All-Saints Day is November 1, which may not interest too many people outside of Catholic circles. After all, it was Pope Gregory IV who officially instituted the Feast of All Saints on November 1, 837 AD. Today, this observance is a Holy Day of Obligation for the Catholic faithful.
Even so, All-Saints Day has become a popular tradition for many Protestants, including Lutherans, United Methodists and Presbyterians. And while members of these denominations do not pray to the saints as the Catholics do, they still revere them. Here’s why:
SAINTS TEACH US WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
I suspect the average Joe thinks that saints are superhuman – people who have reached the summit of spiritual enlightenment and moral perfection while the rest of us are stumbling around in the plains below. But the saints were human – very human.
St. Jerome, who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Latin, was known for his sharp tongue. St. Rose of Lima, a nun of the 16th century, was afraid of the dark. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and popular writer of the mid-20th century, had an illicit six-month affair with a woman who was 26 years his junior.
None of this is to suggest that we can freely sin and be called a saint. The saints of history were keenly aware of their faults and strove to correct themselves when faced with the truth. Merton, for instance, repented of his affair, calling it an instance of “shallow calling to shallow.”
Still, saints know they are imperfect human beings and always will be as they strive in the flesh. This is an empowering thought to those of us who struggle with perfectionism. As another saint, Francis de Sales, wrote in the 17th century, “There is no harm done to the saints if their faults are shown as well as their virtues. But great harm is done to everybody by those hagiographers who slur over their faults … These writers commit a wrong against the saints and against the whole of posterity.”
SAINTS INSPIRE US TO BE BOLD
The saints did not settle for average grades on their faith report cards. They boldly worked toward an “A+” in their quest for God and service to Him. Even introverted saints, like Julian of Norwich who voluntarily lived within the walls of a church for most of her life, had a powerful impact on the world. In her seclusion, she wrote down visions she had while seriously ill. These writings eventually became known as Revelations of Divine Love, in which she compared Jesus to a caring mother: “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself…”
If this sounds shocking to some Christians today, imagine how it went over with the patriarchal church hierarchy of the 14th century! Yet Julian was not afraid to write from the wellspring of her heart, which knew Jesus as a tender figure, much like a mother holding her beloved newborn at her breast.
Saints had fears and limitations like the rest of us, but they pushed through them to get to God’s side. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, detested lepers. One day, he spied a man with leprosy but made a crucial decision: instead of shuddering and holding his nose as he was accustomed to doing, he ran into the leper’s arms and embraced him. Francis noted that “what was so bitter was changed into sweetness.”
Even if we don’t think we’re particularly courageous, the saints can teach us to take even a small step of boldness in our faith, inspiring others to do the same.
SAINTS HELP US GROW CLOSER TO GOD
The saints had a deep passion for God. Some, like Francis, communed with God so much that one biographer wrote, “Francis did not so much pray as he became a prayer.” Others, like Mother Teresa, saw Christ in the desperate faces of the poor and sick in Calcutta.
But saints aren’t just relics of the past. They live among us today. You may know someone whom you would call “saintly” – a person like your devout grandmother who studies her Bible every morning, or the man in the office next to yours who goes on a mission trip for his vacation. You know they are not perfect people, yet they provide empowering examples of humility and humanness mixed with a love for God that cannot be denied.
If you observe All-Saints Day, I wish you have a meaningful celebration. If you don’t, I hope you will still celebrate those people who push us along the path of holiness, however slight we might perceive it to be.