November 1, 2018
Weaving community from the threads of need – J. Barry Vaughn – All Saints Day (Nov. 1, 2018)
All Saints’ Day, invites us to consider those heroes and heroines of the faith we refer to as saints. When I say the word “saint,” I imagine that many people think first of a biblical saint, such as Peter or Paul, Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene. Perhaps you think of St. Francis of Assisi or a hero of the Reformation like Martin Luther. In our day and time people almost always think of is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The late Pope John Paul II “beatified” her, that is, declared that she may be referred to as “Blessed” Teresa of Calcutta. A person who is declared “blessed” generally goes on to be declared a saint. But it’s important to remember that only God can make a saint; the church simply recognizes them. Mother Teresa was a saint long before her beatification by the pope, long before the 1970 film, Something Beautiful for God, brought her international fame.
A common misperception about saints is that they are persons who draw on enormous spiritual resources or that they have strengths that you and I do not possess. The case of Mother Teresa shows how wrong such ideas are. The most striking (and for some, the most shocking) news to come out of Mother Teresa’s beatification is the fact that she suffered from profound doubt, from feelings of abandonment by God, even wondering at times if God existed.
She wrote, “The damned of hell suffer eternal punishment because they experience loss of God. In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.” And also, “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains.” Because of her perpetual good cheer, she felt others believed “[her] faith, [her] hope and [her] love [were] overflowing and that [her] intimacy with God and union with his will [filled her] heart.” And she concluded, “If only they knew.”
We do the saints a disservice, and we may even be doing God a disservice, to assume that saints are perfect people who never experience doubts and struggles with their faith. A saint, then, is not one who never doubts, who never struggles, but one who continues to practice faith, to love others, to seek God, even when it is hard, terribly hard, to do those things.
It may even be that it is weaknesses that make a saint, not strengths. In one of his sermons Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “It’s often been said, boldly, that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God’s love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God’s creative mercy still waits.”
“…beyond every failure God’s creative mercy still waits.”
One of the early church fathers said it even more simply: “Without sin, who could be saved?”
I think the saints teach us one supremely important truth: Our weaknesses may be more important than our strengths. Make no mistake: Our strengths are important. God has given each of us great gifts of strength, intelligence, compassion, and so on. But think about this: If we were composed only of strengths, what need would we have of each other? What need would we have of God? It is our weaknesses that bind us to each other and to God. That may be the secret of the saints: that, they know their need of God. But that is nothing new; I think it is the message of the Beatitudes or Sermon on the Mount.
Most of the Beatitudes speak of an emptiness, a lack of something, a space in our hearts into which we can invite God. “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who hunger and thirst… those who are persecuted…” The saints are those who recognize their emptiness, their profound need, and invite God to fill that space, that need, that emptiness.
Every single one of us knows this emptiness, this space that cries out to be filled, but we do our best to fill it up with anything but God: alcohol, drugs, sex, and television are the “usual suspects” but we can even try to fill that emptiness with going to church. Instead, I invite you to sit with the emptiness, to find out what it has to teach you, and I think you will find that our emptiness is an invitation from God, a doorway through which God enters our lives.
On public radio a few years ago I heard a program about cloning. During the program the narrator quoted a poem in which the poet addressed the children of the future who had been freed from human weaknesses and shortcomings, so-called “genetically engineered super humans”. In a strange way, I think that what the poet said helps us understand the truth that it is weakness, not strength, that makes a saint.
You are the children of our fantasies of form,
our dream to perfect the ladder of genes and climb
its rungs to the height of human possibility,
to a [perfection] beyond all injury
and disease, with minds as bright as newborn suns
and bodies which leave our breathless mirrors stunned.
Forgive us if we failed to imagine your loneliness
in the midst of all that … excellence,
if we failed to understand how much harder
it would be to build the bridge of love
between such splendid selves, to find the path
of humility among the labyrinth of your abilities,
to be refreshed without forgetfulness,
and weave community without the threads of need.
Forgive us if you must re-invent our flaws
because we failed to guess the simple fact
that the best lives must be less than perfect.
(“Letter to genetically engineered super humans” by Fred Dings)
I think the key to understanding the saints is that they know that it is precisely the “threads of need” that “weave community”, and that even “the best lives must be less than perfect,” because it is our needs and imperfections that open us to the grace of God and to human love. Amen.