Friday, October 31, 2014

Rejoice for All the Saints

Rejoice for all the saints today;
Who ran by faith the narrow way:
The great and low together stand
With glory crowned at God’s right hand.
How blest are those who wrought the peace;
As heirs they share the Victor’s feast;
And prophets by injustice slain
Have claimed the Kingdom’s righteous reign.

Come, ye martyrs red and virgins white,
With teachers wise and students bright,
All wives and husbands, monks and nuns,
With bishops, priests, and deacons, come.

Come, holy men and women all;
With heart and voice sing praise and call
To Christ who rose triumphantly
That we may join your company.
—Harry Hagan, O.S.B.,
At my grandparents’ house, many years ago, I discovered a book that changed my life: a St. Joseph’s Daily Missal. That prayer book, which had belonged to my grandmother or perhaps my aunt or uncle was from the 1950s and was the resource for lay Catholics wishing to take part in the pre-Vatican II liturgy. While there wasn’t anything special about that particular book, which fell to pieces long ago, I discovered a new world in its pages, and it was a world populated by Saints from all times and places. I read about early Christian martyrs, monarchs and peasants, monks and bishops, nuns and holy women who had consecrated their lives to Christ, and even those who had personally known Jesus. I learned prayers written in their honor. Something within me was awakened and I set out on a journey of discovery and faith that, despite many twists and turns, I’m thankfully still on today. 

And, each year, as Halloween and the Solemnity of All Saints (November 1) approaches, I find myself in a very different space than most others around me. I think some of that difference reflects what is probably the simplest, most child-like facet of my piety—my devotion to the saints—but it’s also because All Saints Day has always seemed like such an obvious celebration to me.  

Now, those who are much better trained in liturgy and hagiography than I am might remind me that All Saints Day is an ancient celebration that was originally intended to honor the early martyrs and, as a celebration of the martyrs, it is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery—the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. They might continue by explaining to me that it was because of Christ’s victory over sin and death that the martyrs had reason to hope and found the faith and courage to face death, knowing that death was not the end, but only the beginning. And, of course, those liturgists and hagiographers would be right. But when I think about All Saints Day, knowing its history and theology, I still feel like there is a simpler, equally true significance to this feast: this is the day when each of us as Church can take a moment and reflect and look at one another and say, “Yes; this is right because this is who we are.”

We get a hint of this “rightness” in the First Letter of John: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes themselves pure, as he is pure” (3:1, 3). All Saints Day is the day for us to celebrate those members of the Church—women and men who were not all that different from each of us—who have persevered and who tried, sometimes with imperfect success, to live in and for God.

One of the reasons that I find the saints so inspiring and captivating is because each is a unique person, with an individual personality, way of engaging God and the world, and as much a mixed bag of grace and sin, strength and weakness as I am. Some doubted and questioned (think of Saint Joan of Arc or Blessed Thomas Tsuji) or were very much products of their time (Saint John of Capistrano and Pope Saint Pius X are good examples). Others experienced profound conversions (such as Saint Camillus de Lellis and Saint Margaret of Cortona) or even lived more than one vocation (like Saint Elizabeth Seton, a wife and mother who later founded the Sisters of Charity). In the end, however, they found a special union with God by keeping their attention fixed on greater truths than those offered by the world and by choosing to say “Yes.” They risked change; they became holy. I imagine that this is one of the reasons why the Gospel proclaimed each year on All Saints Day is the Beatitudes: the Church is reminding us that authentic holiness must be lived out in ways that touch the very core of who we are. This is how the saints changed the world in ways from which we still benefit today.

Having said all of that, I have to admit that I feel a bit sad for those who like to keep the saints safely on their marble pedestals, at arms length. We need to hear their stories because they tell us exactly what it means to live a life of discipleship and how beautiful that life can be. But they also remind us that discipleship has a cost—even the most cursory reading of the lives of the early saints and more recent martyrs shows us that the Christian life places burdens upon us and that sometimes faith can demand everything of us. As Pope Benedict XVI observed, "This, then, is the meaning of today's Solemnity: looking at the shining example of the Saints to reawaken within us the great longing to be like them; happy to live near God, in his light, in the great family of God's friends. Being a Saint means living close to God, to live in his family" (Homily for All Saints Day, 2006). 

This is where we can begin to unlock the “secret” of the saints.  The saints weren’t simply those who “lived” their faith in their heads as a sort of sacred intellectual exercise, with God as a problem to be solved and Christianity as just one philosophical perspective among others. Saints are Christians who do something with their faith, who put their faith into practice in dynamic ways that change the world around them. And these changes weren’t always the grand sorts of signs and wonders that we like our saints to perform. Usually, their dynamic faith was lived out in the most mundane aspects of life, moment to moment, day to day.

Think about it. Even if we take all the stories that we know of the most beloved saints, like Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, we quickly realize that those tales give us only the faintest hint of what their daily lives were like. And just as our lives can never really be summed up in a single moment or experience, their lives were a succession of moments in which they chose, again and again, to try to want more, to try to be more, and to try keep their attention focused on a way of living and loving that was bigger than they could ever hope to become.

All Saints Day asks something of each of us. As we offer a prayer of thanks for our spiritual ancestors (including those whose names and stories are lost to history, but who are still held precious and loved by God), we are being invited to remember that we are also called to do something with our faith in dynamic ways and to find comfort in the presence and prayers of so many gifted, faulted, and graced individuals who found the faith and strength to really live the Faith they professed.

A prayer for All Saints Day +
Almighty ever-living God,
by whose gift we venerate in one celebration
the merits of all the Saints,
bestow on us, we pray,
through the prayers of so many intercessors,
an abundance of the reconciliation with you
for which we earnestly long.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Saints Simon and Jude: Those Who Have Been Sent

Christ left his peace to his disciples and, through them, to the Church. This peace is to live according to what is good.
                                                                                                Saint John Damascene

The Apostles Simon and Jude Thaddeus have been honored with a common feast since before the time of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a list of saints attributed to Saint Jerome that was composed in 6th century Gaul (modern-day France).
Simon, a native of Cana, who is most commonly known as “the Zealot,” is said to have preached the Gospel in Egypt. Aside from his being included in the lists of the apostles found in the New Testament, nothing more is known of his life.
Saints Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon
from "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
Jude, the celebrated patron of “impossible cases,” is credited with having written the New Testament letter that bears his name. Sitting near the Lord at the Last Supper, he asked Jesus why he manifested himself only to the disciples, and not to the whole world. Jude’s question prompted Jesus to offer a reply that is as mysterious as it is profound: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:22-23). Saint Jude is also celebrated for having preached the Gospel in Egypt and Mauritania. According to tradition, he was martyred in Persia with Saint Simon, who is said to have joined him in his labors. The supposed relics of these two Apostles are enshrined in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Because we do not know many details of the lives of Simon and Jude, we are left to reflect simply on what it means to be an apostle, sent by Christ into the world, just as Christ himself was sent by the Father: “Accordingly, in affirming that they are sent by him just as he was sent by the Father, Christ sums up in a few words the approach they themselves should take to their ministry. From what he said, they would gather that it was their vocation to call sinners to repentance, to heal those who were sick in body and spirit, to seek in all their dealings never to do their own will but the will of Him who sent them, and, as far as possible, to save the world by their teaching” (Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 12, 1). The same mission of teaching, healing, and reconciling has been entrusted to each of us.

Prayer for the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude +
O God, who by the blessed Apostles
have brought us to acknowledge your name,
graciously grant,
through the intercession of Saints Simon and Jude,
that the Church may constantly grow
by increase of the peoples who believe in you.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

-This reflection has ben adapted from my book, From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Feast of Obscure Saints

 Among the holy women and men honored today in the Roman Martyrology are Saints Chrysanthus and Daria. Hardly known outside of Italy and virtually forgotten since their commemoration was removed from the Universal Calendar following the reforms of Vatican II, I came across these married martyrs a few years ago when I read a brief piece about the authentication of their relics in National Geographic, of all places. [To see a brief video on the study of the relics by National Geographic, click here.]

Intrigued by what I read, I set about doing some research and prayerful reflecting and the result was this article which was published in both Lay Witness Magazine and Pastoral Review.

May these two saints, whose love story includes each of us, continue to inspire us to live out our faith in heroic ways.

A prayer in honor of Saints Chrysanthus and Daria +
Almighty ever-living God, who gave Saints Chrysanthus and Daria the grace of suffering for Christ, come, in your divine mercy, we pray, to the help of our own weakness, that, as your Saints did not hesitate to die for your sake, we, too, may live bravely in confessing you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saint Luke, Patron of Artists

On this Feast of Saint Luke, we pause to reflect on the special vocation of the Evangelists to hand on the Good News of Jesus Christ. But, today's Feast, honoring the patron of artists, also reminds us of the essential place that literature, the visual arts, and music have always had in the spread of the Gospel in all times and places.

Saint John Paul II highlighted this in his Letter to Artists, which was issued in preparation for the Great Jubilee, on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999:

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

A contemporary icon of St. Luke
showing scenes from his life.
The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.

The Church also needs musicians. How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.

The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities, a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme can still inspire architectural design in our own day. Not infrequently these architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer and true works of art.

You can read Pope Paul VI's 1965 Message to Artists (issued at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council), here.

A Prayer of Thanks for Artists and Writers +
Eternal God, light of the world and Creator of all that is good and lovely: We bless your name for inspiring all those who with images and words have filled us with desire and love for you; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Saint Margaret Mary and Learning About Love

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.
—Ephesians 1:2-3

On December 27, 1673, a nun of the Visitation Monastery in Paray-le-Monial, France, was gifted with an experience of the Divine that left an indelible mark on spirituality. Years later, remembering that vision, she wrote: “The Lord said to me, ‘My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with humanity that it can no longer contain within itself the flames of its ardent love. It must pour them out through [you], and manifest itself to them with its precious treasures, which contain all the graces which they need to be saved.” This Divine Love is what devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is all about and it was to this truth that Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque committed her life.  

Born in Janots, France, twenty-six years before that first vision, Margaret Alacoque was the daughter of a notary who died when she was only nine years old. (She added the name Mary to her baptismal name at the time of her confirmation.) Sources say that she was mistreated by the family of the uncle who took her in. At this time she was also afflicted with a rheumatic illness which left her bed-ridden for nearly six years. Once she recovered, it was suggested that she marry, but she ultimately decided to enter religious life. In 1671, she entered the Order of the Visitation, which had been founded by Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane de Chantal only sixty years before. 

Although she was known to have been spiritually mature, religious life was difficult for her, and one biography says that “she was slow and clumsy, and perhaps rather absent-minded; she annoyed the infirmarian when working as her assistant and was treated with scorn and ridicule as a result.” As she received the series of visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she understood that she was being called to spread the message that had been entrusted to her: that Christians should make reparations for their coldness, despite the love that the Lord showed them and that special honor should be given to Jesus through times of prayer each Thursday and on the first Friday ofevery month. She was met with strong opposition when she began to carry out the instructions she had received. Although her revelations were condemned as delusions by the first theologians to evaluate them, she eventually found support from her spiritual director, the Jesuit priest Saint Claude la Columbiere. Her experience of rejection and scrutiny were further complicated by temptations to despair, vanity, and even self-indulgence. 

Eventually, Margaret Mary was vindicated and entrusted with more responsibility within her community, including being named assistant to the community’s superior and novice-mistress. The writings of Saint Claude, Saint John Eudes, and the work of the Jesuits, as well as the introduction of the Feast of the Sacred Heart helped to bring Saint Margaret Mary’s mission to completion. During her second term as assistant superior, she was taken ill. Just before her death on October 17, 1690, at the age of forty-three, her last words were, “I need nothing but God and to lose myself in the Heart of Jesus.” She died as she was being anointed.  

Had it not been for her visions, there is little in the life of Saint Margaret Mary that would have set her apart from the other members of her community. And while we may celebrate her for her visions and work of promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus—giving new life and dimension to a devotion that had already existed for nearly 600 years—the secret of her holiness can be found in her humble and enduring faith. In fact, it was her extraordinary courage and fidelity that  enabled her to stand firm in her conviction that a special mission had been entrusted to her, even when those closest to her refused to believe in her or her visions.

As with the other saints, Margaret Mary was conscious of the gift that she had received—the gift of God’s love and the spirit of adoption, the same gifts celebrated in the above passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. And, like the other saints, she received this gift with a spirit of gratitude that empowered her to pass it along to others, down to our own time. 

We live a world in which too many need to hear that they are loved. More than that, though, they need to be shown love. In this love-hungry world, Saint Margaret Mary reminds us of the power of faith and love to effect change far beyond what we might believe is possible.

A Prayer in Honor of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque +
Pour out on us, we pray, O Lord,
the spirit with which you so remarkably endowed
Saint Margaret Mary,
so that we may come to know
that love of Christ which surpasses all understanding
and be utterly filled with your fullness.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(taken from The Roman Missal)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Praying the Rosary on Our Lady's Feast

The Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary has, for me, always felt like a non-feast. And, in many ways, it is, because it celebrates a movement of prayer and tradition that is fundamental to our Faith--Mary as a woman of prayer. But, this day in early October is also set aside to honor the Holy Roman Empire's victory at the Battle of Lepanto, during which the Christian forces defeated the invading Turkish forces. Although this isn't the only day on the Church's liturgical calendar that has this sort of provenance (i.e. the Commemoration of the Most Holy Name of Mary), it is an important part of the day's character, highlighting Mary's role as an intercessor for the Church.

This evening, in honor of today's celebration, I set aside time to pray the rosary, as well as the Liturgy of the Hours. Although I'm usually quick to admit that the rosary is not one of my preferred forms of prayer (it has always been more of a discipline), I wanted to be sure that the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary didn't go by without my offering this ancient and revered prayer.

I learned to pray the rosary from my paternal Grandmother, who passed away in 2007. For a large part of my childhood, I spent nearly every weekend with my grandparents. Often, my grandmother would take me to Saturday morning Mass in our home parish and, immediately after Mass, as they did each day, a group of parishioners would recite the rosary. Intrigued as I was by the string of beads with its central medal and crucifix and the mix of prayers, I would ask to stay. Unlike so many others, my introduction to the rosary (and devotion to Mary, for that matter) took place within a context that felt very organic and those who made this daily devotion such an obvious part of their day showed me that this ancient prayer is something that could be loved and even counted upon for comfort and encouragement. Later, once I had learned the prayers, my grandmother and I would sometimes pray the rosary together in the afternoon.

My Grandfather Henderson's First Communion Rosary (ca. 1922)
and my copy of Christian Prayer
Through the years I have had a lack-luster track record of rosary recitation, but it remains a devotion that is dear to my heart. I'm grateful for those generations of pray-ers who helped this devotion evolve to the form we have today and to those faithful women and men, nearly all of whom have passed away, who showed me how beautiful this devotion can be.

And so, this evening I prayed the rosary on a set of beads that belonged to my paternal grandfather, offering thanks for the gift of faith that my Grandma and Grandpa Henderson had handed on to me. I also prayed for all those taking part in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

Although I try to make these posts as thoughtful and reflective as possible, highlighting points of Scripture and liturgical tradition, this evening I just want to share my prayer of thanks for the wonderful traditions of prayer with which we have been entrusted. I also want to urge you, whomever and wherever you are, to take some time during the month of October to pray the rosary. Finally, I want to ask that you please pray for me and for all those who have helped nurture the light of faith that is glowing within you.

Holy Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!