional. He doesn't say, "while we were still sinners, BUT AFTER WE'D CLEANED UP OUR ACT AND GOTTEN 'GOOD', Christ died for us." Nor does he go on to say, "How much more then... MIGHT WE, PERHAPS, MAYBE, IF GOD IS LOOKING THE OTHER WAY AND/OR HAVING A SMALL CEREBROVASCULAR ACCIDENT AT THE TIME, be saved from the wrath."

Paul is very clear: "we have NOW received reconciliation." Not at some future, indeterminate time, under such-and-such terms, but NOW. It's not up for grabs, it's not some other time, not some other place, not some other person. It's right now. It is WE who have received reconciliation.

I could go on and on. (I know. I'm often accused of needing a 12-Step Program called On-And-On-And-On-Anon.) But I hope you get the picture. I'm quite certain Al does.

Al recognizes that when Paul writes, "But God proves God's love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," he's writing about Aunt Minnie and Uncle Zeke -- and also about you and me. Fr. B has been trying for years to cajole any who hear him into recognizing the truth of this passage in our own lives.

I suspect that's why we need All Souls Day, in retrospect. It seems pretty easy to imagine that Saints are always someone else, somewhere else, some other time. All Saints Day is great because it reminds us that we can benefit from the experience, strength, and hope of those who have gone before us. There is hope that humans can in fact live that way.

But All Souls Day, if we pay attention and really hear the readings as they're proclaimed (either at Mass or by the likes of Fr. B whenever we cross their paths), we can see that Saints are truly in our midst, and even staring back at us from the mirror.

Blessings and peace to you, Saints,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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Unknown said...

Thank you, Tim. That is my understanding of God's Love for us, too. Though it took me a long time and a lot of help from those folks who go to a lot of 12 Step meetings to get it through my fear filled mind, that God loves all of us right here, right now, just as we are. That's how those lost & hope-less drunken addicts can be healed and smile and laugh - a lot! I'm sure glad a guy named Bill met a little Jesuit name Fr. Ed!!!

Katie A. said...

Thank you Fr. Tim. That was an awesome way to see the scripture that week - you truly are a Saint yourself. Be safe!

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