"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All the Saints of God

Apologies for the gap in posting: I was in San Felice del Benaco last week to give a paper at a Russian Catholic congress, and working simultaneously to finish another paper at another conference next month. I will, in several places, have much more to say about this congress and the plight of Russian Byzantine Catholics today, whose treatment by Rome is, and has for decades been, an absolute scandal and utter disgrace. They, more than any other Eastern Catholic Church, illustrate the truth of Flannery O'Connor's observation that one is called upon to suffer ever so much more from the Church than for her.

But on this All Saints day, I pause to record a few thoughts by way of introducing a new book that arrived on my desk some weeks back:

I confess to a rather pronounced dislike of most of what passes for popular hagiography, that is, story-telling about those called saints. For too much of that literature has rendered too many men and women into little more than what Cardinal Newman called “clothes racks for virtues.” They seem, improbably, to be dripping with all the right attitudes and behaviors; they have primly checked all the proper boxes; they seem not even so much as to have sworn at stubbing their toe, never mind to have violated a single moral precept. They do not, as it were, have a single hair out of place on their perfectly sculpted, halo-bedecked heads. They are bloodless portraits of humourless and tedious bores. If you were seated beside one such as this at a dinner party or on a bus, you would curse your bad luck and move as fast as possible.

But the vision in the letter to the Hebrews used in the Byzantine lectionary on today's feast is much livelier and more exciting: “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Here I think immediately and vividly of a great crowd of the most diverse people, all pressing around, huddling in ever closer and cheering ever more boisterously at the finish line of a race on a bright, sunny, warm day as each of us—some huffing and puffing, most walking awkwardly and lamely in some pain, and only a very few racing smartly across the finish line—makes it to the end. That cloud of witnesses is filled with liveliness, with hope, with great good cheer, and above all with a love that overflows: they love us enough to want us to finish the race set before us so that we can join them in their endless feasting. They love us and so do not laugh at our funny walk, or strange running style, or badly misshapen bodies. They love us and so only want us to win the crowns of eternal life spoken of in today’s gospel.

How do we run this race? Some may be called to heroic achievement, to spiritual Olympics, as it were. But most of us are not--and we have, inter alia, Michael Plekon most recently to thank for his tireless reminders of ordinary and hidden holiness, and for showing us saints as they really are.

Beyond Plekon, the greatest figure of 19th-century English Christianity, John Henry Cardinal Newman, in a short meditation from 1856, argues that “it is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well.” That, Newman says, is  “a short road to perfection—short” but not always easy. For sometimes daily work seems like drudgery and we crave excitement. But Newman, with the whole weight of the desert fathers and mothers behind him, reminds us to resist those desires for adventure, saying instead:
If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
All of which is just a homiletical introduction to the book I mentioned by Leonard J. DeLorenzo: Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 362pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The saints are good company. They are the heroes of the faith who blazed new and creative paths to holiness; they are the witnesses whose testimonies echo throughout the ages in the memory of the Church. Most Christians, and particularly Catholics, are likely to have their own favorite saints, those who inspire and “speak” to believers as they pray and struggle through the challenges of their own lives. Leonard DeLorenzo’s book addresses the idea of the communion of saints, rather than individual saints, with the conviction that what makes the saints holy and what forms them into a communion is one and the same. Work of Love investigates the issue of communication within the communio sanctorum and the fullness of Christian hope in the face of the meaning—or meaninglessness—of death. In an effort to revitalize a theological topic that for much of Catholic history has been an indelible part of the Catholic imaginary, DeLorenzo invokes the ideas of not only many theological figures (Rahner, Ratzinger, Balathasar, and de Lubac, among others) but also historians, philosophers (notably Heidegger and Nietzsche), and literary figures (Rilke and Dante) to create a rich tableau. By working across several disciplines, DeLorenzo argues for a vigorous renewal in the Christian imagination of the theological concept of the communion of saints. He concludes that the embodied witness of the saints themselves, as well as the liturgical and devotional movements of the Church at prayer, testifies to the central importance of the communion of saints as the eschatological hope and fulfillment of the promises of Christ.

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