One of the more off-putting aspects of the Great Religions for our culture is that they are old. Old buildings, old music, old words. Little wonder there are those who say that if the church really wants to speak to our day it had better “get with it” and modernize. But there is something to be said for not “getting with it.” Tradition, the past, gives today’s Christian not only roots, order, and stability, but options. We often manage to liberate ourselves from the chains of the past only to become slaves of the present … and as anyone who really works at keeping up with current fads discovers, the present is a demanding master. In words that would warm the cockles of a history major’s heart, in church or out, I would tell you the past is all about giving us options.
He’d been born, as most of us in the room were born, in the right kind of family on the right side of the tracks. His father had done well in business. He had good looks, a good education, good friends, liked good times, and even a good fight. But as this Bernadone kid grew older, he became more serious … was more and more bothered by the poor he kept bumping into. Encountering a street person ravaged by disease once, he hurried by, pitching a coin back at him to ease his conscience when, from out of nowhere a wave of compassion rose in this formerly carefree young man. Overcoming his revulsion at the dirt and smell, he turned around, walked back, and embraced the leper … and all was changed. History knows him as St. Francis, a young man who walked away from “the good life” for another option. One can only guess the potentially disruptive effects of considering such a story, so one of the most unsettling and revolutionary acts I can do is to tell the stories of the saints—woman and men who said NO to the poverty of options afforded them by culture and the status quo, and YES to God. Lack of imagination is the first victim of faddishness, and an inability to remember great lives has produced a failure of nerve in us.
A professional counselor now retired was telling me how he had decided to get into the helping field. In college his advisor had lent him a book: 100 Careers that Can Change the World. He read one of the page-long explanations of vocations, and was moved by the one on being a counselor. He then offhandedly remarked, “no one writes books like that anymore, because no one believes it.” At times I fear he is right. So all the more do we need occasions like this. The point of the story of a saint is that the Christ-life is not beyond me. The gospel is the power whereby the spirit of God makes people not just nice but new.
So remembering is a revolutionary act, and we do not worship alone. Our holy ancestors huddle around us, tug at our sleeves, whisper to us from their perches … Deborah, Samson, Jeremiah, John Chrysostom, Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer … grandma, a kindly neighbor, your 4th grade teacher. Every time we assemble we rejoin a divine-human conversation which began long before any of us were born, which is why it can be so comforting to come to church (to remember we are not alone in this), and why it can be so very threatening too (being roused from our delusions that as the first generation to be so challenged, we are really doing as well as can be expected). In the saints there is a warning that the status quo will never be enough.
The saints don’t need our praise, but we very much need their witness that greatness is possible. So we need to do more than sing a song in their honor. We need to be challenged by their lives, have our complacency shaken, and have our self-identity as victims overthrown. So your holyday assignment is to the November reading of a bio of a great person (whether religious or secular is immaterial). [Just never confuse greatness with fame: Lady Gaga has one; the Theresas of Avila and Calcutta, the other.] By it you will be reminded that people with no more native talent than you changed their world (beginning with themselves), and that holiness is indeed within your grasp.