SERMON—ALL SAINTS’ 2018—Saints Despite Ourselves
We praise you, Lord, in the diversity and glory of your saints. In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever. Amen.
This past summer, a number of us were reading or re-reading a book about Dorothy Day, the American Christian pacifist and activist, and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, entitled The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. It’s a memoir about the difficult and occasionally strained relationship between Day and her daughter Tamar, written by her granddaughter, Kate. You may recall that Pope Francis, when he spoke before the U.S. Congress in 2015, compared the special greatness of Dorothy Day to that of Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. He said, and I quote: “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” The example of the saints. It’s an interesting line. There’s a recurring story about Dorothy Day that someone once asked her if she thought she was a living saint. Her irritated response: “Don’t make me irrelevant.” Mind you, she may well become a saint in the none-too-distant future; the formal procedures are already underway. But she will most certainly become one despite herself. And that, I would think, is not a bad place to start when reflecting about sanctity on this Feast of All Saints. Becoming saints despite ourselves. Becoming saints with, and through and because of, all those things that mark us as human.
When you read Dorothy Day’s life, you are struck by two things: first, her rather unorthodox lifestyle prior to her conversion, and even after (she was a great critic of Christian complacency); and second, her incredible and immense sense of trust in divine Providence. One gets an overwhelming sense that she never ceased asking God for things—everything from material goods for her various ministries, to the outright conversion of other people. She never ceased praying and asking, and praying again and asking again. And she usually got what she was asking for, though perhaps not exactly as she might have expected. Above all, her spiritual life—her life of petitioning and intercession, but also of praising God—was deeply grounded in her life of service to others. In her quest for Christian perfection, Dorothy Day never left her humanity behind, as imperfect and flawed as it might have been, and it certainly was. She, like us, will become saints despite ourselves.
The lectionary for today’s Feast of All Saints asks us to reflect on a rather unusual gospel passage, that of the raising of Lazarus. I must admit I was a bit taken aback when I was first preparing this sermon. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what the connection was between this story and the liturgical feast we are celebrating. We usually hear about Lazarus at funerals. And so I asked myself: Is there some special connection—some important link—between death, resurrection and the glory manifested in the saints? And my sense was that there is. We need to look very closely at the gospel passage to unpack what is being proclaimed here.
Is there anything more human than death? It may frighten us, and we may not want to think about it, but we know full well that it awaits us all. In this gospel passage, Jesus demonstrates his total and complete power over death, this most human of all experiences. The setting is an intensely emotional one. Jesus and Lazarus were close; he was actually close to the whole family, and he is deeply moved by what has happened to his friend. We are even told that “Jesus began to weep.” Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha are upset and flustered, almost blaming Jesus for what has happened. They appear skeptical about Jesus’ power. Jesus understands, but he also asks the one question that cuts to the chase: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” This is so much more than a question; it is, in fact, a promise. Jesus then commands Lazarus to come forth, and he does.
What is it that is being proclaimed? Is there anything more human than death?
Saints become saints in part because they believe intensely in the humanness of death, and in our ability to tame it and to give it a deeper meaning. Saints don’t limit themselves to the finality or the despair or the supposed meaninglessness of death. They look through and beyond these things. And this is what is actually being proclaimed here: that death and resurrection and glory are all of one cloth; that the promise proclaimed by Jesus still holds; that the communion of saints is an ongoing reality; and that we are one, and we will eventually be one, with all those who have gone before, confident in the expected and promised glory. We too will become saints. I don’t know about you, but I find that reassuring and ultimately quite comforting. I’m not saying that death shouldn’t unnerve us; just that it need not unravel us.
On her final day, a Saturday, Dorothy Day listened to the broadcast from the Met opera. She slept and stirred, and among her last words were these: “It takes so long to die.” Indeed, it takes a lifetime. This is far from being a platitude. This is spiritual wisdom from a very human, an occasionally somewhat difficult, but an ultimately very poised and confident saint. It takes so long to die when you have glory to look forward to, when you are promised the companionship of women and men who already bask in that splendour. Dorothy Day is not, and will most certainly never be, an irrelevant saint, despite what she may have said.
Another thing that deeply fed Dorothy Day’s spiritual life was the immense amount of reading she did—and, among her favourite books, were lives and stories of the saints. This may strike us as somewhat unusual today, a sort of quaint religious leftover from an era long gone. I remember when I was in boarding school as a youngster, we used to have a weekly period of what was then called spiritual reading. Among my favourite books were lives of the saints. I devoured them as one would adventure stories. Dorothy Day often turned to saints’ lives as ways of modelling her own spiritual life, and much of her social justice ministry was inspired by the examples of some of the great Christian men and women, whether Francis of Assisi or other founders of religious orders. She was also fond of remarking that the greatest saints were invariably joyful; she especially relished the image of the great Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila dancing and singing with the sisters in her convents. Saints were definitely not dour individuals for her.
And so, despite herself, Dorothy Day will someday become a saint: despite her somewhat checkered life; despite her often cantankerous ways; despite her conflicts with churchly prelates and civic powerholders; despite her disagreements with members of her own intimate circle; despite all that made her human and unique and, like us, ultimately loveable. Much as saints were exemplary for her, she—and actually, so many of the others that we honour on this day—can become exemplary for us.
In the introduction to a book about saints published some years back, I wrote: “Ultimately, this is what saints do. They reaffirm our common humanity, and they link us, not only with each other, but also with the ineffably Other [capital O].” On this Feast of All Saints’, as we remember those with whom we form the broader church, the communion of saints, but also those present to us here and now, those saints still walking among us, perhaps we could aim to become saints despite ourselves. Dorothy Day, but also Lazarus and Mary and Martha, would certainly want to lead the dance. Amen.