The Feast of all Saints
By Joseph McSorley, C.S.P.
When a genius works, every stroke tells. Each line upon the canvas, each blow upon the marble, each touch of string or key, is made with a definite purpose and helps to produce the desired result. No false note or wasted word mars the achievement of great singers and great orators. When a master teaches, no lesson is meaningless, no argument or illustration fails. And so, in the activity of God’s representative, the Church, nothing is said or done in vain. Incessantly active, working in the four quarters of the globe, solicitous and busy in every century of the twenty she has lived through – yes, and in every year and month and day of them – in little things as in great, she promotes human sanctification by every doctrine she teaches, by every commandment she promulgates, by every divine truth, by every human fact she sets so insistently before the upturned eyes of the world for sentiment and imagination and memory to seize upon.
In the education of the human race, this great world teacher makes large use of the saints. Others as well as she, recognize, or revere, or perhaps even invoke them, but her attitude, her practice is distinctive; it is hers alone. That attitude receives censure frequently enough; false teachers have created a prejudice against the very name of “saint.” But when the doctrine of the Church has been properly explained, it seldom remains unattractive. The spirit that was prepared to scoff is led to pray; for unspoiled souls almost inevitably recognize in the Church’s teaching a solace, a beauty, a dignity, an inspiration, such as can be possessed only by the true things of God. Catholic doctrine and Catholic practice with regard to the saints – one of the first huge stumbling-blocks encountered by the proselyte-eventually are fund to have a divine power to life the soul up into the high world of heroic holiness and fasten it with cords of kinship to the most noble and beautiful sprits that have ever appeared on this globe of ours.
That is the first function the Church performs with regard to the saints – she keeps them in men’s minds. Were it not for her loving care, we should no longer have green memories of those wonderful beings who pioneered the progress and captained the battles and freed the peoples of the moral world; those shining personifications of every manly and womanly virtue; those spirits, so daring and so modest, who have flung fortune and life recklessly away in the service of God and man; those hardy warriors, those wise counsellors, those patient craftsmen, who won their way to success and glory though the same struggles and problems and labors that harass us. Oh, God be praised, that the remembrance of them lives; that we know them by name and by character; that we may call them ours and may feel that they look upon us as theirs. It is as if a strong hand were reached out to rescue us from mortal peril, when the memory of the saints comes to mind making us realize, in the hardest of our duties and our trials, that we are asked to do nothing and to bear nothing but what has been done and borne before – done and borne perfectly, divinely, by men and women not very much unlike ourselves.
This office then, the Church performs well. She keeps the saints in mind; she will not let them be forgotten by her children. Rightly or wrongly, Catholics may be accused of giving exaggerated honor to the saints; but neither rightly or wrongly, shall we ever be accused of forgetting them. The Church sees to it that we cannot forget them; nor their names, or days, or virtues, or manner of life, or mode of death. Who has cared, but her, to keep the memory of these things in the minds of men? Who else could have succeeded?
Sometimes, dear brethren, thinking of the difference between age and age, or between country and country, we contrast, perhaps, the thirteenth century and the twentieth, or Constantinople and New York, and we consider how very difficult it is for the men of the twentieth century to have a vivid mental picture of the thirteenth, or for an American to realize the exact details of life in the Orient. Yet, there is something much harder than this, namely, for men and women living in this visible, material world to realize vividly the facts and processes of the unseen life of the spirit. God, sin, heaven, hell, the supremacy of conscience, the value of the Cross, the approach of judgment – who is constantly aware of these things amid the cares and labors and interests of common daily life? We come in contact with material objects at every turn; we desire them; we strive for them; we suffer, if we gain them not? We breathe a material atmosphere. We brush elbows with people who say this world is all and man had better make the most of it. We are distressed by the sight of a thousand gay-hearted sinners who, while indulging themselves, laugh mockingly at our vain efforts to resist temptation. At times the whole human race seems to have consecrated itself to the pursuit of pleasure and to have rejected the things of God; or at least it is only the weak, the unsuccessful, the unhappy who share our views and who let opportunities of sensual enjoyment slip by, for the sake of the spiritual return which to all appearance may never come.
What joy now, if before our eyes there appear the figures of a countless host, who have fund life in death, who have gained a better world by relinquishing this lower, who have walked for a day in the ways of sorrow and have entered then upon the paths of endless peace and joy! That multitudes have thus tested the worth of sacrifice and demonstrated the truth of Christ’s promises, is a fact that cannot be forgotten while the Church retains the power to lift up her voice and to proclaim the glories of her saints. That the same road they followed still opens to us invitingly, that to us is extended the same divine guarantee of success, that they who have already attained are no strange beings of superior race, but elder brothers and sisters of our own, coming back now, to guide and assist us – this is the burden of the Church’s teaching to-day; this is the encouragement and support received by each child of the Church who listens to the lesson she has set for his instruction this morning.
Even more pointed, more personal than this is the lesson for some. Small encouragement comes to ordinary men from the achievements of a genius. If I am a cripple born, and athlete helps me not, with his feats of strength. The ponderous learning of the scholar may awaken the wonder of ignorant men; it will hardly inspire their emulation. One needs to be shown what has been done by those whose equipment was the same as one’s own. That I may rise from this low level where now I lie, unhappy and despairing; that I may set out boldly for the heights seemingly people by another race than men; that there may be born in my soul faith in the power of God to do great and holy things even with weaklings and defectives like me – I need to have pointed out, not the spiritual genius and the moral hero begotten upon the mountain tops and strengthened with pure from the very moment of birth, but rather the slow climbing son of the valley who toilsomely, timidly, with frequent missteps and many a fall, has crept up from crag to crag, until at last, perhaps, at the very moment of death, the height of perfection has been attained, the misshapen character transformed, and heaven’s light with radiant halo encircles the face that once with the face of sinner groveling in the filth of cesspools.
Some may be fired with enthusiasm only when men appear as angels, set beyond the reach of temptation and capable of superhuman deeds. But many of us would never have been awakened from despair, were it not for the splendid vision of the penitent saints. Treachery, ingratitude, violated trust and broken pledges, crimes of passion and of blood, brutal selfishness and incredible blasphemy – to each pardoned son, we cry: “O Felix Culpa!” A saint has risen from the lowest of the depths into which I have fallen. There is no stain upon my soul that was not once upon his, or hers. This quaking heart, these stumbling feet, these dim eyes, this palsied hand, this momentary hopelessness of pardon – the Church tells me that a saint was no stranger to these, and bids me not despair. O Blessed Penitent Saints of God, David and Paul, Magdalen and Augustine? pray for me as I rise to my feet; hold and steady me as painfully I begin to walk in unaccustomed ways of holiness.
Wider even than the reach of grievous sin is the reach of suffering. Who gets to his grave without a scar? It is not easy to kiss the chastening rod, o accept pain submissively, to go forward bravely to meet when it bars the path of duty. The temptation to run away from suffering that can be avoided only at the cost of sin, or to rebel furiously against the pain that falls upon us while we are unselfishly doing our duty, is a severe testing of the soul – but it is a testing which nearly all must undergo. Yet there is no phase of endurance, no kind or degree of suffering, that has not been nobly illustrated by the conduct of the saints. To those even who seemed to be without sin, to those who were closest in likeness to His son, God permitted the cruel visitation to come. In our darkest hour, in our bitterest pain, the Church reminds us of this – reminds us, too, that, in the event, the suffering was a means of happiness and that, looking back, each saint finally saw – as we shall see, if we are faithful – how truly divine love enacted the law that laid pain upon the human heart.
Let them hang before our eyes and be framed in our memories, those saints of God who teach us these divine lessons. Upon our lips be their names right frequently. As patrons of our children and our houses, of our churches and institutions, of our cities and our states, let them be kept in perpetual remembrance. It was a great blessing foregone, a strong light darkened, when Christian Europe in so many places let their shrines be destroyed, their images profaned, their memories given over to oblivion. But in large measure they are coming into their own again – to be a mighty influence for good in the individual life of the Christian, to be another proof to the world of the wisdom of that Church who learned the secrets of pedagogy not from scientific analysis and modern experiments, but from the whispered instructions of Her Divine Master, when He sent her forth to teach in His name and by His methods all the nations of the world.