There is no saint without a past. There is no sinner without a future. (St Augustine)
Ever since my childhood, All Saints Day has been my favorite of the holy days, perhaps precisely because it is the one day of obligation that brings us into contemplation of the saintly potential that resides within each of us, by virtue of our baptism.
There is a promise of grace acting in our lives—if only we are willing to cooperate with it—and suiting us to a way, a path, by which we may transcend our imperfect, faulty, and broken selves to become something more, something fuller and more complete than we are today. Not merely a pile of matter but be-sparked creature of infinite possibility; not just a construct but a conduit of God’s own power and mercy, creativity and consolation.
Exiting from Mass while getting a glimpse of the fallen leaves, breathing in the crisper air and watching the traffic speed by, I always find myself thinking, “The rest of the world may not care, but in my Church we’ve stopped to remember, and honor, and listen to our dead. We’ve connected to our spiritual ancestors for our own sakes, and the sake of the world, and it matters.”
It actually does matter, too. Connecting with the cloud of witnesses prevents us from becoming too earthbound thanks to the fact that we, by our practices, are constantly approaching the veil between here and heaven, between the natural and the supernatural. During prayer, during Adoration, and most dramatically at the moments of Eucharistic Consecration during Mass, we find refreshment, compassion, and instruction in the midst of the thinned-out and misty, glistening veil.
Moreover, in trying times it’s hard to feel hopeless when you have such a variety of examples before one’s eyes, of men and women (lay, religious, monastic, and clerical) who fell and fell again as they lived and yet accomplished great things in the name of heaven, not because they were born any more worthy of sainthood than you or I, but simply because they were willing to be used, willing to work with grace, willing to be the hands and feet of sacrifices of Christ on Earth.
The saints inspire us, but they also remind us that any one of us may join their number, if we really want it, because Jesus wants it for us, too. “I must become a great saint,” wrote Bernadette Soubirous in one of her notebooks. “My Jesus wants it.”
Recently, a friend asked me to recommend a modern version of the Lives of the Saints, something less ponderous than Butler’s but still comprehensive. There are a few such books I frequently recommend or even give out as gifts—Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, Colleen Carroll Campbell’s My Sisters, the Saints, and Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints come to mind. But the book I suggested to her is my personal favorite: Bert Ghezzi’s Voices of the Saints; A 365-Day Journey with Our Spiritual Companions.
While Voices of the Saints can certainly be used as a daily devotional, it is one of those resources every Catholic household really should have because it is a meticulously researched and cross-referenced book of saints for grown-ups. The reader gets the information being sought, along with a taste of the saint’s own writings, but the book is arranged with themes and calendar prompts meant to help us with our day-to-day spiritual living.
For instance, a reader dealing with issues of, perhaps, obedience, can look under “obedience” and be referred to a helpful saint whose own struggles or wisdom can give some guidance. In that sense, the book provides a physical tool to enter into the “communion” of saints.
I used to keep the book on our coffee table, where my then-teens would pick it up from time to time. After recommending it to my friend, I pulled it down from the bookshelf and immediately became engrossed in this unique collection of remarkable witnesses.
For this All Saints Day, given some of the ugly, difficult-to-absorb headlines of late, this seems a useful and timely book to spend some time perusing. Saint Philip Neri always counseled people to read the lives of the saints for interior growth, and I think he was on to something. He wrote, “The best preparation for prayer is to read the lives of the saints, not from mere curiosity, but quietly and with recollection a little at a time. And to pause whenever you feel your heart touched with devotion.”
In any case, a daily visit with a spiritual ancestor might yet help to bring insight, compassion, and clarity to our times, which are as broken as they ever were.
For the sake of the day, allow me to share a few of my favorite quotes from Ghezzi’s work.
The Father takes pleasure in looking upon the heart of the most holy Virgin Mary, as the masterpiece of his hands…The Son takes pleasure in it as the heart of his Mother, the source from which he drew the blood that has ransomed us. (St. John Vianney, 1786-1859)
Once Macarius directed a young seeker to go to a cemetery and upbraid the dead. Then to go and flatter them. “What answer did the dead give you?” he asked. “None at all,” said the youth. “Then go and learn never to let abuse or flattery move you. If you die to the world and yourself, you will begin to live for Christ.” (St. Macarius the Great, 300?-390)
On the accessibility of faith:
Christ is more easily possessed than a bit of thread or straw. A single wish, a sigh, is sufficient. (St. Mechtild of Helfta, 1241?-1298)
During painful times, when you feel a terrible void, think how God is enlarging the capacity of your soul so that it can receive him—making it, as it were, infinite as he is infinite. Look upon each pain as a love token coming to you directly from God in order to unite you to him. (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, 1880-1906)
Judas was in the company of the disciples and the robber was in the company of killers, yet what a turnabout there was when the decisive moment arrived! (St. John Climacus, 579?-649)
We have nothing of our own but our will. It is the only thing that God has so placed in our own power that we can make an offering of it to him. (St. John Vianney, 1786-1859)
Sometimes listening to people becomes monotonous and extremely boring, till one is nearly collapsing; but in such cases it helps to remember that even when Jesus was about to fall the third time, he patiently consoled the women-folk and children of his persecutors, making no exceptions. How can we ever be as grateful as we ought for such a vocation? (Bl. Solanus Casey, 1870-1957)
On difficult tasks:
I repay [the Lord] in my very small way by visiting the poor. The house may be sordid, but I am going to Christ. (Bl. Pier-Giorgio Frassati, 1901-1925)
Good stuff, right? The more I look it over, the more I think I need to put this book back on the coffee table for the whole family to pick up and peruse.