Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Nov 1, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
This is the time of year when the Celts understood cracks to open between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is a time between seasons, a time of unsettling as the howling winds whisk away the last leaves and blow in the first snow. The Celts were so afraid of this season that they began a tradition of carving scary faces in hollowed-out, candle-lit turnips, wearing scary costumes and lighting bonfires—all to keep away the spirits of the dead who made their way through the cracks to roam the earth on the eve before their new year.
When Christianity arrived on the British Isles, the Romans combined this celebration of Samhain with a commemoration of the saints who had died, and in 609 the Pope established All Saints Day on November 1. Instead of keeping the spirits at bay, the church honoured the spirits of the dead, with particular emphasis placed on inspirational saints.
This year, I need all the inspiration I can get and gladly draw on the stories of the saints. This past week, I read about the lives of a few saints and how they managed to keep their faith in times much more troubling than ours. I have often referred to saints in previous sermons, such as Francis of Assis, John of the Cross, Martin de Porres, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila. They have each given us inspiration through their writings and stories of their lives.
Today, I’m going to introduce you to another saint, not as well known in our circles, but one of only four women whom Popes across the ages have made Doctors of the Church. Her name is Thérèse of Lisieux. She was born in 1873, the youngest of 9 children. Four of them died and the other girls became Carmelite nuns. When Thérèse was only 4 ½ years old, her mother died and Thérèse was distraught. As her older sisters later left to join convents, her grief intensified and she was often sick. In her autobiography, she recalled a transformative moment on Christmas Eve, when she was 13. She wrote, “God worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant. On that blessed night Jesus, who saw fit to make Himself a child out of love for me, saw fit to have me come forth from the swaddling clothes and imperfections of childhood.” What happened on that night? She overheard her father speaking of his exhaustion from her relentless emotional demands. As she prayed, she felt what she called “a recovery of the strength of soul she lost when her mother died.” She then experienced a period of calm and began to read about the mystics and saints who had preceded her. After her repeated requests, she was finally accepted into the local convent at age 15. She found herself drawn to prayer for those in need and particularly for those who were shunned by society. She included the priests in her prayers, whom she observed as quite weak and easily tempted.
The strange thing about Thérèse is that she is known not for significant accomplishments. Instead, she is known for little things. Her nickname was Little Flower, and she declined promotions because she preferred to stay hidden and simply do little things for people. She wrote, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
These days, when our increasing COVID numbers are so discouraging and frightening, it seems as if all we have energy for is little things—scattering little flowers of care through a word of heartfelt gratitude to a cashier, a phone call to someone having a hard time, a card to someone locked down. I said to someone else the other day that I feel as if I’m offering ministry while handcuffed—there are so many things I can’t do. This person added—and blindfolded. It’s true. When I can’t see people in person, my intuition doesn’t work as well. I miss things—sometimes important things, and I ask you to kindly tell me If I’ve missed something important to you. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling immobilized. But there are still so many little things that all of us can still do to bring Christ’s peace to others.
Thérèse reminds us of the power of little things. Her ability to communicate complex theology in simple language, together with her dedicated, intercessory prayer and kindness for others became known as the “little way.” Listen again to her writing,To the right and to the left, I throw to my little birds the good grain that God places in my hands. And then I let things take their course! I busy myself with it no more. Sometimes, it’s just as though I had thrown nothing; at other times, it does some good. But God tells me: ‘Give, give always, without being concerned with the results.’
We will never know the results of all the little things we do, especially in these times when we are socially isolated, but what matters is that we keep doing them—not for approval, not for reputation but simply for love. These days, little blessings are all we have energy for—but every little blessing counts. And when we offer little blessings to others, we will find ourselves blessed in return.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was so inspired by Thérèse that she took her name, explaining “I chose Thérèse as my namesake because she did ordinary things with extraordinary love.” Thérèse personified the first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit. She thought herself poor in faith and yet her faith was an example to so many.
The beatitudes are always read on All Saints Day because the saints remind us of the blessings they have given to us and of the blessings we are to be to others. The Greek word blessed could be translated as happy or as fortunate. But we could also look at the meaning of the word blessed in the Hebrew scripture. There are actually two Hebrew words for blessing. One word (barak) means to bow down as in Bless the Lord, O my soul—Bow to the Lord, O my soul. The second word (‘ashar) means “to find the right road”. This second meaning of blessing—finding the right road—gives us a new way to read the beatitudes. Let’s now try to find the right road as we make our way through the beatitudes once again.
It is those who have felt poor in spirit who can better understand others who doubt themselves or doubt God. You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit for you shall be a blessing to others who are poor in spirit.
It is those who have gone through a deep loss who can better understand the grief of others. You are on the right road when you mourn, for you shall be a blessing to others who mourn.
It is those who have worked in positions of servitude who can better understand those who are considered dispensable in society. You are on the right road when you are humble, for you shall be a blessing to others who are meek.
It is those who hunger and thirst with every cell of their body for justice and peace who can better understand those who are the victims of injustice. You are on the right road when your passions lead you to stand with the oppressed.
It is those who offer forgiveness to others who fail morally and spiritually who are better able to receive forgiveness for themselves. You are on the right road when you can both give and receive mercy.
It is those who can see through the bravado and clutter to which the ego clings who are better able to see God in others. You are on the right road when you can be vulnerable, leading to purity of heart.
It is those who prioritize peacemaking above being right who can better understand those on the other side. You are on the right road when you can value reconciliation above winning.
It is those who have been unjustly accused who can better understand the innocent who have been condemned. You are on the right road when you can believe in the one who has been judged unfairly.
The stories of the saints inspire us with both little and grand ways in which they have been a blessing. But we must remember that saints, according to our New Testament, are not only those who have been canonized by the church. They include every member of the church—you and me, complete with all of our foibles. They are our grandfather and aunt who we remember for little acts of kindness and love.
There was a group of youth from Estonia who travelled to the monastic community of Taizé. They were devoted in their Christian faith and someone asked them how they had become so strong in their faith at such a young age. They said that it was because of their grandmothers who had been deported from Estonia for many years and had suffered severely. All they had to keep them going was their faith. They were simple women. They did not understand the reason for so much suffering. Some of them returned and the youth said that they were transparent and without bitterness. “For us,” the youth said, “they are saints.”
Who are your saints? Which simple souls with their little ways have inspired you? Often it is those who have gone through great suffering. Blessed are those who have found the right road through a journey of tears, for they are the saints who guide and bless us.