Friday, November 1, 2013

On November 1st, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints, when all those men and women through the ages who have led holy lives, known and unknown, are celebrated and remembered. Another term for "All Saints" is "All Hallows." The evening before was once known as All Hallows' Evening, or Hallowe'en for short. Depending on which wikipedia or internet resource you read, various popular traditions through the ages have coalesced into the evening's death-and-candy version in the American cultural tradition, aided by costume-makers, candy manufacturers, and all the other industries (perhaps even dentists?) that make this a rather lucrative time of year. But the kids aren't complaining.

In the final analysis, but without as much popularity, we might do better to focus on those on the other end of the scary spectrum. Ghosts and goblins, death and fear, witches and warlocks may stretch our virtual experience of life's mysterious dimension. But I would suggest that saints and sinners (redeemed), life and genuine faith (trust), people of charity and those of anonymous generosity stretch our real experience of life's mysterious dimension. They certainly scare me more effectively than the first set, in the sense that they shock me out of complacency and cause me to examine my own daily decision-making options and opportunities.

There are the saints who are the usual suspects when it comes to heroic, sacrificial, and  generous lives. These include St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, John Paul II and the like. Their popularity in various parts of the world makes them attractive, but most people would say that they could never be like them, and therefore they won't try. However, perhaps the more challenging folks are the people you know - and I'm sure that you do know them and could even name them if you had to - who quietly exhibit positive, generous, and even "holy" qualities that you very well know that you could do yourself, if only the decision were made and you followed through with it. The problem is not that we don't know how to recognize the saints in our midst, or the saint-like things that we could do ourselves. The problem is that we seem to have some sort of natural resistance to doing so on a regular basis. That certainly is my own experience, and the Church has traditionally described this as an aspect of "original sin" in our lives; i.e., that tendency to lean to the less good and failure to consistently pursue the more good.

What the saints - both known and unknown - teach us is that anyone of us can change the course of our lives in this respect. Virtues such as patience, humility, and kindness throw invitations at our feet on a very regular basis. Little choices turn into larger choices, piece by piece, and actions tend to follow our choices, so that eventually, like steps up a mountain or brush-strokes on a canvas, a new vista is attained or a fresh perspective is achieved. Only then may the journey be fully understood in a new light.

It seems to me that much of this has to do with the cultivation of specific habits, a disposition and equal will that gradually bend the soul towards the good, the true, and the beautiful. Saints are those who become so by growing intensity, who would be surprised (and deny it) if others identified them as such. It's simply who they are. No wonder they pray so much.