by Father George Spencer, Chaplain to Calderdale & Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust.
The Souls of the Virtuous are in the Hands of God
In 1941 a Polish Franciscan priest held out his arm the easier for a lethal injection to be given him. His death came in an isolation cell in Auschwitz concentration camp. He had put himself in the place of another prisoner who had shouted out for his wife and children when faced with the isolation cells. The priest was Maximilian Kolbe and he did what was before him and offered his life for another in a Christ-like act.
In 1343 a woman of prayer concluded her writings on a lifetime’s reflection on the sometimes terrible sometimes comforting ‘shewings’ she had received from God. She was an anchoress who lived walled up in her cell, and her name was Dame Julian of Norwich. From that obscure life has come a treasure trove of wisdom, which seems to be ever more widely read, pondered and appreciated. Wisdom which is homely, humorous and full of confidence that before everything else God loves us, forgives us and draws us to Godself.
And then in 1839 in Britany, France a young woman shared a life of prayer in a simple cottage with another woman and brought in a destitute widow – blind and paralysed – for who she gave up her bed. And then another poor widow was brought to the house and another. Friends rallied round to help supporting these poor ladies and when they had run out of provisions and resources, they started collecting arms. The woman was Jeanne Jugan who found herself next writing a simple rule of life for herself and her friends – and so came into being the Little Sisters of the Poor. Jeanne accepted the command “whatever you do for the least of these, you do it to me” with such remarkable effect that by the time of her death there were over 2000 sisters running countless homes for the elderly, which are still on the go today.
I was once trapped in a car park in Bordeau in a minibus with some Little Sisters and rather a lot of packets of cereals; whatever avenue we trundled up we came to the same barrier that resolutely refused to let us out. There was exasperation but much chuckling and profession of trust in the Lord. An example of the Little Sisters’ way of trusting simplicity and cheerfulness.
Well, there you are – three fairly randomly selected saints for you to ponder on the Feast of All Saints, as we celebrate your feast of title. But in a way they complement each other – Maximilian Kolbe instantly choosing to put himself in the place of another and consigning himself to death. Mother Julian by contrast playing a long game and offering us the fruit of a lifetime’s communing with God, mulling over her experiences and testing her conclusions in prayer. And Jeanne – practical and pulling her friends and others into her endeavour – very much serving God in community.
It seems to me we need the example of these and many of the saints at the present time. I don’t know if you feel like me that so much in our national life seems tarnished.: the police seemingly attempting to cover up loopholes in their care at Hillsborough. Jimmy Savile – loved and admired by many – turning out to have a shocking and depraved private life, which now seems to have implications for the BBC and some parts of the healthcare sector. Not to mention the recurrent direct abuse we hear of in the social care sector – and, of course, the smouldering issues concerning high finance and the ethical behaviour of the bankers.
We need the example of the saints to show us another way. To point out that it is possible to live lives of service with integrity and altruism. And yet… Whilst the saints give us examples of Christian living to inspire and cheer us they can also seem far off, raised up apart from us in their stained glass windows or on their plinths. Me? I am only me. We talk about the patience of a saint – I know what mine is like! I fear I know what I would opt for when the chips are down – my life and my bed! And anyway are we supposed to be heroic? Isn’t there some value in modest lives of use to others, of support to our families, of measured giving of our time and talents to the Lord? Are the saints a tiny little bit too good to be true, just a fraction remote for us, a bit irrelevant to our everyday?
But reflect on this. Those saints I started out with did not suddenly achieve the things they are remembered for. Their Christ-like acts of selflessness are the fruits of their lifelong discipleship. It is only through prayer, pondering, living the life of the Church, lamenting over one’s shortcomings and the myriad of other aspects of rededicating themselves to Christ that they come to saintliness.
It has always been so. I’ve been reading about the desert fathers and mothers recently – these were the kind of protosaints who in the first centuries of the Church sought God in solitude. They were just Abba and Amma – Mum and Dad – just a bit further on in the faith. And their great thing was ‘you just sit and wait for God’. You sit and wait trusting that your life is hid with Christ in God. And you listen for the voice ‘come, follow me’ –or if you want to use the imagery of today’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus – “come forth”. Come and follow in the spirit of love and trust. ‘Come’ - as many followed along the lakeside, as the first disciples left their nets, as Lazarus’ bandages fell from him. Come –not to any place other than that place where God makes his presence ever more fully known – in our hearts.
So I am not sure that the saints are so very different from us. They are just simply further on from us. For their calling and ours – to follow the Lord – is essentially the same. And their high privilege and ours – to be filled with the graces of God – is essentially the same. They are vessels of God’s love with whom we share fellowship by virtue of our own discipleship. That is the truth of the communion of saints, I think.
There is a lovely story told a bit against himself by the Bishop of Vienna visiting a very poor Christian community in the Indian subcontinent. The people make a great fuss of his arrival, raking the dirt track to the village and covering it with sand. They put out flags all along the road. As the bishop processes along the road with his entourage the cheering reaches fever-pitch and the people continually re-rake the sand on the road and place mats on it for him to walk on. The old missionary priest welcomes him and says, “Do not imagine, dear Father in God, that the people have done all this for you, Bishop Christopher. No, they did it for Jesus Christ!”.
‘They did it for Jesus Christ.’ That is what we say of the saints. That is what we want to be able to say of ourselves as well, with God’s help. I began with some words from our first reading today – from the Book of Wisdom. I’ll end with some more from it:-
“They who trust in the Lord will understand the truth,
Those who are faithful will live with him in love;
For grace and mercy await those he has chosen.”