Among the vivid memories that I treasure from childhood is the seating chart from first grade. From day one I was slotted into row three, seat three, and there I stayed for the entire year. So formative was that experience, that ever since it’s been my seat of choice. Faced with an empty room, I’ll still bolt for it every time.
Part of this, I suppose, is due to being a creature of habit. Many of us prefer neat and tidy worlds in which some things remain constant. But for me there was more to it. As a shy kid who shrank from the limelight, I soon began to appreciate the fact that seat three in row three was simply great strategy. I was convinced that in the first row the odds of being called upon were far higher. Far better was the relative obscurity provided in row three.
But if the front row brought risk, the back row was something to avoid at all costs. Even in the first grade we all knew the dangers that lurked there. Back there people whispered and smirked and passed notes. We all knew that when teachers went looking for trouble, they peered right over our heads and straight to the back of the room. And there they usually found the trouble they expected to find. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the entire back row has since gone off to prison. Even in the first grade we in the middle rows could see that coming.
Not surprisingly, I grew fond of seat three in row three. There was safety there, and I could remain hidden for as long as I chose. It was like sitting in a duck blind. I could see and hear everything just fine; but I was invisible until I was ready to raise my hand for attention.
That may help explain why the Feast of All Saints is one of my holy days of choice. This is the one day in the liturgical calendar when we revere all those hard-working saints who did the will of God, day in and day out, without a lot of fanfare. These were not the saints who always bolted to the front of the room and made spectacles of themselves. Nor did they have agents to plead their cause for high-profile canonizations, with tens of thousands in attendance. Nor were they aggressive enough to even think about their own private feast day in the Church calendar. No, they just went about their business, did their Christian duty, and now sit in heaven’s equivalent of row three, seat three.
Years ago I came to appreciate the affinity between All Saints and the Benedictines. For better or for worse, Benedictine spirituality has been described as the least flashy in the Church. We don’t produce baroque, larger-than-life saints like the Jesuits. Nor do we have romantic figures like Saint Francis of Assisi. No, we are communities of men and women who go about our daily business with some measure of regularity and balance, trying to spy out the presence of God in the most ordinary of circumstances. There’s nothing baroque or romantic about it, which may explain why there are few, if any, Benedictine superheroes. It also explains why there are no blockbuster movies about us. It all goes against our emphasis on humility. It’s why we don’t give easy admittance to superheroes when they come knocking at the door of the novitiate.
On All Saints Day I thought about the hard-working and quiet Benedictines who are in heaven already. Assuming they set their own schedules (it’s heaven, you know), they would definitely opt for a more serene life than those of the more popular saints. Those saintly Benedictines likely cringe at the very thought of their statues being paraded around in some Italian village festival. That has to be the absolute worst form of tooting your own horn. Nor would they envy Saint Jude, who has endless office hours during which he has to listen patiently about lost causes. Or consider the avalanche of petitions for lost stuff that must drive Saint Anthony to distraction. Since there’s no email in heaven (after all, it’s heaven), at least it can’t get much worse than it already is for him. Still, the price of fame that Anthony and others must pay is far too costly for Benedictines. So if life in the heavenly mansions means no privacy or down time, then I and most Benedictines would settle for a cottage in the woods. It sounds like heaven to us. And it will be, especially if that cottage has an unlisted number.
That’s one of the big problems with the calendar of the saints. Through most of the year we venerate the memories of very high-profile saints, but their exploits are far beyond the reach of most of us. And then we reserve one day in the year for the saints who seem to have come in second. Ironically, that’s where I, and most of us, find our best chance of success. What are we to do?
Pope Francis hinted at this dilemma in his All Saints homily on November 1st. He opened with the comment that the secret to holiness is not “some rare privilege for the few.” The call to holiness comes to each of us at baptism, and the chance to do something decent comes with the daily gift of grace. And then he cut to the chase with one comment that I really appreciated, and it should console all those who prefer to sit in the quiet middle rows. “Saints aren’t superheroes, nor were they born perfect. They are like us, each one of us.” In practice that’s a comfort to all of us who have no vocation to convert peoples, end poverty, or bring peace to the Middle East. Obviously, for most of us the path to sainthood will be a far more prosaic route.
I would submit that sainthood will come for most of us through martyrdom, but not via the spilling of any blood. It will be the slow martyrdom of doing the best we can, day in and day out. Ours will be the martyr’s witness that quietly reveals the presence of God in our lives. It will be the martyrdom of love and service that doesn’t change nations, but does touch a few other people, every now and again.
The old adage suggests that you go to heaven for the weather, and go to hell for the company. If that’s true, but you want both, then Purgatory might very well be the place for you. But I would argue that you can have both the good weather and the good company in heaven as well. And while you’ll find good company occupying the choice real estate, I’ll leave the heavenly mansions to the superhero saints. As for me, if I make it, I plan to head right to heaven’s middle rows. There I expect to run across some of the best people you’d ever hope to meet. And even better, I’ll know many of them already.
+On October 29th I spoke at a reception at a home in Fresno, CA, in conjunction with The Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Agnes Hospital. This gave me the chance to visit with friends I had made on an earlier visit, and it was an absolutely gorgeous evening.
+On November 3rd I spoke at the University of Dayton, again on The Saint John’s Bible.
+On November 1st we celebrated the feast of All Saints, and a goodly number of students and guests joined us for Mass. Most visitors to Saint John’s are unaware of the relic chapel in the lower level church, but it sits there quietly to welcome the occasional guest. On All Saints we carry many of the relics of those saints to the upper church for veneration. Pictures in today’s post illustrate a few.
+On November 2nd we celebrated the feast of All Souls with one new tradition and one venerable tradition. Following morning prayer we gathered around the altar for the dead, following the Mexican tradition of El Dia de los Muertos. Br. Lucien, accompanied by monks playing violin and recorder, sang two traditional Mexican songs. Later in the day, after Mass, we processed to the Abbey cemetery, where we recited mid-day prayer.
+Autumn colors are becoming faded and spare at Saint John’s, which is to be expected in early November. In today’s post I’ve included some of the last traces of color. Happily, the green spruce and pine will cover for the oaks and maples and ash during the winter.