In the Hand of God
It is All Saints Day, so let’s reflect together upon the saints, upon sainthood, for those officially recognized as saints, those who could or should be, those humble folks we’ve known who never will be thus recognized, and let’s even reflect upon ourselves!
Let’s start with Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who are thought to have been martyred in the year 203 in the city of Carthage in North Africa. Perpetua was 22 years old, a noblewoman, and the mother of a little baby. Felicity was a slave, and she gave birth to a daughter just before being killed. The two women, plus at least three other men, were murdered for their faith as part of the fun at the games in the Carthage stadium that celebrated the birthday of the local representative of Rome, a man named Geta. Perpetua and Felicity were beheaded (a quick death and a kindness permitted to the ladies). The men were mauled to death before the crowd by animals. Perpetua, who because of her family’s wealth could read and write, is attributed with leaving a journal of those times. Her mother was a Christian; her father was a pagan. She wrote, “When my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, I said to him, ‘Do you see this vessel – water pot, or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name that what I am – a Christian.’” Her beloved father was heartbroken over her decision, and she told him, “It shall happen as God shall choose, for assuredly we depend not on our own power but on the power of God.”
Not all the saints in the Christian pantheon were those who were persecuted or died for their faith, thankfully. Some have been canonized for the miracles of beauty that they wrought. Hildegard of Bingen was one. She was born in a county of the Holy Roman Empire, now Germany, in 1098. She later wrote that her visions began at the age of three. Perhaps because of these visions, or because her parents wished to get ahead in their religious or political world, she was sent into religious life at a young age.
She was tough! The abbot of the monastery where she and other nuns were cloistered told her he wanted to promote her to Prioress. But that would mean that she would be under that abbot’s control, so she told him she would prefer to move her nuns to a remote and new monastery dwelling. The abbot said no, so she went over his head and got approval from the archbishop. When the abbot still said no, Hildegard was stricken with an illness that rendered her paralyzed and unable to move from her bed. The abbot tried to move her himself, but could not, and so he relented and let the nuns move to their own space. Years later Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns. She is the author of three great texts of visionary theology, and also liturgical music, a morality play, a new alphabet, a massive body of letters, sermons, and two volumes on the medicinal properties of various plants and on the causes and cures of human disease. Some of the many words she wrote that continue to edify Christians today are these: “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.” She also wrote, “Dare to declare who you are. It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.”
Any number of the saints we know best were people who had visions – Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola. Today religious visions are considered suspect, and a sign of mental illness, and sometimes they may be. For some saints their visions were part of a life experience of tremendous suffering. The spiritual writings of John of the Cross, including his Dark Night of the Soul, were written while he was imprisoned by fellow monks in a cell that was so small he could barely lie down in it. He lived a life of poverty and persecution and still he wrote, “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.” Ignatius was a Basque nobleman and daring soldier who was wounded badly in both legs during a battle in Pamplona. He received surgeries (without anesthetic, of course, in 1521, including sawing off the end of an exposed bone) and he spent the rest of his life in significant pain. His visions began as he tried to recuperate. He left us with the Spiritual Exercises, the Jesuit order, and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is credited with writing this prayer.
O my God, teach me to be generous
to serve you as you deserve to be served
to give without counting the cost
to fight without fear of being wounded
to work without seeking rest
and to spend myself without expecting any reward
but the knowledge that I am doing your holy will. Amen
There are also those saints whose holy work was laboring for justice. One of my favorite of these was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was beatified by Pope Francis only last May, clearing the way for canonization. Romero had been experienced as a rather conservative, doctrinaire priest and then bishop. A turning point seems to have been the assassination of his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, who died in a hail of bullets outside the small, impoverished town in El Salvador where he was parish priest, and where he had been empowering the local people through Bible Study. Romero said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” Two years later, in 1979, a military junta came to power and the human rights abuses and the terror by paramilitary right wing groups only got worse. On the 23rd of March, 1980 Romero preached a sermon in which he admonished rank and file Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to cease from participating in violence and the crushing of elemental human rights. The next day, during mass, as Romero stepped to the altar of a hospital chapel in San Salvador, he was shot dead. I saw that chapel fourteen years later. Fresh calla lilies are continually placed on the floor behind the altar exactly where he fell.
Courage, faith, suffering, solidarity, ecstasy, love – the lives of the saints are divine, but they are as desperately human as our own. One of the tasks of the Reformation was to encourage the idea that all of human experience is involved in the making of a saint – that sainthood isn’t reserved for those holy few who met some ecclesiastical committee’s approval, but that the work of humble people like ourselves, done to God’s glory, is nothing less than sainthood. Without taking away from the greats who have gone before, let me encourage us all to remember the saints we have personally known. Maybe it was a grandparent, a teacher, a pastor. Maybe it was someone who exuded a love so limitless and free it could have only come from God. Maybe it was a servant who walked so closely in the steps of Christ, someone who placed their own desires behind the needs of others, that she or he made blessings abound for others. Maybe it was someone who spoke truth to power, who just said it, who made people listen, so that the lives of the disempowered could have dignity. I encourage you to reflect in these moments and in the days to come on the saints you have known, canonized not by the church but by the love that was in their hearts, love given away as grace, given away like Halloween candy simply because someone who liked it came to the door and asked; love given away because there was someone in need. We are indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. For those in that cloud who have died, let us take comfort from scripture that they are indeed “in the hand of God.”
And let us remember that we, the living, are called to the “sainthood of all believers,” and that we too, even now, are in the hand of God. We always are. God does not decide to hold us in the palm of holy love only after we die, but throughout this life and the one to come. Our job as we live and breathe is to be intentional about our own sainthood, - our love, our truth-telling, our acts of mercy, our leadership, our courage, our openness to visions (either weird or wonderful), our willingness to let the Holy Spirit mess up our life’s plans and meticulously ordered days, our compromise with and acceptance of a world in which so many suffer so needlessly. There are saints above, in the life beyond life, and there are saints below, who struggle every minute to get it right. Let us be among them, opting not for ease but for faithfulness, listening for the Holy Spirit in every moment to learn what she would have us do. It needn’t be grand, only faithful, just like the saints we have known and loved.
Let me leave you with a quote from Hildegard:
“The mystery of God hugs you in its all-encompassing arms.”