November 1, 2023 – Reflection by The Rev. Frances Drolet-Smith, Oblate, SSJD
As the story goes1, shortly after Thomas Merton converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s, he and his friend Robert Lax were walking around the streets of New York and Lax, who was Jewish, asked Merton what he wanted to “be”, now that he was Catholic.
“I don’t know,” said Merton, adding simply that he wanted to be a good Catholic.
Shaking his head, Lax told him, “What you should say, is that you want to be a saint!”
Dumbfounded, Merton is said to have asked him “How do you expect me to become a saint?!”
Lax replied: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will just let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Merton went on to become one of the great spiritual thinkers and writers of the last century and his friend, Robert Lax, who himself later converted to Christianity – thus beginning his own journey to becoming a saint – is best remembered for his mystical poetry.
The words Robert Lax spoke to Thomas Merton echo down through the decades to all of us today because they speak so simply and profoundly to our vocations as Christians. We should want to be a saint.
Of course, if you only want to be a run-of-the-mill, ordinary, average Christian, that’s probably all you’ll ever be. We can do just enough to get by. It’s not hard. But the call Jesus extends to all of us is to be something more; just like the words of that old Army recruiting ad: be all that you can be; so why not be a saint??
If anyone has any questions about how to do that, the passage from Matthew’s gospel today is a helpful ‘how-to’ guide. We know these verses as The Beatitudes. “Blessed are…” With those two words, Jesus offers us a template for how to live the life of a saint; in fact, some would say that the beatitudes are nothing less than a self-portrait of Christ. To be poor in spirit…meek…and merciful. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Be pure of heart and be a maker of peace. Couldn’t we use more people like that for the mending of the world today? It may seem like a call to a simple life but in fact, it is far from an easy life.
Many of us are familiar with the Red-Letter Saints of the Church. We know John was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside-down, that Francis spoke to the animals (and no one batted an eye); that Valentine, imprisoned for his faith, covertly sent messages of love to his flock anyway. You might even know about Alban, one special to me, who willingly took the place of a fugitive priest – and was beheaded for his kindness.
When you hear stories like that, you can sympathize with Merton’s apparent lack of enthusiasm. Their stories don’t always end well. And those are just the ones whose deeds are recorded. There are many others of whom we know no detail, those who have entered into their rest with no fanfare or without having done anything particularly heroic; not even noticeable enough for a few lines in Wikipedia. They are those, faithful to their calling, who followed Christ with tenacity and unwavering commitment. And, if you think about it, you’ve probably already met a few.
Many years ago now, the journalist Desmond Doig, in his little book about saints, recalls this scene: “I was seated next to a socialite from Calcutta who was discussing her latest charity. I asked her if she had heard of Mother Teresa. She paused, looked quizzically surprised and said, “Yes, I have, actually. She’s something of a saint, isn’t she?” (And now, she has actually been declared one!)
Something of a saint . . . umm . . . We sometimes use that phrase in a derogatory way – mocking someone’s “good” behaviour, or good deeds. Yet, those declared saints by the church are first and foremost human beings, with all the short-comings, personality traits, idiosyncrasies that make any one of us “charming”.
In the early church – saints weren’t dead – they were the living! The New Testament letters of Paul and the others are addressed to the “Saints living in Rome, or Thessalonica or Galatia”.
We tend to think of our spiritual journeys as individual paths – about ourselves alone with God – but that’s a profoundly un-Christian way of thinking. None of our stories, or the stories of the great clous of witnesses we honor today, make sense to us unless we can view them in the context of “the” story, for we, like them, have chosen to respond, to say “yes” to a call to love and service which goes beyond our own personal history.
Imagine if we lived that “yes” consistently, not with the hope of glorious recognition, or even a line in Wikipedia, but rather as faithful witnesses to the Gospel?
All Saints reminds us first and foremost that we are members of a community: the community of believers with whom we gather and also the community that transcends space and time. But there’s something even more important about All Saints Day. It is this: just as we are not alone in our faith journey but are thankfully supported by those who have gone before us and by those walk with us, so too are we are called to be saints to those with whom we journey. This Feast of All Saints, often chosen to mark occasions of commitment such as baptisms, ordinations, First and Life Professions of those who vow “ýes” in a particular way, calls us into that community – incomplete and imperfect as it may be. We are not asked to always be successful – we are, however, asked to be always faithful.
As Robert Lax explained to someone whom many today consider a saint: All you really need…is to want to be. . . and God will do the rest.
In closing, a prayer by Janet Morley2
For all the saints who went before us,
Who have spoken to our hearts and inspired us to serve you,
And for all the saints who live beside us,
Whose weaknesses and strengths are woven into our own,
And for all the saints who challenge us
to change the world with them,
we praise you, O God. Amen.
The Rev. Frances Drolet-Smith, Oblate, SSJD
1 Merton, Thomas The Seven Storey Mountain Harcourt Press: New York 1948, p. 260
2 Morley, J. posted on A Place for Prayer http://revgalprayerpals.blogspot.ca/2012/04/thursday-prayer_26.html