For the record, all my sibs are saints, not the least for putting up with me as their oldest sister all these years! Photos are of The Boy, The Artiste and The Little Princess cooking one night (when there were only (!) a dozen plus one for dinner) and of the eggs for Sunday breakfast (three dozen eggs, and just about that many people).
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 25 August 2011.
For ourselves, too, we ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, John the Baptist, Stephen, Barnabas, Matthias, and all the saints. - from Eucharistic Prayer IV
As my oldest son lifted high the cross in the back of the church, I began to chant the Litany of the Saints. The procession accompanying my great-uncle Norb’s body moved slowly up the aisle. Three generations of nieces and nephews were altar servers, readers, cantors, and pallbearers.
The family that gathered to pray for Uncle Norb was large. It was a challenge finding beds for thirty plus people at the farm, and feeding them tested the limits of my father’s kitchen. It seemed like there was always a pot of coffee brewing and at least one batch of dough rising for bread — sixteen loaves kneaded, baked and eaten over the week. But his family was far larger than it appeared to casual visitors.
When Fr. Ray came the morning Uncle Norb died, we prayed the Litany of the Saints, people spilling out of his tiny room into the hallway. “St. James, pray for him." I imagined those who had gone before him, likewise spilling through the gates of heaven.
"St. Phillip, pray for him.” I was comforted by the thought of all of these holy men and women praying for Uncle Norb. “St. Anthony, ora pro eo.” The family of God, gathered on both sides of heaven, prayed together.
I find challenge as well as comfort in this roll call of the saints. In “Faith of our Fathers” Eamon Duffy asks, “What do we want from the saints?” He suggests that we treasure the saints not only for their prayers for us when we are in difficulty, but also for their ability to “domesticate the holy,” helping us understand that holiness is not out of reach, but possible for us all. Saints could be our neighbors, friends, family — even perhaps ourselves.
For all that saints may walk unremarked among us, Duffy points out we should not let the ordinary aspects of a saint’s life blind us to the miraculous, to the “God of surprises who can shake our lives open” in ways we could not expect or fathom. The stories of the saints remind us to be alert to the reality of God at work among us in the everyday things, but they also tell of God for whom nothing is impossible, no situation beyond help.
When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we ask God for some share in the fellowship of His saints. I admit that while I find it difficult to imagine any way in which my life could compare to that of St. John the Baptist or St. Monica, I can catch glimpses of saintliness in those around me. In my sister's patience with her troubled students, in my goddaughter's gift of a year to work with the poor. They give me hope that with God's grace, I too, might have a moment of heroic virtue.
It's the miraculous aspects of this prayer for sanctity that I struggle with. Am I truly willing to pray for my life to be shaken open by God, in ways that I might neither expect nor fully understand? Am I willing to let God work through me in inexplicable ways?
Yet this is precisely what we offer when we pray at each Eucharist for some share in that fellowship of saints. For the sake of the Kingdom, we agree to welcome into our lives the unexpected, the shatteringly different. I find it far easier to believe in miracles in principle, than I do to believe that I could be a part of one of God's unfathomable surprises.
What do I want from the saints? Their prayers. Their example. And from God? The courage and grace to ask for a share in that fellowship, whatever surprises that might bring.
O God, whose word burns like a fire within us, grant us a bold and faithful spirit, that in your strength we may be unafraid to speak your word and follow where you lead. Amen. – from the Opening Prayer for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A