Friday, November 9, 2012

What do you want to be, anyway?

A Sermon for All Saints' Sunday

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

That is the question a friend asked Thomas Merton not too long after his conversion from atheism to Roman Catholicism. Merton recalls this conversation in his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain:

I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:

“What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

            “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

            “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint!  The thought struck me as a little weird.  I said:

“How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

“What do you want to be, anyway?” Why not say that you want to be a saint?

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ in which we commemorate those exemplary disciples in the Church’s history who have inspired the imagination of Christians. We commemorate those who, as the Wisdom of Solomon says, “In the time of their visitation they shone forth, and ran like sparks through the stubble.” We commemorate all the saints, well known, less well known, unknown, and forgotten. We remember ‘official’ saints like Francis, Clare, Barnabas, Nicholas, Catherine, etc. and more contemporary ‘unofficial’ saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa. And we rejoice in believing that we are united with them in the one great communion of the saints.

Why commemorate the saints? It is not to do them any favor. As Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) said,

The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.  Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.

The saints inspire us. If we let them, they also inflame a tremendous yearning in us to live lives of similar faithfulness, love, and joy. That yearning is the challenge of the saints. We need to be careful not to put them on a pedestal that makes them fantastical and unreal. Otherwise we will miss the challenge of the saints. And here is the challenge: all saints were made of the same stuff as you and me. By God’s grace and their own discipline they became more nearly what each of us could be, what each of us are meant to be – saints.

Of course, like Merton, we are all very aware of our own sin. But, there is also that false humility which makes us say that we cannot do the things that we must do, cannot reach the level that we must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied with not being any better or worse than most people” but which really means, “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”

But, when we are honest with ourselves we know that that leaves us off balance and keeps us from entering more fully into the love and joy and peace that we believe God desires to pour into every crook and cranny of our lives. And it keeps us from being that love and joy and peace in the world around us.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be is a saint?

What is a saint? Here is a description from one of my favorite singers, Leonard Cohen:

What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill.  His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.

Balancing monsters of love. What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be is a balancing monster of love running like a spark through the stubble?

Frederick Buechner wrote this of saints:

Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one's mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be a little out of you mind, living a life that is always giving itself away and yet always full – full of the joy of God, running like a spark through the stubble?

Thomas Merton, in a different book wrote this about the sanctity that typifies a saint:

Sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.

What do you want to be, anyway? Why not say that you want to be more human?

Why not? Is it cowardice and false humility? Sin and attachments? Complacency with being ‘less than human’, less than fully alive? When we are honest with ourselves do we not sometimes sense that we are less than fully alive – not fully alive to God, not fully alive to others, not even fully alive to ourselves? I sense it in myself. The saints are those who are more fully alive and they inflame a yearning in us to be similarly alive.

And they challenge us to respond to Jesus calling to us, “Come out and be unbound.” We are like Lazarus. Parts of us are dead and need resurrecting. We all know well enough that there are things shut up in our hearts that would cause a stench if we uncovered them. Sin and attachments bind us like strips of grave cloth.

Jesus stands before us, weeping, desiring to fill is with his life and love and joy and peace. We need only role away the stone and allow him to have his way with us. Diligently practicing the classic spiritual disciplines is how we take away the stone – self-scrutiny and repentance, prayer and fasting, practicing the self-emptying, patient love of Jesus.

This is not about trying to get God to love us more. Through Jesus, we know that God already loves us – however dead we might be. We cannot make God love us more because God already loves us freely and completely. But our sins and our attachments can get in the way of our experiencing that love. It is not that God loves the saints more but that the saints availed themselves more to that love.

Only God can work in us the radical life-giving change in us for which we yearn. Only God can right all that unbalances us. Only God can transform us into balancing monsters of love. Only God can produce in us inner springs of joy and make us more fully human, more fully alive. But, God usually waits for us to take away the stone. If we want it, we can do the things that open us to God’s Holy transforming Spirit. Do we dare take the stone away? Do we dare ascend the hill of the LORD with the saints and stand in his holy place?

Why not say that you want to be is a balancing monster of love running like a spark through the stubble?

Why not say that you want to be a saint?


JW said...

Thank you for the wonderfully encouraging message! I especially appreciate the three quotes about what a saint is (Cohen, Buechner and Merton) and how they each echo something of the truly radical nature of Jesus. Jesus, who abandoned self-preservation to be with us; the one who knows us intimately, loves even our twisted hearts and meets us exactly where we are (Matthew, Zacchaeus, Peter, the woman at the well, etc.); who has been anointed with the oil of gladness, and in the strength of that joy (while looking to even greater joy) endured the cross; and who has shown us what it means to be truly human, true image bearers of God! So I guess to be a saint is to be invited into Christ-likeness.
Thanks again for the fresh reminder of what Christ-likeness looks like, from a fellow pilgrim newly on the Canterbury Trail.

Matt Gunter said...

"So I guess to be a saint is to be invited into Christ-likeness."

Precisely, JW. I am pleased you found this encouraging. As St. paul wrote:

"Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

and . . .

"Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it."

and . . .

"The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ."