Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Inflamed by a Tremendous Yearning

All Saints 2017

It would seem totally unfair for me to single out one particular saint when our feast calls for us to contemplate the whole plethora of them – the entire sanctoral pantheon of heaven. But, the reason for this special mention would soon become obvious. I would like to introduce you to one of my personal favourites, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century abbot and reformer, a pastor and Doctor of the Church, celebrated for centuries as a man of great intellect and greater holiness. If you have a fascination about the mysterious Knights Templar (perhaps for the wrong reasons, due to the ridiculous associations with the Free Masons as popularised by that piece of literary hogwash, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code), you may be interested to know that St Bernard was instrumental in the foundation of that order of military monks. Though largely unknown to our present generation of Catholics, he has left us a legacy of writings and homilies and one single Marian prayer that continues to be part of our treasure trove of Catholic prayers – the Memorare.  Although he may not have been its author, he is certainly its greatest promoter.

He deserves special mention today because I would like to begin with the blunt and perhaps unexpected question he asked in a homily given on the occasion of the Solemnity of All Saints. “Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honours when their heavenly Father honours them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them.’’ St. Bernard provides this beautiful answer to his own list of rhetorical questions, “when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.”

What is this ‘tremendous yearning’ which he speaks of? St Bernard explains that this ‘tremendous yearning’ is twofold in nature. With regards to the first level of yearning: “Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints …”

When we commemorate the saints, we are also inflamed with another yearning: “that Christ our life may also appear to us as He appeared to them and that we may one day share in His glory… When Christ comes again, His death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with Him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and His glorified members will shine in splendor with Him, when He forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to Himself, its head.” St Bernard reminds us that we do not simply honour the saints from a distance like dotting fans. No, that would not be enough. By contemplating the saints, we ‘yearn’, we long, and we aspire to be with them, to be in their company, but most importantly, we yearn to ‘become’ them, to be united with Christ who is head of this glorified body, for that is what a saint is meant to be. If Beauty is the compelling power of Truth, then the Beauty of the Saints draws us not to themselves but into the presence of Divine Truth Himself.

When we pause to consider the lives of the saints, it inspires us to long for holiness in our own lives, and the path of holiness. But the path of holiness isn’t something sterile and saccharine. As Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have always reminded us, the path of holiness always passes through the Way of the Cross. Today, on this Solemn Feast of All Saints, we are standing with John the Seer and seeing what he saw, the huge number impossible to count, of people from every nation. We are seeing all those believers who have gone before us and have arrived at the heavenly goal, which we’re still travelling to. And then the question comes, “Do you know who these people are?” This question isn’t really concerned about naming each and every one of those saints arrayed in the presence of God. Rather, the question is, “Do we know what a saint is?” “Do we know what it means to stand before God in everlasting life?”

And here’s the answer, “These are the people who...have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).  What does it mean?  It’s worth trying to understand. Let’s say this: the robe is our humanity, the blood of the Lamb is the power of Christ’s passion, His suffering and death, and white is the colour of closeness to God. So a saint is someone whose humanity, whose life, has been brought to God, been made god-like, by the power of the Cross, by the power of the self-offering Christ the Lamb made on the Cross. There, on the Cross, the naked Christ gave us back our robe and covered our nakedness wrought by sin. On the Cross, He showed us our truest and deepest vocation as human beings.

But apart from showing us the Cross, the saints also remind us of things that are changeless, timeless.  Things we need to remember and hold onto right now.  Things like Courage, Sacrifice, Holiness and Hope. For all the trials and hardships that the world has known, through the centuries, ordinary people have stepped forward to live out those ideals.  Now, many of you may protest that most Christians will never get the privilege of becoming a ‘red’ martyr, one who gives his life for his faith. But then, all are called to be ‘white’ martyrs, martyrs in their own right, in living faithfully the vocation of holiness in their own respective circumstances. Daily life, the demands of family and work, marriage and parenthood, tending to others’ needs, dealing with the things that go wrong: it’s through all that, most usually, Christ’s love is to be lived. We can either chose mediocrity or we can choose the same path by living it with heroic acts of faith, humility and fidelity. That too, is the path of holiness.

There was a time when immoral behaviour was seen as a form of social rebellion. But today, immorality has become the new ordinary, the new norm. Today, it is saintly behaviour which is counter-cultural and even considered subversive in our society. There is a quiet rebellion by many courageous and heroic men and women who strive to live lives faithful to the gospel and to the dictates of their conscience.   However, they are thrown against a whole bulwark of mockery, ridicule, hatred, and even persecution from a society who believes that they have lost their minds. It’s not hard to understand why. As the erudite Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “The wicked fear the good, because the good are a constant reproach to their consciences.” 

Today’s feast throws a challenge to all of us, “Don’t go with the flow,” for as Fulton Sheen reminds us, even “dead bodies float downstream.” More than ever we shall have to be strong in the faith. We hear the rallying cry of St Bernard on this great solemnity, “Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.”

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