October 30, 2022 Masked Saints by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The gremlins and goblins are soon to be masked in their calls for trick or treats—vestiges of the Celt’s ancient Samhain Feast, when their approaching New Year of Nov. 1 wends a thin space between the world of the dead and the living. Hideous masks, worn in part out of fear and in part out of mischievousness, chased away evil spirits thought to roam freely in the thin space.

Troubled by this popular, pagan observance, the Church in the British Isles sought to end such practices in the 8th century not by abolishing them, but by reforming them into Christian belief. They introduced All Saint’s Day, which upheld the belief in the thin space when the spirits of the Christian saints who had died drew close to those still living. What had been a feast to welcome in the dark half of the year and frighten away the evil spirits became a mass to honour the official saints of the church. In many European and Latin American countries it became a time to feast at the graves of their loved ones—El Día de los Muertos. Honouring the saints morphed into an honouring of ancestors. Some would argue that this morphing was a return to pagan roots. But in fact, the honouring of ancestors is closer to biblical descriptions of saints than the honouring of official church saints.

The word “saint” in the New Testament is derived from the Greek word hagiazo, which means to set apart; to make holy. It is used in the New Testament to refer to all Christian believers, not just those who seem really holy. As Christians, we are to be mindful that Christ dwells within each one of us, gently urging us towards love. If we follow this inner prompting, we will be moved toward selfless acts of compassion, which set us apart from those pre-occupied with self-serving goals. In this regard, we are each saints. When we ignore this inner, divine presence, we fail miserably time and time again and don’t look very different from others who are only concerned with their own welfare. When this happens, as it does with all of us rather frequently, we might better be called fallen saints with tarnished halos.

But the good news of the gospel is that we live in grace. Our salvation is not dependent upon our good deeds—it is dependent wholly on God’s love and the mercy of Christ. And so, like it or not, you are a saint and will always be one. What this means is that you will always have that divine spark inside you, never giving up on you, urging you every day to live into that beautiful self that you are, made in God’s image.

So far, all that I have said is probably not new to you. But here’s a twist I just came across a couple of weeks ago. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk and contemporary mystic who wrote many books, including New Seeds of Contemplation. In this book, he described saints as every living thing that glorified God by simply being itself, with its own unique particularities as created by God. That is his definition of a saint—anything that is able to fully be itself. He writes,

The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this April day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God…The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.

The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance. The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints.[1]

Merton then turns his gaze to human beings. Unlike the rest of creation, humans have a choice to be ourselves or not, as we please. We have the freedom to be real, to be true to who God has uniquely created each one of us to be or to hide from it and try to be someone we’re not. When we are truly ourselves, our sainthood is revealed.

And this is the work we are called to do—to try and understand who we really are, as God has intended us to be, and to live into this true self. This is how Merton understood Philippians 2:12 which instructs us to “work out our own salvation.” It is hard work to identify and be true to who we really are. Our lives are filled with expectations of ourselves, of family, of friends, of our work places, of society to be better, to accomplish more, to receive awards and accolades. But are these goals that are true to who we really are?

Our vices and our virtues look very similar. They may both have honourable goals, but what is the motivation behind them? Am I wanting that promotion because it will draw the best out of me? Or because of my need for recognition and praise? Am I working long hours so that I can better love others? Or is my work schedule negatively affecting my ability to love? Am I doing something because I ought to or because it gives me energy? Is it the best use of my gifts and passions? Or I am I doing it solely out of guilt and a sense of obligation? These are not easy questions. Merton writes, “We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.”[2]

In this season of masks, what are the masks that we hide behind? Do we live behind pretenses of bravado, tough talk, indifference, cynicism? Are we afraid to let people see who we really are? Why are we afraid to be vulnerable and honest about our fears, about that which touches us deeply? Why are we afraid to be the beautiful, unique selves which God has fully equipped us to be?

One of the signs of not living into our true selves is a gnawing discontent with life. We are critical with ourselves and with others. We have no inner peace; we continue to grasp an illusive reality. But when we are fully able to accept who we really are; who God has loved us into being, we can find a deep contentment and a peace that passes all understanding. It is then that we will fully live into God’s grace—the underpinning of the Reformation.

We have a choice. We can be masked saints with a slightly tarnished reflection of God’s image, or we can be vulnerable saints, courageously reflecting God’s tender compassion. As Christians, we will always be saints, loved and held by God regardless of our choices and yet forever drawn to be the true reflection of God’s image. Amen.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seed of Contemplation A New Directions Book, 1961, p. 30-31.

[2] Ibid., p. 34.