St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Feast of All Saints
Sunday 3 November
Make a nesting place ©Sue Grimmett
The lives of the official Saints can be daunting. Like a glossy magazine cover, many of the narratives of these superhuman men and women have been airbrushed to eliminate flaws but have also grown in strangeness as centuries of the faithful have elaborated and made their stories more fantastical.
We may look at the examples of St Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland, or St Francis calming the savage wolf and write off saints to the category of fairy tales. At other times we may read stories of incredible courage and selflessness, from Mary, the mother of Jesus offering herself to God’s will to the earliest followers of Jesus who refused to renounce their faith and were put to death in Roman arenas, to modern days saints like Mother Teresa who renounced the world and dedicated their lives to living and working with and amongst the poor. When we measure up our own lives against the example of such as these, we may feel that we could never aspire to a place amongst ‘all the saints’.
Reading the blessings and the woes from Jesus’ famous sermon may not leave us feeling any better. It seems like the path set out for us will be full of renunciation and self-sacrifice. When we hear, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who weep, blessed are those who are hated” it is hard to not be confronted by this perspective where all we have ever been taught about success, power and protection of our self-image is turned upside down. Jesus words about the blessings of poverty, hunger, mourning and persecution may seem a harsh expectation and an exercise in pointless self denial. If this is what it means to be a saint, we might think, those of us with wealth, full stomachs, lots of laughter and plenty of friends are never going to make the grade.
But maybe we have renunciation all wrong. One of my favourite stories of saintly self-denial is the tale of St Kevin and the blackbird. Kevin, kneeling and praying with his arms outstretched finds the confines of his tiny cell too great and extends his arm out the window. A passing blackbird spies his open hand, and, seeing in it a cosy nesting site, alights and settles in Kevin’s upturned palm. Kevin, feeling the warm soft body and tiny claws, takes pity on the creature and remains, his arm a branch and his hand a shelter through the sun and the rain as the bird lays eggs and settles into the long days of incubation. Now this is an apocryphal story and one that seems to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering. This saint after all could have shaken that bird off as soon as it landed so he could pursue more worthwhile things. There is hardly much glory for a saint in hatching eggs.
But what can this whimsical story teach us? I think the poet David Whyte captures something of the life-giving, joyful nature of service in his poem, Coleman’s Bed;
Make a nesting now, a place to which
the birds can come, think of Kevin’s
prayerful palm holding the blackbird’s egg
and be the one, looking out from this place
who warms interior forms into light.
Human beings dream of greatness, but it tends not to be the patient, tender practice of making of our lives a nest and “warming interior forms into light”.
The story of St Patrick also points us to the meaning of what it is to be a saint whose life becomes a nesting place for God to birth something new. As a boy, Patrick was a slave amongst the Irish and had no use for them, railing against their heathen ways even as he felt called to evangelise. One day, Patrick encountered two strangers who blocked his way and asked for his name. “Magonus Succatus Patricus, late of Britain” he told them, in true Roman form.
The strangers rebuffed this saying, “For sure he is Padraig!” They then go on to tell him that they are Finians sent back from another world and another time to tell him legends of days lost in mist and shadow.
Patrick rails at them for heathen foolishness, but is pulled up short by a voice from deep within, that same voice that had called him back to Ireland, saying “I have sent them.”
According to the story, after that Patrick would come to one of these men and entreat them to tell these heroic tales of the past. As Patrick listened to the stories he slowly began to love the people who had enslaved him. This is a story not of heroic feats of magic like driving out the snakes, nor of stoic self-denial. It is a tale of repentance and openness to the Spirit who is always calling us to a wider more generous hospitality. For Patrick, it would have meant that there was some weeping as he let go of his own sense of who he was and all he thought he knew so that he could create the space for the other who had been his enemy. But in doing so, Patrick made a nesting space in Ireland for the Spirit to ‘warm new forms into light’. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” he is not asking us to suffer but to be open to the surprising gift of the other and to the joy of conforming our lives to the way of God’s love.
When we hear stories of the saints we may reflect on their self-denial, but I don’t think we talk enough about the suffering entailed in pursuing a self centred life. In our culture that seeks pleasure, popularity and prosperity at seemingly all costs, we create hell, for both ourselves and others, when we do not learn to surrender and instead allow the demands of our controlling natures to take over. We seem to presume that self-sacrifice is something we should do, and expect it to feel bad, and that pursuit of our own pleasures is something that is selfish but feels good. But what if we haven’t realised that we are being invited into something far greater and more joyful?
Gandhi, a man who did know something about self-denial, had a favourite saying- “Renounce and enjoy.” He understood the tyranny of the self and the way our wilful pursuit of our own happiness actually leads us away from the greater gift of enduring joy. C.S Lewis has said that in the end there are only two kinds of people, those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” Maybe hell is getting what you want. Maybe Jesus has come to set us free from the tyranny of our own self interest and woe to those who are rich, popular pleasure-seekers because ultimately this is not what can lead to either happiness or holiness.
So where do we find the courage to pray, “Thy will be done”? It was Jesus’ mother, Mary who said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me, according to your word.” The annunciation shows us that it is the surrender of our will that makes present amongst us the glory of God. This is how God is enfleshed. Every time we say, “Not my will”, we are not only dying, but allowing the power of God to rest upon us, and, in the words of Whyte’s poem, to ‘warm interior forms into light.’ That poem continues;
… begin to welcome back
all you sent away, be a new annunciation,
make yourself a door through which
to be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.
This is the secret of the great saints- not rigid self-denial but a joyful and daily opening of the whole self, with all its failings and absurdities, to the loving acceptance of God. In this way these saints can then offer the same radical hospitality even to their enemy, and to being constantly converted by others to the way of Divine love.
Whyte’s poem concludes;
Live in this place
as you were meant to and then,
surprised by your abilities,
become the ancestor of it all,
the quiet, robust and blessed Saint
that your future happiness
will always remember.
To be a saint is not to be a superhuman who lays down all their desires and willingly embraces suffering. To be a saint and live a life of service does not mean a life of resentful self-denial. The invitation is to open our hearts to the God whose ways are always surprising and generative, and who will pour blessing upon blessing when we pray in trust, “Here I am Lord…”
So make a nesting of your life…..be a new annunciation… that you may become the quiet, robust and blessed saint that your future happiness will always remember.