Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Saints: Weaving community with the threads of need

Text: Matthew 5.1-12

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,” who springs to mind? I imagine that one of the first people that most of us think about its 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. Now, it’s important to remember that the church does not MAKE saints; only God makes saints. The church simply recognizes saints. 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 experiment with the 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 “my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew.”

We do the saints a disservice (indeed, we may 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 excruciatingly hard to do those things.

I would even venture to say that it may be weaknesses that make a saint, not strengths. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made an interesting and provocative remark in one of his sermons. “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.”

I think the saints teach us one supremely important truth: Our weaknesses may be more important than our strengths. Now listen carefully. Our strengths are important. God has given each of us great gifts of strength, intelligence, compassion, and so on. But think: 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.

For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that the gospel for All Saints’ Day is the Beatitudes, but I think I’ve figured it out. 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.

Make no mistake: all of us know 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 we can learn from it, and I think what we will find is that our emptiness is an invitation from God, a doorway through which God comes into our lives.

On public radio a few years ago I heard a remarkable program about cloning. During the program the narrator quoted a poem that the poet addressed to those he called “genetically engineered super humans”. In a strange way, I think that what the poet said about his so-called “genetically engineered super humans” enlightens what I’ve been saying about saints and sainthood.

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 are needed to “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 one another. Amen.