Of Saints and Cowboys
Homily given at St. Mary in Palms, Los Angeles
All Saints Sunday, November 7, 2004
"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands."
The author of Revelation says that the number that shall be saved is 144,000 -- twelve times twelve times a thousand -- a figure, I'm told, that in Hebrew number symbolism stands for all the different kinds of people there are in the world. Others say it stands for "completeness". It is an expression that speaks of the universality, the inclusiveness, or better, the catholicity of God's Kingdom, rather than of a tiny, privileged elite. If there are any particular kinds of people you don't like, you'd better not go to heaven. They're all going to be there!
It is said that a Seventh Century monk, Saint Adamnan of Iona, was also granted a vision of the saints in heaven, gathered around the throne of God. An Irish text, several centuries later, described it this way:
"A family beautiful, very meek, very gentle, again, without absence of any good thing in them, are they who dwell in that City . . . Their array, however, and their ranging, it is hard to know how it happened, for there is not a back of any of them, or his side, towards another. But it is thus the unspeakable might of the Lord hath arranged them and kept them, face to face in their ranks and in their circles equally high all round about the throne, with splendour and with delightfulness, and their faces all towards God."
What a wonderful vision! The saints stand face to face as a family of equals. No one turns his back on anyone else -- and, in so doing, they all have their faces toward God.
When I'm feeling a little mischievous, I sometimes like to compare saints with cowboys -- not the real ones, who are decent enough, but the movie variety -- those great American mythic heroes who come into town on a great white horse, shoot it out with the bad guys, and go riding off into the sunset, to the applause of an affectionate and grateful population. Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart observes, "The cowboy has a special talent -- he can shoot straighter and faster than other men -- and a special sense of justice. But these characteristics make him so unique that he can never fully belong to society. His destiny is to defend society without ever really joining it."
Not so among the saints, that family of equals with whom we are bound in one communion and fellowship -- no one is a saint alone. And what a paradox! Our secular cultural heroes are rugged individualists, proud of their independence, even their isolation. And how stupifyingly, boringly alike they all are! And how dangerous, when the movie myth becomes a way of life.
But the saints, whose boast is "not I but Christ lives in me" -- what fascinating, multifaceted, colorfully unique individuals they become! Oh, not the ones in pious poses in stained glass windows, but the real ones. Godric of Cornwall, a retired pirate, living in a cave overlooking the ocean, accompanied by his pet snake. Joseph Schereshewsky, stricken with paralysis, sitting for twenty years in the same chair, patiently typing out his Bible translations with his middle finger alone.
Catherine of Siena, stroking the pope's ego with sweet words while twisting his arm in the interests of "Holy Justice".
And that holy fool, Basil the Blessed, walking naked through the snows of Moscow, and standing outside a church boldly munching a sausage on Good Friday, witnessing to the cruelty of the Czar and the hypocrisy of the church. He liked to throw stones at the windows of rich people's houses and stole from shops that cheated their customers. As I'm sure some of you already suspect, I have a little icon of him over my desk at home.
And then there's Saint Adamnan himself, living his vision, patiently but insistently getting the warring Celtic chieftains to agree to a treaty protecting non-combatants, women and children, from slaughter in their warfare. Oklahoma City, Israel, Palestine, 2800 dead in the World Trade Center, and now as many as 100,000 civilians, over half of them women and children, dead in Iraq. And more to come, even as we speak. Saint Adamnan, pray for us. Your hard-won treaty, it seems, has been forgotten.
No, there is nothing boring about the saints, and their witness is for us as well as for their own time.
But these are saints whose names we know. There are thousands and thousands more. The Feast of All Saints itself originated in a commemoration of all who had been martyred under the imperial persecutions -- there were too many of them to give each a day of his or her own. Over the centuries, it grew to include all the saints whose names were known only to God. William Morris could have been singing of them when he wrote:
Nothing ancient is their story, e'en but yesterday they bled,
Youngest they of earth's beloved, last of all the valued dead.
In the grave where tyrants thrust them, lies their labour and their pain,
But undying from their sorrow, springeth up the hope again.
"Some had name, and fame, and honour, learn'd they were and wise and strong;
Some were nameless, poor, unlettered, weak in all but grief and wrong.
Names and nameless, all live in us, one and all, they lead us yet,
Every pain to count for nothing, every sorrow to forget."
It is especially these nameless ones, these anonymous saints, for whom we give thanks today. I suspect you've known some -- I know I have.
Father asked me if I could work in a little bit this morning about stewardship. Well, I'm not very fond of "stewardship". I'd much rather talk about sharing. So instead I'm going to tell a story about some anonymous saints I knew in Boston. These were mainly teenagers, many of them recently released from the Youth Correctional Facility and all of them recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, part of a group that met at St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin street. They had taken on the commitment of going once a week or so to one or another of the local detox centers to share their experience, strength, and hope with the patients there. I joined them one evening as they met to set off. They would have to take a trolley and a bus, and it turned out that some of them didn't have carfare. So they all dug around in their pockets, piled everything up on the table, and found they had enough between them to get everybody there. They set off, got to Cambridge Hospital with time to spare, only to find that they were supposed to be at Somerville Hospital, several miles away. Well, as they were digging around in their pockets again, one of them said he knew somebody nearby who had a car. Change was fished out for a phone call, and use of the car was duly arranged. They were late getting to the right place, but they got there, and spent the evening bringing new life to a roomful of deeply troubled and hurting human beings.
The Church, when it's at its best, I think, is something like that. I suspect we set off in the wrong direction often enough, but if we're willing to pitch in and share with one another on the way, we'll eventually get where we're supposed to be, and in the process become the Saints we are created to be.
And we are created for nothing less. To be a good, gentle, and beautiful family is natural to us; sin, although very real and very serious, is the interloper. St. Gregory of Nyssa likens us to pieces of corroded iron, "If freed from rust by a whetstone, that which but a moment ago was dark will shine and glisten like the sun," he says, and "the divine beauty with which we are stamped will again shine forth in us."
Hold on to that. It is the orthodox Catholic response to those who say that human nature is "utterly depraved" or who promote the cowboy movie mentality of intrinsically "good guys" versus intrinsically "bad guys". The image of God is still imprinted there, in all of us, ready to break forth and shine like the sun.
Be warned, though: The saints, Jesus tells us, are poor in spirit, they mourn, they are meek, they hunger and thirst for justice, they are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. And they're always losing elections -- no matter which party wins.
But the saints are our witnesses that something better is possible, if, that is, we hold on to the goal: the vision of that Heavenly Kingdom for whose coming on earth the saints pray daily, and of which every Mass is foretaste and promise. St. Adamnan's City -- where things are so wonderfully arranged that no one has his back turned on anyone else, but all stand face to face, and in their circles equally high, with all their faces towards God.
-- Ted Mellor