Today we celebrate All Saints Day. When St. Paul writes his letter to the Church at Ephesus, he addresses it to ‘the saints at Ephesus’. When he writes to the Church at Corinth, it is to those ‘called to be saints.’ So, if St. Paul was here, talking to you now, he would be calling you ‘the saints at Repps, Martham, Clippesby and Thurne.’ That would make you think, wouldn’t it? Do you see yourselves as saints faithful to Jesus Christ in Repps or Martham or Clippesby or Thurne? Perhaps the first question we need to ask ourselves today is what exactly does it mean to be a saint – what are the characteristics of sainthood?
Well, perhaps it’s easier first of all to say what they are not. They are not about observing all the rules of morality and living a blameless life. Saints, from the apostles onwards, have had a sense of their own need for forgiveness and of God’s mercy. We can take heart – they were not perfect people! St. Jean-Pierre de Caussade gives this rule as governing the lives of the saints –
‘Leave the past to the infinite mercy of God, the future to his good providence; give the present wholly to his love by being faithful to his grace.’
That’s actually hugely good advice, because from the moment we can start to throw ourselves freely and gladly on the goodness of God – with no side-glances towards our own perceived merits, because they do not in any way qualify us for this acceptance or for sainthood – at that moment when pride dissolves into humility, self-righteousness into submission, envy into gladness for another’s joy, then our journey to sainthood has truly begun. Martin Luther wrote that ‘As men without anything at all, we must wait for the pure mercy of God.’
Saints are characterised by their awareness that the depth of God’s mercy and compassion is beyond our capacity to understand. ‘As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean’ writes St. Isaac of Syria, ‘so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.’ That’s very reassuring! God’s compassion, St. Isaac goes on to tell us, can never be outdone by the greatness of human sin. This experience of forgiveness and renewal gives to the saints a deep compassion for other people. Julian of Norwich says that this compassion for others is a hallmark of Christ’s indwelling. She tells us that a judgemental attitude will harm us, for ‘Looking at another’s sin clouds the eyes of the soul, hiding for the time being the fair beauty of God’. We must only look on the sinner with sincere and genuine compassion. Julian paints a beautiful picture of God looking on us, His servants, not with blame, but with pity, and she exhorts us not to look backwards in self-recrimination, but to forgive ourselves as God forgives us.
St. Teresa of Avila reminds us that this sure knowledge of God’s forgiveness and compassion should make us willingly and instantly forgiving of others. She says (as a saint would, of course) ‘we forgive out of the fullness of the knowledge of our own infirmities...’
The attitude of forgiveness in the saints is but a reflection of God’s own forgiving love. All love begins with God; our love is but a response. We love Him because He first loved us.
Another characteristic of saints is that they don’t do things by halves. You only have to listen to our Gospel reading this morning to see that – Jesus exhorts us to give everything to God and to our fellow human beings and not to hold back. Brother Lawrence, who advocated spending the whole of life living consciously in the presence of God, says that we do not have to change our daily work in order to be saved, but we have to do it for God’s sake rather than for our own. Martin Luther wrote in a similar vein, saying that it doesn’t matter how insignificant the work we do is, even mundane household tasks become a service to God when offered to him and done in His name.
My last characteristic of sainthood is the spirit of joy. This is a very different quality to happiness. Happiness speaks of success, satisfaction or prosperity. Joy is a fruit of the spirit. It doesn’t depend on circumstances, although I have to admit that there are circumstances in which being joyful is pretty difficult! However, whilst happiness may depend on the weather, our bank balance or the opinion of others, joy should transcend these variations in our fortunes. It stems from the peace of mind and spirit that comes from doing God’s will and being in a right relationship with Him. It is God’s gift.
Of course, some saints are very well known like St. Peter and St. Paul, but saints didn’t just live long ago – we can all think of good and holy people who we know, but who will never be well-known. In a society that fawns on celebrities, in which merely to be known matters more than being known for anything particularly good, it’s important that we deliberately give thanks for those hidden saints who have influenced and enriched our own lives and the life of our church and our community.
November, which begins on Tuesday, is traditionally the month for remembering the souls of the departed, those who have gone before us, and as we approach Remembrance Day there will be the familiar photos in the media of the rows upon rows of graves in the war cemeteries of Europe, North Africa and Japan. The veritable sea of headstones is a terrible reminder of the carnage of 2 world wars, as well as those conflicts in more recent memory, and those that continue today. But one thing is strikingly common to all these cemeteries. In the midst of the lines of graves is one simple but stately stone cross lifted up above them. What does it say? It says that these men and women whose bodies lie beneath the earth are not lost, that there is hope for them all of life on the other side of death, not because they were uncommonly good people, most were not, but because Christ who was made man, died and rose again for us all, because He came down to earth to lift us up.
The single-minded quest for sanctity is probably easier for monks or nuns than for those of us living ‘in the world’ as it were. It’s hard to concentrate wholly on the pursuit of holiness when you are struggling to cope with the multiple commitments of home, family, work and pulling your weight on the PCC! But, don’t despair, you can still sometimes glimpse a saint in the Benefice of Martham, Repps, Thurne and Clippesby. Believe me!