This reflection was originally published in 2018.
“The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them . . . We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness.”
— from a homily by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) (Sermon 2).
For Catholics and mainstream Christians, the liturgical year spins within the calendar year at its own meaningful and seasonal pace. If the West calculates each new year on January 1, the Church looks to Advent – a season of quiescent expectation and longing that seeks out new beginnings and is answered through the Nativity of Christ.
We enter Advent on the Sunday after the Feast of Christ the King, for it is fitting to close out the previous year’s liturgical calendar by remembering that Christ’s universal Kingship, and his heavenly Glory – all promised by the prophets before his birth – were in fact accomplished, and continue in reality and (hopefully) within us.
But in our run up to Advent, and the joy we take in Christ the King, we also observe All Saints Day and All Souls Day, on November 1 and 2, respectively.
Many of us feel a wistfulness as October fades and autumn loses its visual splendor to the shorter days and longer shadows of November. The air becomes more chilled than crisp; trees are shorn of their multicolored leaves by the whipping rains, leaving bare branches raised to heaven, as though in supplication for their own renewal. It is a time the novelist Rumer Godden described as being “full of howling winds and holy souls” and thus it seems an absolutely perfect time to remember all of the saints who have gone before us, both those canonized and those wholly unsung, except in our own memories.
That sounds dreary, though, doesn’t it? It’s as though the Church has gotten into a depressive mood and said, “It’s November and everything is gloomy, so let’s bring out our dead!”
And yet, I’ve never found it so. In fact, with the exception of Christmas and Easter, I rarely leave a Mass feeling more cheerful than I do after observing All Saints Day. Aside from being reminded of the heavenly multitudes (in whose happiness we should wish to share, as Bernard of Clairvaux writes) there is something about the day that makes me feel unusually proud of my church. All Saints Day makes me want to light candles and linger before the statues and images of our spiritual ancestors, and when I exit church I always look around at the busy world, the zooming cars, the shoppers with their bags, the people staring at their smartphones, and I think, “In the midst of all of this passing distraction, we have taken time to remember what and who has come before us – to honor our past in order to believe in our future, and to ask the prayers of saints, for the sake of the whole world, because that’s a subversive and supernatural reality that supports us all. And it was a beautiful thing to do, and you’re welcome, passing, distracted world!”
There is a great deal more affection than bragging in the thought, but yes, I do always feel proud of our Church for this mindfulness in the midst of preoccupied modernism.
All Saints Day is an excellent time to consider what saint might become your “patron” for the new liturgical year, too. This is a practice common to religious men and women but one that has become increasingly popular within the rest of the church in recent years.
My first experience of acquiring a saintly patron came from a friend who had an impressive stack of holy cards from which she would randomly pull out one saint with whom I was supposed to forge a relationship – a concept that wasn’t immediately clear to me.
The first year she served up Saint Titus, about whom almost nothing is known. I did not feel inspired.
For several years the “patrons” she pulled for me seemed equally obscure. My enthusiasm for the practice became lukewarm. I would begin each Advent whispering a few shy words to my new “patron” but – lacking a sense of connection – things never moved beyond prayerful flirtation and my saint and I would drift apart by November.
A cloistered nun set me to rights about what I was doing wrong. “The saint chooses you,” she told me. “Pray, first that the proper patron be guided your way. But the prayer is more for you, for your awareness. Your previous patrons didn’t fail – you just weren’t open to them.”
That year, before my patron was pulled, I did whisper up a prayer – one asking for my own openness toward whoever’s name came out of my friend’s pile, regardless of his or her story. I was rewarded with Saint Philip Neri, and my whole life changed.
This is not exaggeration or conceit. What Philip Neri taught me in one year – and what he continues to teach me, because we have remained fast and constant friends – has enhanced my relationship with every saint.
Perhaps this is not wholly surprising, because Neri was forever counseling his priests and parishioners to read the lives of the saints for their own spiritual growth, “Be often reading the lives of saints for inspiration and instruction” he said, adding “What we know of the virtues of the saints in the least part of them.”
The great thing I learned through Philip was to bring this simple request to each saint I encounter, and most especially on All Saints Day: “Teach me what you know!”
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, such an innovative educator, had a particularly clear sense of the workings of the Communion of Saints, writing, “The accidents of life separate us from our dearest friends, but let us not despair. God is like a looking glass in which souls see each other. The more we are united to Him by love, the nearer we are to those who belong to Him.”
These two great Christians were not alone in taking inspiration and education from the lives of those who came before them. Here are a few others:
The saints did not all begin well, but they ended well. – St. John Vianney
Follow the saints, because those who follow them will become saints. – Pope St. Clement I
All the science of the Saints is included in these two things: To do, and to suffer. And whoever had done these two things best, has made himself most saintly. – St. Francis de Sales
The saints live not after the fashion of the world…The dignity of the saints is so great because they are not of this world, but ‘of the household of God.’ – St. Thomas Aquinas
To begin is for everyone. To persevere is for saints. –
St. Josemaría Escrivá
There is no saint without a past, and no sinner without a future. – St. Augustine
Do not be afraid to become the saints of the new millennium! – Pope St. John Paul II
This All Saints Day, why not copy this venerable practice of our religious and seek out a patron saint to teach you throughout the next liturgical year? Each day of November, write the name of a saint on a slip of paper, fold it and store it in a jar or bowl. Encourage friends and family to do so as well. And then, at the Feast of Christ the King, say a prayer – and perhaps ask Mother Seton, who was a great nurturer, to pray for you too — and pull a saint from that pile.
Trust that in whoever you become partnered with – even if it is Saint Titus! – you have been given a great opportunity for spiritual growth, if you stick together.
The saints remain the “great cloud of witnesses” who now comprehend all that we cannot while we reside on earth. To ask to be taught what they know seems like the beginning of wisdom.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.