Rorate Caeli

Sermon for All Saints Day

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

It was his first time in Rome, and he was impressed, even overwhelmed by this place, where the ancient and the contemporary stand together, a mixture of chaos and faith, a sense of decay amidst the feeling of eternity.  

He was on his way to a church to see a statue of St. Teresa of Avila that a priest back home had insisted he see while in Rome.  Knowing the priest, he knew that he could not go home without seeing this work of art.  He walked into the church, a rather small baroque church with opulent decoration of gilt and marble, complete with a sunburst over the high altar.  But he was not here to see the church. He came here for a purpose. His guide book told him in which side altar the statue was located. And suddenly there it was:  Bernini’s famous sculpture of St. Teresa in ecstasy, the angel poised to pierce her heart with an arrow.  He marveled at the miracle of the movement that Bernini was able to achieve out of a slab of marble.  He marveled at the look on St. Teresa’s face; he marveled at the lightness of the whole conception.  There were lights on the sculpture, but light also seemed to come from the statues themselves, as if the whole marble piece were suffused with an inner light.  Ah, yes, he said to himself, quite beautiful. This is indeed worth a trip to see.  Quite lovely, that face, that light.  And off he sent to see something else on his check list in the Eternal City.

The memory of that statue stayed with the man even after he returned home. He decided to find out more about this St. Teresa and read a book about her life.  He was impressed by her conversion experience, by her energy, by her zeal in reforming the Carmelite Order.  He was intrigued by her mystical experiences in which she was caught up in ecstasy.  He wanted to know more, so he began to read some of her writings.  The words of this woman in so many passages seemed to jump off the page with their common sense, with the great understanding of human nature, but above all by her uninhibited descriptions of her experience of being transported by the love of Christ to communion with God himself.  Amazing, thought the man, such a person, such insights, such faith, such wonderful experiences.  And then he closed the book and went on to something else.

Who are these like stars appearing?  Who are these who shine with light, whose robes are a dazzling white?  They are those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They are those who share in the glorious triumph of the Lamb. They are the Saints.  But is it not true that for many of us the saints are merely people who lived in the past and that we admire, sometimes admire intensely?  Is it not true that for some of us that we never get past an aesthetic appreciation of the saints?  We marvel at their live, we wonder at their achievements and their experiences, we read their writing and are inspired by their words, we are touched.  We are touched, but that is about how far it goes, being impressed as an observer, without any sense of a real relationship between ourselves and the saint as a real person. 

But who are these like stars appearing, who are these at whose light that suffuses from inside we marvel and whose lives and whose words stir our hearts?  They are those who have become what they are.  They are those who opened themselves up to the grace of God in such a way that every part of their being was shot through, was in-formed by this grace.  And because they opened themselves up in this total way to the working of God’s grace, they became what Christ destined them to be, the ones we call holy, the elect, the saints of God.  These are the men and the women who took the ultimate risk of choosing God in the final sense.  These are the men and women who followed love wherever it led them, whether it led them to a monastery, a throne, a marriage, or to death in a Roman arena.  They are those for who God was enough and for whom God was all.

But what do they have to do with us?  They became what we are.  What we are has its sourece at the font when we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, when the down payment of the Holy Spirit, in St. Paul’s words, was given to us, when we were made new creatures, when sin was drowned in the water of baptism, when we were made elect, made holy.  We share that beginning with all of the saints.  We were all made holy.  But the question is what one does with the grace, what one does with the promptings of the Spirit that are part of our lives.  Is this holiness of ours something to merely think about or to read about in the Catechism?  If so, we are nothing but religious aesthetes and will never be in the company of the saints.  For we must open ourselves up to that grace that made us holy so that we can become holy.  We must live our lives thirsting for God, living our lives in conformity with the holiness of God.  In St. John’s words, we must live our lives in conformity to purity: purity of body, purity of mind, purity of soul, remembering that purity of heart means to will one thing: to will the will of God.

We must not be afraid to do this, to open ourselves up in this radical way.  But we are afraid, for to become holy by opening up yourself to God’s grace in this way means a radical change in your life.  It means that how you look at life, how you look at people, will radically change.  And such a change is always threatening, not only to ourselves but also to those around us.  Do we really want Mary’s humility?  Do we really want St. Teresa’s ecstasy?  Do we really want St. Paul’s zeal?  Do we really want the suffering and martyrdom of so many of the saints of God?  Most of us prefer to admire them from afar as lovely statues or pretty religious cards.

But the saints are our cohorts in fighting the good fight under the banner of the triumphant King who has conquered the world of sin and death.  It is the saints who worship God in eternity and part of this worship is their prayers, their prayers of adoration of God but also their prayers for us, rising like incense, their prayers that  we may become what we are.  To be called holy is an awesome thing. To think of myself as one made holy is not something I ordinarily do.  But yet, in a few minutes, we will approach the altar rail and kneel and receive within our bodies and souls that which is Most Holy.  We could not do this, unless the holiness of God has already transformed us in the Sacraments so that we can receive Christ’s holy Body and Blood within ourselves.  On this All Saints’ Day let us invoke the saints who are with us here at this altar.  Let us pray that we may accept the grace of God in our lives and not be afraid to let this grace take over our lives and lead us to wherever it takes us. Let us have the courage to be who we are.