Today is All Saints Day, the time in the liturgical calendar when we remember those who have gone before us into the More – that Great Cloud of Witnesses who crowd the bleachers and cheer us on while the rest of us play out the game of Life in this mortal coil.
But what is a saint? The Bible says we all are – those of us who know and love God.
Today in St. Peter’s Square, before reciting the Angelus, Papa Frank had a few things to say about saints. This was my favorite bit:
“The saints are friends of God,” he said. But they “are not superheroes, nor were they born perfect. They are like us, each one of us.”
“Friends of God.”
“Like us, each one of us.”
According to Catholic News Service, Papa Frank continued, saying:
“The saints are men and women who have joy in their hearts and bring it to others. Never hate, serve others — the neediest, pray and be joyful, this is the path of holiness.”
The pope said the saints’ message to women and men today is to “trust in the Lord because he never disappoints.”
“He’s a good friend who is always at our side,” he said.
With the example of the way they lived their lives, the saints encourage all Christians “to not be afraid to go against the tide or to be misunderstood and derided when we speak about (Jesus) and the Gospel.”
Frederick Buechner (aka St. Freddie of Rupert to my tribe) said this about saints and I love its imagery and simplicity: “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchiefs. Those handkerchiefs are called saints.”
It’s been almost a year since my father, Muzzy, (who always carried white cloth handkerchief) passed over into the More. He now sits next to my Aunts Mary and Patti and Carol and Joan and Jeannie, my Uncles Satch and Ceasar, Grammy and Poppy Page and Grampy Falsani and Nellie; my dear friend David Kuo who left us last year, my favorite professors, Jimma Young and Arthur Holmes; Seamus and Bob and Iris and Kirsty and Mr. Chevron (in the section reserved for Irish hooligans); Johnny and Ravi and Lou and Buddy and Billy with the band; sweet Naomi, Tom and Henri and Jack and Flannery; Vasco’s birth mother and father, Edina and Sylvester, and his siblings who died before him; and my beloved, pretty-fucking-close-to-a-superhero-in-real-life buddy, Mr. Mark, and all the others gathered in the cloud of witnesses in the cheering section just on the other side of the veil.
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
It’s a terribly disquieting thought, one that had filled me with sheer dread since the father of a classmate died suddenly when we were in junior high. Stefanie’s dad was probably in his late 30s. At the time, my dad was in his 50s. And I was terrified that something awful would happen and he’d be gone.
The idea of losing my father terrified me and made me panicky. I wouldn’t let Daddy leave the house without telling him to be careful and that I loved him, whether his destination was a transcontinental flight or a trip to the Stop & Shop down the street.
If he died, I wouldn’t be able to function. It would be chaos. The planet would spin off its axis. The sky would fall. I’d be utterly lost.
It would be the end of the world as I knew it.
So 30 years later, when Daddy did go home to Jesus – peacefully, in his sleep – I was shocked to find the panic and terror I had anticipated for so long replaced by a palpable, otherworldly sense of peace.
I was in Washington, D.C., when I got the call from my mother in the wee hours of a Wednesday telling me that Daddy had passed. Well, at least I was on the right coast. I could drive north on I-95 to Connecticut in a few hours rather than trying to find a flight from the West Coast.
Instead of hopping in the car right away, I took my time getting ready for the drive home. I sent emails and made phone calls to family and friends, letting them know that my father had passed away. One of the first friends I told was a fellow who was in from out of town to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. I was supposed to see him at lunchtime, and sent a quick note to say Daddy had died and I wouldn’t be able to make it.
A few hours later, just as I was heading out of the district toward Baltimore, my friend emailed me back saying that he had sought out a quiet corner in the U.S. Capital to pray for my family and me – for God to give us “the peace that passes all understanding.”
Such an articulation of peace comes from the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, where, in the third chapter, the apostle writes:
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God. And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:6-7)
In other words, God says, “I got this,” and hands us peace.
But what is this peace of which the Bible speaks? In the Hebrew scripture the word used most often for “peace” is shalom. It means more than just a lack of conflict or absence of war. Shalom comes from the Hebrew verb shalam, which means to “make amends.” Shalom describes a completeness or a soundness; a healing or making whole again.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for peace used most often (including in the passage from Philippians 3) is eirene. It describes a state of tranquility and rest, but also a “joining together,” God’s gift of wholeness when all the disparate parts will be joined together.
Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” Therefore, Jesus himself is both the definition and incarnation of God’s peace – the Prince of Shalom described by Isaiah.
True peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. Picture Jesus at the Last Supper: He had every reason to believe that the end was upon him, and we see im looking around at his friends who will all betray him and saying, ‘Peace I leave with you,’ he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27)
Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another….Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought. Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep…you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them. You need whatever name you choose to give the One whom Lewis named Aslan.
That kind of peace is what descended on my heart and mind in the wake of my father’s death. I didn’t do anything to get it to arrive. I didn’t pray the right prayer or read the right thing. It just … arrived. Like a gift.
It feels like a pair of strong arms I can wrap myself in and sink into like a cosmic bear hug. It makes no sense to have this kind of peace when the world as I knew it had come to an end and my greatest fear had come to pass.
Perhaps even in the darkest of times personally or collectively – even when the most horrific evil we could imagine wrecks havoc and terror in the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, violently ending the lives of 26 innocents – there is a peace that can cut through it all.
Even on the day when the Mayan calendar stops, when some say the world will end and the Apocalypse will begin. Even on the shortest day of the year that I will always think of as annus horribilus. Even when all hope is lost and darkness threatens to swallow the last flicker of light.
May you know the peace that passes all understanding in these last days of Advent — as we look with hope to the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace — at Christmas, in the new year, and in all the days to come.
Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.
Photo credit: Mayan glyphs by zimmytws/Shutterstock. Photo (bottom): Cathleen Falsani and her father, Mario “Muzzy” Falsani, at Christmastime 1972. Photo courtesy of the author.
Powerful words on writing from
St. Freddie of Rupert
“It is Red Smith who is reported to have said that it is really very easy to be a writer — all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. Typewriters are few and far between these days, and vein-openers have never grown on trees. Good writers, serious writers — by which I mean the writers we remember, the ones who have opened our eyes, maybe even our hearts, to things we might never have known without them — all put much of themselves into their books the way Charles Dickens put his horror at the Poor Law of 1834 into Oliver Twist, for instance, or Virginia Woolf her complex feelings about her parents into To the Lighthouse, or, less overtly, Flannery O’Connor her religious faith into virtually everything she ever wrote. But opening a vein, I think, points to something beyond that.
“Vein-opening writers are putting not just themselves into their books, but themselves at their nakedest and most vulnerable. They are putting their pain and their passion into their books the way Jonathan Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels and Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, the way Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman, and William Maxwell in They Come Like Swallows. Not all writers do it all the time — even the blood bank recognizes we have only so much blood to give — and many good writers never do it at all either because for one reason or another they don’t choose to or they don’t quite know how to; it takes a certain kind of unguardedness, for one thing, a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of yourself.”
St. Freddie of Rupert on EASTER:
The Gospels are far from clear as to what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man whe thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that ther were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of ‘fear and great joy.’ Confusion was everywhere. This is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did they say? What did he do?It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. Its’ not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great dram. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching till they find his face.— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith
St. Freddie of Rupert on “Vocation”