Tuesday, November 01, 2005
All Saints' Day Today we should think about Rosa Parks, whom one congressman described as "an almost saint-like person." We should also reflect with more honesty on our own spiritual lives. St Gregory of Nyssa wrote that "many of the Saints cast the refulgence of their own lives, like lamps, upon the path for those who are 'walking with God' [Gen 5:24, 6:9]." He said that Jesus Christ is known to us in the saints, through the "power of the Holy Spirit." We are not to gaze in fascination upon the saints (think of Dorothy Day's famous line: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”). We should instead see them as guides ("lamps") for our own often difficult and confusing pilgrimages. St Paul writes, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Following Jesus Christ through the "power of the Holy Spirit" in the lives of the saints calls us into question. I'm reminded of something that John Allen wrote after interviewing Jean Vanier, one of the holy men of our time: "... standing next to Vanier is in some sense to stand in judgment, to contemplate the hollowness of one’s own life compared to his heroism, to feel an overpowering sense that you should change your ways before it’s too late. Being with Vanier is both inspiring and, at times, disconcerting and even disorienting, the way people used to respond to Mother Teresa." The following is from a very interesting article by Patricia A. Sullivan from the June issue of Theological Studies. It, of course, is academic prose, but it does explain how we can make sense of the practice of invoking the saints (here is the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia article): In the past, the symbolic reality of the saints has been emphasized one-sidedly such that the objective reality of the saints as "mediators" of grace because of their unity with the Mediator has resulted in a concentration on their "instrumental" power. They were those who could, through this power, dispense aid to us (or, more correctly, they could have this power dispensed to aid us). Plenty has been written about the origination of this view in a patriarchal societal structure that no longer holds sway. But ... the tradition was never truly only about the objective fact of the "instrumentality" of the saints; it was also about our subjective response to God through the saints--whether or not this was recognized by individuals invoking the saints in the past. It could not be simply about the "saintly symbols," for every religious matter involves both grace and those upon whom grace "works." In invocation and intercession, both the invoker and the intercessor are "graced" subjects summoned by God to respond positively to his self-offer. So the objective status of the saints as symbols because of their proximity to Christ is subjectively appropriated and therefore fully actualized in the reaction of the living to them. The subjective orientation of the invoker to the things of God offered to human beings is the very point of the religious act; indeed, it is the point of any religious act that properly recognizes that all such activity is a response, not an initiative. In the Middle Ages, the "things" offered often were conceived narrowly as material favors--cures, success at tasks at hand, recoveries of lost items, etc. And it may be that God truly will grant such favors through the agency of a saint. But, as medieval Christians did not stress enough, God will do what he will, and he may answer our prayers in a way that we do not expect but need. The value of any prayer is simply that we consciously turn ourselves to God, responding to him by adopting a disposition that allows him to work with us. Religious acts such as invocation--conscious responses to God's offer of self-communication--put us in a place of alignment with and exceptional receptivity to God's will. Creative possibilities are realized in the divine-human encounter of petitionary prayer where God invites human beings to be "co-creators," in the most qualified sense of this term. Petitionary prayer, including that of the intercessory variety, favorably influences the relationship between God and those who pray as well as those for whom they pray by drawing both parties more deeply into the Christian life and the very life of God which embraces all, whether or not God answers any particular petitionary prayer the way that we think we wish. The saints already have entered as deeply as possible into the life of Christ, and this is why they are the most "effective" at intercessory prayer. When we mirror their intentionality, joining ourselves with them, we open up new possibilities for receiving God's loving guidance (i.e., grace). We have a foretaste of that which the saints now enjoy. Is it not the function of the communion of saints that we may help each other to come more fully into the presence and power of God? Invocation of the saints is an inherently communal activity. Karl Rahner wrote: "If the one Holy Spirit is to move us all, and there is one body because we have been baptized by this Spirit into one body (I Cor 12:13) and if we must therefore--because we are members of the one body of Christ--with one mind bear each other's anxieties, then everyone ought to pray for everyone else. Apostolic prayer is a Christian duty."