Today’s feast tells us to lift up our hearts and, with the pilgrim Church throughout the world, to open our eyes to what awaits us, to what the Lord has prepared for us. Through the prism of so many saints, known and unknown, we glimpse the heavenly Jerusalem, the “great array of our brothers and sisters” (Preface of the Mass) who are lost in wonder, love and praise and are at peace. St Paul talks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe” (Eph 1:18-19). That is the grace of this feast.
And don’t we need this? Isn’t it timely? When there’s so much that can pull us down and lower our gaze, we are shown the company of saints – Saints Unlimited – at the very moment our hemisphere rolls us into winter; when, worse, things seem out of kilter in our country and the world; when we’re presented again and again with such a low vision of what human beings are; when we’re reduced to consumers of entertainment or addicts of excitement or hapless victims of systems.
Here, thanks be to God, is something else. Here is a counterweight, something to lift us up and restore our agency and affirm our freedom. When we turn to the saints, we are expanded rather than contracted. I know this feast embraces all saints, known and unknown, canonised or not, but it may be worth just naming some – only some! – of the saints who have been canonised during our lifetimes. Here are some from the time of Pope John XXIII onwards: Martin de Porres, Charles Lwanga and the Ugandan martyrs, the Korean martyrs, the Vietnamese martyrs, the 40 martyrs of England and Wales, St John Ogilvie, Charbel Makhluf, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Maximilian Kolbe, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Faustina Kowalska, Josephine Bakhita, Padre Pio, Josemaria Escriva, Gianna Molla, Damian de Veuster, Jeanne Jugan, Mary MacKillop, Kateri Tekakwitha, Titus Brandsma, John Henry Newman, Elizabeth Hesselblad, Teresa of Calcutta, Charles de Foucauld, and the recent Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. What a sweep of personalities and situations, of times and places! During his pontificate, St John XXIII canonised 10 saints, St Paul VI 84, St John Paul II 482, Pope Benedict XVI 45, and Pope Francis hitherto 911. This is not to mention those as yet only beatified. These are perhaps akin to the 144,000 John the seer sees in the 1st reading. But we know that beyond them, as for him, so for us, stands the “great crowd, impossible to count”. Those we can know and name are simply a fraction of a fraction. Beyond them is the multitude of holy people known only to God or a few close neighbours, the “saints next door” as Pope Francis calls them, people in whom the beatitudes have been unobtrusively verified – not necessarily Christians even. Or what of children who have had their lives taken in the womb? How does the “lavish” love of God St John speaks of play out in their eternal lives? And in the lives of those losing their lives now simply for being Christian?
Noah’s Ark is regarded in Christian tradition as a figure or symbol of the Church, and Noah’s Ark is described as a triple-decker; it had three levels. And so does the Church: the Church on earth, the Church militant; the Church being purified, the Church suffering; the Church in heaven, the Church triumphant. And these three are one, “all one in Christ”. And we are part of this tri-unity. Another Old Testament model of the Church is Solomon’s Temple; it had three sections: a porch, a sanctuary and the holy of holies. And so, the one Church of heaven and earth embraces those on their way towards it, in the porch as it were; believers in the sanctuary, and those finally made holy by their vision of the thrice-holy God. To us, in the west and the north, the Church seems to be diminishing. We are forever counting, and saying oh, look what Covid or secularisation or scandals have done. But, says this feast, lift up your hearts, raise your eyes. Think differently. The Church grows every day; there is a constant traffic of people moulded by the beatitudes entering into the promises of Christ. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We must think of what St Augustine calls the “whole redeemed city”, of the many-levelled, many-petalled celestial rose Dante sees at the end of the Divine Comedy, the great assembly of the Apocalypse of John. We are far, very far, from alone.
But all that is perhaps a little too mathematical. There’s more meaning here. For all our tendency to spiral downwards, to sabotage ourselves, to be unworthy of our vocation, there is another force at play. There is a presence, a density, a thermodynamic, of holiness and goodness in creation. There is a blazing fire of accomplished love at the heart of things. A victory. St Paul talks of “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). Every saint is part of the mesh of the great net of the Holy Spirit which is silently, submarine-ly, at work in history, drawing us, if we yield to it, to the shore of eternity. The Lamb on the Throne, the Mother of God and the choirs of angels, the innumerable beatitudinal people who are heaven: they are not passive, they are not idle spectators. To paraphrase the Letter to the Hebrews, they are a cheering crowd, on their feet, while we run the race they have already run and won (cf. Heb 12:1). They “expect” us, says St Bernard. They look out for us. They long for us, and their longing is a power. It has traction. This is what “intercession” means. Surely, each of us has his or her own favourite saints who are close to us and inspire us; they are God’s bait in our lives, drawing us into his holiness. We should “learn” the saints and read their lives.
Blessed, then, are the poor in spirit! Blessed the poor old battered believers! Surely, says St John, everyone who entertains this great hope “must purify himself, must try to be as pure as Christ”. It isn’t worth being anything other than a saint.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1 November 2022