Saints in the Plural

All Saints (November 1)

Revelation 7: 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

When our two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.”

This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As all of us are.

We may find this to be a daunting proposition. Sainthood, after all, seems to suggest sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster. And maybe it conjures humorless, holier-than-thou-ness.

“Sainthood” might also remind us how small and disappointing our own lives can seem. We know ourselves: our worst impulses, choices we regret, hurts we have inflicted. We know how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of Jesus.

We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints?

When Jesus speaks these familiar words in St. Matthew’s gospel, he gives his first hearers and us something of a litany of sainthood:

Poverty of spirit.
Mourning.
Meekness.
A hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Mercy.
Cleanness of Heart.
Peacemaking.
Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

These are the states of being, conditions of life, qualities of character that Jesus says are blessed by God. And blessedness here, the New Testament scholars tell us, means something like “happiness.” But this word, too, gives us pause: Happy are the poor in spirit? Really?

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, defining happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is ultimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy.

At the beginning of the Bible we learn that the happiness we were created for is friendship with one another and with God. At its end, as the All Saints text from Revelation says, we glimpse the cosmic communion that characterizes ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—that all creation is destined for:

“A great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . “

This is the happiness we were made for: as Catholics might say, to contemplate the beauty of God, or, as Calvinists put it, to enjoy God forever. St. John’s vision isn’t one of leaving anyone behind; it is the eternal adoration of God in the communion of the saints of creation.

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or make or merit, the Christian tradition insists that a life of genuine happiness comes to us through grace and as gift.

Scripture also makes clear, from beginning to end, that the happiness we were made for is deeply social, ineluctably political. “Political” in the sense of how human beings are constituted by, in, and for community and how we might flourish in it: how it is we are good together.

Thus the Beatitudes are not a list of ethical mandates for the individual believer or a prescription for self-actualization. What Jesus blesses are not moral states he insists his followers achieve—be meek! be merciful!—but the necessary conditions of shared life for flourishing together in the goodness of God.

So, for instance, when Jesus says, “happy are those who mourn,” we know that he is not enjoining chin-up cheerfulness in the face of blinding sorrow. Rather, we have it on Jesus’ authority here that “in deep sadness human beings are in God’s hands more than at any other time” (Dale Bruner).

But there is another kind of mourner: the one who weeps with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). And here we might see Jesus as the one who makes known what blessed mourning looks like.

At Bethany, Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus and, through his own tears, transformed the grief of his friends and the suspicion of his skeptics.

In our lives, we have the privilege of making a gift of our own tears as we attend to those who grieve—the wounded, the weary, the broken, the brokenhearted.

But in truth we find this to be a very difficult thing. Tears are profoundly intimate. They reveal our human frailty like almost nothing else. The grieving often suffer alone because they do not know how to receive the tears of another; their own can be bewildering enough.

And those who might offer comfort to the grieving by weeping with them are also often embarrassed by tears—their own and the tears of others—and at a loss with how to be so exposed and unguarded; how to simply be with another through unstoppable tears.

But “God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] to make of ourselves a gift of unbounded love” (Pope Benedict XVI).

If genuine happiness is learning to be like God in goodness, then those who mourn and those who weep with them know something of the vulnerable heart of God.

On the feast of All Saints we are reminded, happily, that we do not go it alone on this journey of living into the blessedness we have been called to, created for. The New Testament never uses the word “saint” in the singular. There are only saints in the plural.

In trying to live into the vocation of sainthood we have the witness of other saints, persons whose lives are not, in fact, beyond our reach. As Dorothy Day once said: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

We pray to the saints—or, rather, we ask the saints to pray for us—not because they were perfect but because they weren’t—because they, like us, lived messy, complicated lives. They had regrets. They inflicted hurts. They struggled with pettiness, pride, a shaky faith.

We have the witness of such saints, past and present, the well-known and the hardly-heard-of, in whom we see the goodness of God.

And we have each other.

With them, we are, all of us together, saints in the plural.

One Response to “Saints in the Plural”

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  1. Susan Adams says:

    Well done, Deborah! And what a joy it is to share the road with sister saints like you!

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