The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls are celebrated, in our church calendar, on successive days – very close together, and yet distinct. It is a distinction which wouldn’t have made any sense to the church in its earliest days, because in the very early church, the “saints” were all the members of the Christian community. We can see that usage in Paul’s letter today – the saints are all of us who are a part of that body which is the body of Christ, which is the church and all the world. We are sanctified, holy, not because we are very good or very special, but because we have been created and marked for holiness, a people who are to be remade, whose destiny is always to be growing into our fullness as part of the body, part of the life of God in Christ. Not saints because we are perfect or anything close to that, but because we have offered ourselves to a process of being endlessly transformed.
Over time, the church came to designate certain people as “saints” in a particular way, as people whose lives were especially vivid examples, in one way or another, of the human person in the process of transformation, the human person growing into the life of God; and came as well to believe that these saints, after their death, are with God in some way which enables them to represent our needs and desires to the divine, to intercede for us, to continue to be present for us in our own struggles.
Every now and then, we slip into the easy but quite incorrect idea that to be a saint means, not that these were people who offered themselves most fully to God’s transforming desire, but that they were people who were just very very good or, even more misleading, people who were very nice. We say, “Oh, you’re a saint!” when someone does something nice for us. And a few of the saints of God were, probably, nice. Some of them were good in some easily recognizable way of being good. But they were also – like us, like all the saints in the broader sense of the word – troubled and confused and weak and fallible, sometimes very hard to like, often mistaken, and almost always really quite weird.
St Augustine abandoned his partner of many years and took their son away with him because his mother wanted him to marry someone more socially acceptable. St Basil of Caesarea was, according to his best friend Gregory of Nazianzus, mean and angry when he didn’t get a nice dinner on time. St Dominic helped to create the Inquisition, while St John of the Cross was disappeared and tortured by the same Inquisition, which may have made for some awkward moments in the kingdom of heaven. Saints have conducted great public arguments with bishops and kings, taken to bed with petulant headaches, driven their parents to distraction, kissed the sores of lepers and eaten rotting food, given away to the poor food which their families needed, gone on ill-advised pilgrimages with gangs of friends, celebrated Easter on the back of a whale. Saints have written beautiful poetry and brilliant theology, but they have also written a fair bit of awful poetry, and sometimes bad theology as well. When you get to the stories of some of the minor saints, the weirdness becomes almost the dominant note, as with, say, St Wilgefortis, whose holiness was illustrated primarily by her ability to grow a luxuriant beard in order to avoid an unwanted marriage. One of the things that the lives of saints seem to tell us is that God delights in the very oddness of the human creature, our potential to be wacky and spiky and eccentric.
All these edgy, ill-adjusted people. Difficult people. Frail flawed striving people in the hands of God, in the hands of the constantly recreating creator. Willing to give themselves into those hands. They have offered their lives in all the ways it is possible to offer a life – in martyrdom, in service, in creative work – but they have offered their own lives, in all their particularity, not lives of generic goodness or niceness. Human lives. All things original, spare, strange.
And it is our own lives we too are called to offer, not anyone else’s life, not an imaginary life of imagined virtue. Our own troubled histories, our own mistakes, our own longings and fears and foolish impossible desires, our own aching hearts and uncertain minds. Our own skills and beauties and loves, our own courage, our own open hands.
The gospel appointed for today is Luke’s “blessings and woes”, his version of the beatitudes. The beatitudes, especially Matthew’s version, are easy to misunderstand; they are too often read (or rather, misread) as a demand for precisely the bland sort of nice behaviour, the kind of polite niceness which we have all too often somehow confused with Christian faith. I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard in which the underlying message is that we should all be nice to each other because Jesus was nice. And there’s nothing much wrong with being nice when you can be, it’s sometimes a very good thing to be nice, in the general way of things. But Jesus was frequently not nice, he challenged, he forced questions, he made trouble, he turned lives upside down, he pushed people into all kinds of places they didn’t want to go, he got himself into enough trouble with the powerholders that they killed him, and there is very little that’s nice about any of that.
The blessings and woes are, I think, less open to that kind of misreading, which is perhaps why they are less well known. They function almost as an instruction manual for how to be a social misfit. Be hungry. Be poor. Be despised. If you are prominent and successful and well thought of, worry about it, because it probably means you are on the wrong track. Love your enemies. Give away too much to the people who may not really need it. Be extreme. Be weird.
When Jesus tells us turn the other cheek to someone who hits us, he is not counselling niceness, he is not counselling submission. He is telling us to defy the logic of the world. He is calling us to the kind of courage that we saw in the civil rights protests in the American south, the lunch counter protesters holding their ground against racist violence, the children of Memphis walking forward towards the police dogs. He is calling us to the courage of the nonviolent blockaders now in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, allowing themselves to be arrested and jailed rather than give up their stand as protectors of their land against shale gas extraction.
There are also times when the deeper meaning of turning the other cheek is found in blocking the punch, or leaving the site of violence, in an abused woman or child standing up and saying, this is wrong, I will no longer be treated this way, I will get out, I will rebuild a life that is not about hurt. It is the courage of anyone who holds their ground, who does not respond to violence with violence but also does not back down. It asks us to override pretty much everything we think of as basic human instinct – not the reactions of adrenalin and the lizard brain, neither fight nor flight, but the stubborn stability of commitment. The commitment to truth which puts us, with the saints, on the path of oddity, of social failure, of not fitting in, of being our own spiky selves.
Part of the basic teaching about the saints is that those we recognize and name are by no means the only ones who have achieved a particular degree of commitment, of devotion, of sanctity in this lifetime. There are any number of hidden saints out there, living our their odd lives of offering. Given that we are all called to the company and the communion of saints, that this is the intended destiny for every one of us, still there are some people I have known in my lifetime who may, I think, be numbered among the company of saints in the more specific sense. They have been awkward people, people who didn’t fit in, damaged in many ways. There have been some who have struggled with depression, with lifelong grief; others who have been happy beyond the kind of happiness I can quite grasp. Some have been brilliant, exceptionally gifted in the world’s terms; and sometimes I have watched a crowd of children and teenagers with profound disabilities coming out of school and thought that I have been privileged in that moment to stand in the communion of hidden saints. Some have suffered publicly, or died, because they stood up for truth and justice, many have lived in obscurity.
But they have been themselves; and they have been themselves given over to love, sometimes broken by love, people trying, as far as our weak humanity can try, to give themselves entirely into the hands of God. The kind of people we are all, in our own particular stumbling, awkward, committed ways, called to become, and to be.
Maggie Helwig is a poet, novelist, and the current incumbent at the Anglican Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto.