November 1, 2011

There's a Saint for That

Okay. I confess. All Saints Day in The Episcopal Church has always struck me as a bit bland.

Sure I know the official line: that All Saints Day is when we honor the martyrs, preachers, teachers and everyday witnesses whose examples we seek to follow in our lives. But every time All Saints Day rolls around, I can’t help but think of how the saints were spoken about, and used, in the pragmatic, popular faith of my Roman Catholic childhood.

In that setting, saints were a lot like apps: mobile, easy-to-use, and applicable to all sorts of everyday situations.

Lost keys? There’s a saint for that. Selling your house? Not unless you bury St. Joseph in the yard. Computer troubles? Saint Isidore of Seville can help. Not a morning person? Pray to Saint Vitus who, along with a rooster, had the grisly misfortune of being boiled in oil at dawn (though I’m still unclear how this qualifies him to be someone who can help us wake up refreshed). And for those who have no clue whom to apply when, never fear: you can now purchase an actual patron saints app for just $1.99.
As a still relatively new member of the Episcopal Church, I appreciate the high-minded reasonableness with which we approach our religious traditions. And yet, if there is one thing I wish I could change, one thing I wish I could carry over from my life as a Roman Catholic, it’d be the practical mysticism that these traditions convey. And I feel this way especially on All Saints and All Souls.

Like many Episcopalians, I am going to a worship service today where we will call upon and celebrate that great cloud of witnesses. And like many Episcopalians, I’ll head to church with mixed notions of how this cloud of witnesses relates to contemporary life and today’s church. For the past few years the homilists have approached this issue head-on. One year I heard an ultra-rational approach where saints were described as past examples that we should model our lives on. And two years ago I heard a socially-aware message wrapped in a curious metaphor: this cloud of witnesses nudges us along on history’s long arc toward justice in much the same way tailwinds nudge planes as they head toward their destinations. 

Only rarely have I heard a homilist acknowledge what remains for many a quietly held article of faith: namely, just how helpful this cloud of witnesses can be, especially when you find yourself in a tight fix.

Two experiences have hammered this home to me. The first has to do with the chapel space at the Episcopal Church Center. Day after day, people from all walks of life enter to light tall, tapered candles in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Particularly on evenings when I work late, I love to step into the chapel space and observe these flickering prayers before heading home. This is undoubtedly the most popular corner of this large worship space, and the frequency with which those tapered candles have to be replaced speaks to aspects of faith that are harder to name, harder to define, yet are powerful and real for many.

The second experience, from a few years ago, began when I heard a knock at my front door early one morning. It was my Jewish neighbor with a curious request. She’d seen my statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe sitting on the windowsill and wanted me to light a candle for her. When I asked her to repeat her request to be sure I’d heard her correctly, she smiled broadly and said “Oh, I need all the help I can get."

Don't we all?

Have a blessed All Saints Day.