The month of November has been hallowed by time, tradition and practice as the month in which we pay special reverence to the saints and, of course, to our beloved dead. In our own Cistercian tradition in Ireland we will celebrate, within a few short days, the Solemnity of All Saints (1st November), the Feast of All the Saints of Ireland (6th November), and the Feast of All the Saints who followed the Rule of Saint Benedict (13th November). There is much in these few days to ask the saints to pray and intercede for: the Church throughout the world, and especially in places where she is persecuted and her sons and daughters are treated with violence and hatred; the Church in Ireland, where she faces a neo-paganism and anti-Catholicism in particular which has rarely been seen before, even at the hand of foreign powers, and which has condemned Irish society to an unparalleled godlessness; and our own Cistercian family, here in Bethlehem Abbey, and with our brothers and sisters united with us, in our Irish Cistercian communities, and for our Order all over the world, that we may experience a new growth in our witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ, our leader in the faith, as a monastic and contemplative leaven in an increasingly self-centred global society.
But the cult of the saints is not just about those who have gone before us and remain with us as examples and models of holiness – it draws together the common call to holiness which is shared by all who are baptised and made members of Christ; the boundless variety of gifts and representations within the Church and of the Church; and how we model ourselves on Christ.
The Rule of St Benedict – The Only Possible Goal
If we were to ask ourselves what the point of monastery life is for St Benedict and why he felt the need to compose a rule which assisted those who enter monasteries to make the most of their vocation and allow it to flourish in response to the grace of God’s call, we don’t have to look further than the Rule’s Prologue to find out:
“Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? If you hear this and your answer is, “I do,” God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life….”(RB Prologue)
So, Benedict sees very clearly that the point of monastic living is to bring one into eternal life, the fullness of life with God. Indeed, bookending the Rule, having given us this in the Prologue (and he continues throughout the Rule in this vein – everything will bring us to or forfeit eternal life), Benedict writes:
“Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life”(RB72)
The business of this journey to eternal life (the attainment, in other words, of the kingdom of God and the life of the kingdom) is intimately concerned with the short term goal of this earthly life, called by John Cassian “purity of heart”, following Christ’s own instruction in the Sermon on the Mount in that passage known as the Beatitudes, and which, in another way, may be recognised as “the call to holiness”.
St Benedict is careful around holiness, and recognises that it must be a goal in this life. He writes for us, in the tools for good works (RB4):
“Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may truly be called so”(RB4:62)
This, indeed, bears out the invitation already seen in the Prologue:
“The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings”(RB Prologue 35)
There is no doubt but that St Benedict sees the possibility of holiness as a real and concrete possibility, something that we should work for with a mind to accomplishing it, and something for which God provides the necessary tools and encouragement. And it might rightly be said that Chapter 4 of the Rule – the Tools of Good Works – is a sort of roadmap which offers the proper guidance for just such an undertaking.
The Call to Holiness – Vatican II and Pope Francis
One of the most striking texts which the Second Vatican Council offers us is that contained in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. She makes explicit that all of us, in whatever state of life we find ourselves, share in a universal call to holiness in the Church, a call to become transformed by grace and conformed to Christ.
“Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.
The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.
Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away. (Lumen Gentium 40-42)
These clearly expressed sentiments of the Council – written now over half a century ago – perhaps have more resonance today than ever before. There is clear need for Catholic men and women to become witnesses to the invitation to holiness and, by their witness, to draw others to the life of charity. Embracing every state in the Church this call to holiness begins with the mystery of our baptism and continues through all our discerned choices for life – married state or single, priestly or religious, through our professional contacts and efforts, in the joys and struggles which take hold in family life, in the now constant threats to religious practice and the life of the Gospel which secular society so blatantly and arrogantly throws at those who claim the freedom to practise their religion – in all of these moments both the call to and the reality of living holiness must be reclaimed not simply as an add-on to life but as the very fabric and defining feature of a life lived well, in imitation of Christ.
Pope Francis has given us a new meditation on this daily and pertinent call to holiness in his exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. In the signs which he outlines from number 112 onwards we are invited to recognise both holiness already present in our lives and in the lives of others, and also means by which we can really grow in this life of grace and conformity to Christ: perseverance, patience and meekness; joy and a sense of humour; boldness and passion. And the Holy Father reminds us of one of the great gifts which has always be associated with life in the Church and which the Church has protected and promoted through the ages – the gift of community as a place and means to live out our journey and growth in holiness:
“Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others. We see this in some holy communities. From time to time, the Church has canonized entire communities that lived the Gospel heroically or offered to God the lives of all their members. We can think, for example, of the seven holy founders of the Order of the Servants of Mary, the seven blessed sisters of the first monastery of the Visitation in Madrid, the Japanese martyrs Saint Paul Miki and companions, the Korean martyrs Saint Andrew Taegon and companions, or the South American martyrs Saint Roque González, Saint Alonso Rodríguez and companions. We should also remember the more recent witness borne by the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria, who prepared as a community for martyrdom. In many holy marriages too, each spouse becomes a means used by Christ for the sanctification of the other. Living or working alongside others is surely a path of spiritual growth.
Saint John of the Cross told one of his followers:
“You are living with others in order to be fashioned and tried”.Saint John of the Cross
Each community is called to create a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord”. Sharing the word and celebrating the Eucharist together fosters fraternity and makes us a holy and missionary community. It also gives rise to authentic and shared mystical experiences. Such was the case with Saints Benedict and Scholastica. We can also think of the sublime spiritual experience shared by Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica. “As the day now approached on which she was to depart this life, a day known to you but not to us, it came about, as I believe by your secret arrangement, that she and I stood alone leaning in a window that looked onto a garden… We opened wide our hearts to drink in the streams of your fountain, the source of life that is in you… And as we spoke of that wisdom and strained after it, we touched it in some measure by the impetus of our hearts… eternal life might be like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after”.
Such experiences, however, are neither the most frequent nor the most important. The common life, whether in the family, the parish, the religious community or any other, is made up of small everyday things. This was true of the holy community formed by Jesus, Mary and Joseph, which reflected in an exemplary way the beauty of the Trinitarian communion. It was also true of the life that Jesus shared with his disciples and with ordinary people.” (Gaudete et Exsultate 140-143)
The Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant – “I believe in the communion of saints”
With this article of the Creed, knit into the fabric of our faith, we recognise that the call to holiness which we all share by or baptism is a call to communion with our brothers and sisters who are with us is this earthly life and with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Traditionally, the mystical Body of Christ comprises also those who have completed their baptism: the members still fighting under the standard of the true king, Christ the Lord, are ourselves, the Church militant; the Church suffering embraces those who, having died are still in that state which requires a further purification by divine love which ultimately frees them from the burden of guilt attached to sin which may still have accompanied them at the moment of death – those who are undergo the purification of purgatory; and then the Church triumphant, those of our brothers and sisters who are already admitted to the heavenly banquet and share in the divine life, seeing God face to face. The Church exists through all these her members. And it is absolutely right that we ask those who have completed the earthly race to pray for us and pray with us – they continue to do exactly what we ask of one another here and now. Of such as these the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says:
“These were men who through faith conquered kingdoms, did what is right and earned the promises. They could keep a lion’s mouth shut, put out blazing fires and emerge unscathed from battle. They were weak people who were given strength, to be brave in war and drive back foreign invaders. Some came back to their wives from the dead, by resurrection; and others submitted to torture, refusing release so that they would rise again to a better life. Some had to bear being pilloried and flogged, or even chained up in prison. They were stoned or sawn in half, or beheaded; they were homeless, and dressed in the skins of sheep and goats; they were penniless and given nothing but ill-treatment. They were too good for the world and they went out to live in deserts and mountains and in caves and ravines. These are all heroes of faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had made provision for us to have something better, and they were not to reach perfection except with us.
With so many witnesses in so great a cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race that we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection (Hebrews 11:33 – 12:2)
In his wonderful book The Spirit of Catholicism, the German Protestant theologian Karl Adam, reflecting on the truth of the Catholic faith, has this to write about those who now enjoy the fullness of life:
“Hosts of the redeemed are continually passing into heaven, either directly or by the road of purification in the suffering Church. They pass into the presence of the Lamb and of him who sits upon the throne, in order face to face – and no longer in mere similitude and image – to contemplate the Trinity, in whose bosom are all possibilities and all realities, the unborn God from out of whose eternal wellspring of life all beings drink existence and strength, motion and beauty, truth and love. There is none there who has not been brought home by God’s mercy alone. All are redeemed, from the highest seraph to the new-born child just sealed by the grace of baptism as it left the world. Delivered from all selfish limitations and raised above all earthly anxieties, they live, within that sphere of love which their life on earth has traced out for them, the great life of God. It is true life, no idle stagnation, but a continual activity of sense and mind and will. It is true that they can merit no longer, nor bear fruit now for the kingdom of heaven. For the kingdom of heaven is established and grace has finished its work. But the life of glory is richer far than the life of grace. The infinite spaces of the being of God, in all its width and depth, provide a source in which the soul seeks and finds the satisfaction of its most intimate yearnings. New possibilities continually reveal themselves, new vistas of truth, new springs of joy. Being incorporated in the most sacred humanity of Jesus, the soul is joined in most mysterious intimacy to the Godhead itself. It hears the heartbeats of God and feels the deep life that pulsates within the Divinity. The soul is set and lives at the centre of all being, whence the sources of all life flow, where the meaning of all existence shines forth in the triune God, where all power and all beauty, all peace and all blessedness, are become pure actuality and purest present, are made an eternal now.
This life of the saints, in its superabundant and inexhaustible fruitfulness, is at the same time a life of the richest variety and fullness. The one Spirit of Jesus, their head and mediator, is manifested in his saints in all the rich variety of their individual lives, and according to the various measure in which every single soul, with its own special gifts and its own special call, has received and employed the grace of God. The one conception of the saint, of the servant of Christ, is embodied in an infinite variety of forms. The litany of the saints takes us rapidly through this “celestial hierarchy.” And while every name denotes a special gift, a special character, a special life, yet all are united in one only love and in one gospel of joy and gladness.”
The Litany of the Saints – A Prayer for November
Perhaps this November can be for us a time to reconnect with the saints and the blessed, those who have been recognised formally by the Church for the witness they have given, in this life, to the Gospel. And when we do read their lives, especially accounts which try to reflect not only the wonder-working but also the daily nitty gritty and struggles which they bore, we can find that the saints have much to offer us as we try to live, day by day, the demands of faith witness and practice. Perhaps this is a time to reconnect with the saint whose name you share, and if you do not have a name which is usually known as a “Christian” name, the name of a saint who, by that common sharing becomes a patron for you, perhaps it’s time that you chose one yourself! A name is not simply a title – the witness of Sacred Scripture tells us that a name brings with it a mission, a purpose, a particular way of relating to God and his plan for us which is unique. So, to adopt a saint’s name is, in a way, to ask for their life and example to become part of my life, and for me to take on what my saint teaches me.
One of the prayers which the Church has prayed from her earliest days is the Litany of the Saints. Existing in somewhat varying forms this prayer is used especially in more solemn celebrations – the liturgy of baptism, the occasion of an ordination to diaconate or priesthood, or episcopal consecration, at religious profession, at the Paschal Vigil when we recall our baptism, at the blessing and dedication of an altar – and by its use we call on the saints to pray for us, and to join us in our own prayers as we call down a special consecration on the person or thing being blessed and set aside for a special function. The Litany of the Saints, as a prayer, is a true expression of our communion with the saints, united in God’s loving mercy, and living out of the unity which it brings about. As November invites us not just to a remembrance of the saints but also to a felt sharing in our communion with them, it might be good to pray the Litany. If the name of your patron saint is not included why not add it, and add also the patron saints of family and friends, especially those who you know to be in need at this time: commend yourself and them to the care of Mary, the Mother of God, and the fellowship of the saints.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.
Response: pray for us
Holy Mother of God,
Holy Virgin of virgins,
All you holy Angels and Archangels,
All you holy orders of blessed Spirits,
St. John the Baptist,
All you holy Patriarchs and Prophets,
All you holy Apostles and Evangelists,
All you holy Disciples of the Lord,
All you holy Innocents,
Sts. Fabian and Sebastian,
Sts. John and Paul,
Sts. Cosmas and Damian,
Sts. Gervase and Protase,
All you holy Martyrs,
All you holy Bishops and Confessors,
All you holy Doctors,
All you holy Priests and Levites,
All you holy Monks and Hermits,
St. Mary Magdalen,
All you holy Virgins and Widows,
All you Holy Men and Women, Saints of God, make intercession for us.
Be merciful, spare us, O Lord.
Be merciful, graciously hear us, O Lord.
Response: O Lord, deliver us
From all evil,
From all sin,
From your wrath,
From sudden and unprovided death,
From the snares of the devil,
From anger, and hatred, and all ill-will,
From the spirit of fornication,
From lightning and tempest,
From the scourge of earthquake,
From plague, famine, and war,
From everlasting death,
Through the mystery of your holy Incarnation,
Through your Coming,
Through your Nativity,
Through your Baptism and holy Fasting,
Through your Cross and Passion,
Through your Death and Burial,
Through your holy Resurrection,
Through your admirable Ascension,
Through the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
In the day of judgment,
Response: We beseech you, hear us
That you would spare us,
That you would pardon us,
That you would bring us to true penance,
That you would deign to govern and preserve your holy Church,
That you would deign to preserve our Apostolic Prelate, and all orders of the Church in holy religion,
That you would deign to humble the enemies of Holy Church,
That you would deign to give peace and true concord to Christian kings and princes,
That you would deign to grant peace and unity to all Christian people,
That you would deign to call back to the unity of the Church all who have strayed from the truth and lead all unbelievers to the light of the Gospel,
That you would deign to confirm and preserve us in your holy service,
That you would lift up our minds to heavenly desires,
That you would render eternal blessings to all our benefactors,
That you would deliver our souls and the souls of our brethren, relations and benefactors, from eternal damnation,
That you would deign to give and preserve the fruits of the earth,
That you would deign to grant eternal rest to all the faithful departed,
That you would deign to graciously hear us, Son of God,
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.