In homeschooling our children, I have never given them a grade for their religious studies. When asked why, my response is simple:
When we die, the grade is either Pass, Fail, or Incomplete. No letters. No numbers.
Today we celebrate those who passed- the saints. Tomorrow, we pray for those who got incompletes, the holy souls in purgatory who are completing their preparation for the Beatific Vision. There are countless millions of saints in heaven and souls in purgatory. Not all of the saints get a named feast day, only a very few. Most have not been formally canonized by the Church in that rigorous process that declares one’s life worthy of emulation. Not to take away from the great pantheon of named saints, but there are others.
Today, I think of my grandparents who led lives of heroic virtue amidst the grinding poverty of the Great Depression. I recall the stories told over and over in my youth. Mom’s mother feeding the kids oatmeal for dinner and having a small steak for my grandfather when he came home from a sixteen hour day of work. How he refused to eat that steak without dividing it equally among the five children and Nana, with Nana pleading that a grown man needed his strength. He wouldn’t hear of it.
I think of Dad’s mother giving them each a penny for the poor box in church on Sunday, “for the poor kids,” as they trod to mass with holes in their shoes and a simple potato for dinner.
There were the stories of neighbors pitching in and helping neighbors. There were the Sisters of St. Joseph who would pick out the kids who were obviously malnourished (like my dad and his brother) and ask them at lunch time to bring the sisters’ laundry to the cleaners. When they returned, there were always a few place settings with untouched lunch waiting, along with the face-saving, “Some of the sisters are sick today, and it would be a sin to waste food. Could you help us by eating some?”
There was crusty old Msgr. Cherry, the pastor, who always seemed to have vouchers for new shoes at the shoe store. A gruff old goat with a heart of gold.
There are the two priests who were like fathers to me, Fr. Luke McCann and Fr. Jack McGuire who have gone home to the Lord within these past two years, for whom I still cannot find adequate words to write anything that can encompass their greatness and all that they have done to form me.
And they all had their flaws, their weaknesses, their sins.
And still they are saints today, all of them having died sealed in the sacraments.
So what have I learned from the stories, and from the things I have witnessed first-hand? The great common denominator among all of the saints is this:
All of scripture and theology, all of the liberal arts, bioethics, philosophy, point us toward the acquisition and the mastery of this one virtue that is indispensable for eternal life. Fyodor Dostoyevsky gets it exactly right in The Brothers Karamazov:
Brothers, love is a teacher, but a hard one to obtain: learning to love is hard and we pay dearly for it. It takes hard work and a long apprenticeship, for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.
When I think of the everyday saints I have known, they were all characterized by the hard work of which Dostoyevsky speaks; and they did indeed pay dearly for it. Learning to love is not easy, and often messy. Dying to self can exact a toll on one’s peace of heart and mind, and soul. Even the saints portrayed in the icons had their moments.
That’s easy to lose sight of in our own journey. The icons show us the finished products as the artist envisions the beatific vision unfolding, not the dark days and foul moods, the doubts and fears, the moments when we try to snatch a little time or something just for ourselves. We do pay dearly for the experience of learning to love. I suspect, though, that the alabaster saints in church were no different.
So, who is today for?
Certainly the named saints, but also the plain, ordinary folk who lived and loved, stumbled and got up again and again, perfecting themselves within the crucible of family life lived quite often in the vice-grip of poverty. Today is their day.
It’s also ours. It’s our chance to praise God for the witness of the saints, for their great example to us, for their lives among us. We ask their intercession for those of us in the crucible who are learning to love, a little more each day. And as we make our way, daily, we must never lose sight of Dostoyevsky’s great admonition:
…for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.