November 1, 2012

All Saints Ramble

Everywhere I've been to Sunday Mass in Italy, both inside and outside of religious houses (with the exception of Santa Susanna in Rome, where you can go if you just want to sing out of Gather Comprehensive and have that slightly-to-the-liberal-side-of-center standard American sort of worship-experience), they seem to use this little Sunday bulletin/worship aid published by San Paolo and called La Domenica. It's actually pretty good. It has the readings and proper prayers of the day, as well as the Gloria and Creed printed in it. There's a little reflection on the front and a formula for the Universal Prayer inside. I usually expect such things to be not very good, but these aren't bad.

Today, however, on this solemnity of All Saints, I was a little disappointed. The reflection was too much history and not enough eschatology. And on the front are the patron saints of Europe: Benedict, Cyril and Methodius, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Edith Stein. Now I have nothing against these saints in their service as patrons of Europe (although, as I expressed in this post, I have worry that Italian devotion to St. Benedict risks giving new birth to the excesses of Joachim of Fiore); indeed patron saints of Europe must be very busy in this tempo di crisi, as the phrase goes here in Italy. Personally, I've been praying to St. Benedict recently. My first priest, the good Fr. Larry at Connecticut College, has always maintained that I am supposed to be a Benedictine rather than a Franciscan. I have always dismissed this, but lately I've started to wonder. Maybe it's just the temptation of living near Norcia. And of course I'm more or less in love with Edith Stein; probably the best homily I've given in Italian was just a quote from her Kreuzeswissenschaft for the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. When I think about her description of her famous conversion-prayer moment in Frankfurt, it touches my own experience so strongly. It's funny; for my mothers and fathers in religious life the iconic moment in this mold seems to be Merton on the corner of 4th and Walnut; for me it's a struggle between feeling like Edith Stein in Frankfurt or like Lovecraft in Brooklyn.

But to get back to the patrons of Europe, all those saints have their proper days in the calendar; they don't need to be on the cover of the bulletin today. To me the feast of All Saints is about them, for sure, but also for all the saints who are unknown, who will never be canonized for the veneration and encouragement of the Church Militant. Indeed, we go through the cycles of the liturgical year celebrating the feast of this or that saint, we can read the Martyrology each day and meet even more. But to believe in the salvation we have in Christ, it seems to me, is to confess that all of these are but a small fraction of the members of the Church Triumphant. And because we who are still on the journey of this life hope to join the saints one day, but because few of us will ever be canonized, today is the day we look forward to as our own future feast day. Indeed, that is our hope as we pray through this day; that one day we will find ourselves on the other side of the praise and veneration that goes up from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant on All Saints Day.

As St. Bernard reminds us in the Office of Readings today, this is, in fact, the function of All Saints Day. Not that the saints should gain anything from our venerating them, but that our recollection of their destiny should kindle in us the desire to share it.

resurgamus cum Christo, quaeramus quae sursum sunt, quae sursum sapiamus

says St. Bernard, riffing on the great Pauline Easter slogan, 'seek the things that are above,' sursum sunt quaerite. (Colossians 3:1)

"Let us rise again with Christ, may we seek the things that are above, may we taste what is above."

That's the spiritual life; seeking after a taste once tasted. Yearning for a God once glimpsed, but who seems to recede from our understanding and who seems to resist our comprehension. And indeed, it is supposed to be this way, because God refuses to be reduced to a 'thing' that can be possessed, that can be had like any other created good, much less any other consumer commodity. And this is why prayer is the first and best school of evangelical poverty, because what we seek can't be possessed in any way that our created bodies and minds can understand, and because as we settle into the 'uninteresting wilderness' of prayer, we find that our very desire for what we have tasted is itself the bread for our journey. It is the desire that turns out to be rest, and this is the way in which our prayer takes shape, as we journey to the Father, as the mirror image of the self-emptying God, of the immolated Christ.

non enim dispositus est aliquo modo ad contemplationes divinas, quae ad mentales ducunt excessus, nisi cum Daniele sit vir desideriorum.

"One is not ready in any way for the divine contemplations, which lead to interior ecstasy, unless he be like Daniel a man of desires." (St. Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God, prologue, 3)

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