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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

A Bouquet of Saints

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 1, 2004


This past August, on the evening Elizabeth and I arrived in Garabandal, a small village in the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain—a place where, it is said, the Virgin Mary made numerous appearances to four young girls in the late 1960s—we met three other travelers from America. This, in and of itself, was kind of exciting. We had encountered precious few fellow countrymen and women during our two weeks on the Continent. Many Americans, it seemed, had still not forgiven France for “daring” to refuse to support our government’s rush to war in Iraq. At LaSalette, high in the French Alps, there had been Polish pilgrims aplenty, as well as groups of Germans; there were numerous French-speakers as well of course. The only American we met was a volunteer behind the counter in the basilica, selling votive candles. She was thrilled when we introduced ourselves. “Oh,” she said, “there were two other Americans here yesterday. And a couple more last week.” At the Rue du Bac in Paris, we heard a wide assortment of languages being spoken, in addition to French; the only English we heard was when we whispered something to one another. At Chartres, the English-speaking guided tour was cancelled due to lack of interest. At Lourdes, a magnificent holy site that contains altogether perhaps two basilicas and a dozen or more churches, the English-speaking Mass was consigned to a medium-sized meeting room in one of the administrative buildings; the contingent of English-speaking “Day Pilgrims” for the daily procession consisted of perhaps a dozen or so brave souls—far outnumbered by the thousands of French; the hundreds of Germans; the multitudes of Africans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, Poles, Russians—even Japanese—and, of course, the great throng of Italians. (We met Italians—busloads of them—everywhere we went; they followed us from Paris to Lourdes to Fatima, it seemed.) But there so very few Americans with whom we came into contact that we were thrilled when we made the acquaintance of Cecilia and Mary, two sisters (not nuns, just siblings) from California, and their friend, Margaret.

Over the next few days in Garabandal, we would touch base with them numerous times. We would compare notes on places we had visited and sights we had seen. We talked a bit of theology. When Mary said that she was praying for a George Bush victory in the upcoming election so that the chastisement of God would not be unleashed against America for what she called its “murder of unborn children”, I almost replied that I thought that, perhaps, four years of George Bush was chastisement enough, but I (uncharacteristically, perhaps), I read my wife’s “don’t you dare say it” gaze very well, and, in the name of intra-American peace, bit my tongue (very hard), and answered, quite lamely, “We’ll see…”

It was a casual encounter, really, with three fellow Americans, with whom we agreed on some things, and disagreed on others, but with whom we got along pretty well, all things considered. It was in no way a relationship that would change any of our lives, yet it was still to be savored, for one longs to hear the familiar sounds and cadences of one’s own native tongue when one is far from home. And it was quite interesting, we all thought, that our similar-yet-different pilgrimages (and lives) had brought us, at this point along the way, far off the beaten track, to the little village of Garabandal, on the edge of the Picos de Europa.

One thing that Mary said a day or so after we met her stayed with me, especially, though. One evening, with the assistance of someone they had met in the village, she and her sister and their friend had been able to meet and speak with the parish priest assigned to Garabandal. In spite of its notoriety in certain Catholic circles, Garabandal did not have its own priest, but shared one with several villages in the area. This was because the apparitions at Garabandal—which reportedly took place almost 40 years ago, as I’ve said—still have not been recognized by authorities in the Catholic Church (and probably won’t be, any time soon). In fact, it is even forbidden to speak of the supposed apparitions at all within the walls of the village church. So, as you might imagine the priest’s position is somewhat awkward. His superiors don’t look too kindly upon Garabandal; yet, those experiences from the 1960s form the backbone of much of his parish’s spirituality and devotion. But as he told Cecilia, Mary, and Margaret (and as they reported to us): “In the Lord’s garden, there are many different flowers. And we choose and pick and savor and cherish the ones which speak more beautifully to each of us.”

Which impressed me as a strikingly diplomatic and helpful and open-minded (even liberal!)—way of looking at things. There are many flowers along the Way of the Spirit; and we each choose those which we will include in our own bouquets. It was certainly the way in which the communion of saints presented itself to Elizabeth and me, as we made our way across France and Portugal and Spain this past summer—like a wonderful and varied garden. Such a cloud of witnesses accompanied us from holy site to holy site!

I used to find the traditional Christian doctrine of the “communion of the saints” one of the most difficult to reconcile with my idea of religion; now, I find it one of the most useful and empowering. The very sound of the word “saint” use to conjure up medieval notions in my mind, notions of miracles and Gothic cathedrals and saints’ bones and relics and the heavy smell of incense in the air.

Indeed, in the Western Christian tradition, sainthood as an institution is something largely confined to Catholicism, with its long and involved history. Generally speaking, the Protestant tradition, out of which our Unitarian and Universalist churches emerged, has always seemed to look a little askance at the notion of saints and sainthood. Our Protestant tradition seems to think of itself as somewhat more equalitarian in this regard, and many, like Martin Luther, felt that the idea of saints did little more than just get in the way of the direct relationship of each individual believer and God. Why bother with this intermediary stage of humanity at all, Luther wondered? “The papists took the invocation of saints from the heathen,” Luther intoned, “who divided God into numberless images and idol, and ordained each to his particular office and worth.”

Or perhaps Luther, his heart hardened by too much theological struggle, could not glimpse the beautiful garden of the Spirit that the Communion of Saints offers to us.

In our pilgrimage in Europe this summer, we made the acquaintance of a number of fascinating and inspiring saints—just a few flowers in that precious garden of the Lord.

In Paris, there was Catherine Laboure—a simple French farm girl, a novice in the Mother House of the Daughters of Charity on the Rue du Bac, on the Left Bank in Paris. In the summer of 1830, Catherine was summoned from her sleep into the chapel of the Mother House, where, it is said, she had several visits with the Virgin Mary, culminating with the presentation by the Blessed Virgin of the Miraculous Medal to the whole world. For over 45 years, Catherine would remain a simple sister in the Daughters of Charity, her secret identity as the “Sister of the Miraculous Medal” known only to her confessors. She continued to serve those around her, spending most of her life as a simple nun in a hospice for elderly gentlemen. Catherine Laboure’s life demonstrates to us the profound power of simplicity and humility:

On a warm July night, so like most others,
the vision appeared to a simple French farm girl,
one like so many; so like us—
and yet, so different, and set apart…

For she was ready to hear
her Mother’s voice—and being ready
changes everything…

Being ready—emptying ourselves of false pride;
the prison yoke of ego;
the illusion of control--
being ready makes us prepared
to face our God,
and hear the Earth’s voice;
and see Her standing there,
in our own lives, so like all others.

Then, six hours south of Paris by express train, in Lourdes, on the edge of the Pyrenees, there was another saint awaiting us; another simple French girl, of extremely humble lineage and birth: Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who beheld a vision of the Blessed Virgin in the Grotto at Misabielle (at the time, nothing more than a garbage dump by the side of the river). Bernadette, like Catherine Laboure, is another study in humility and charity:

There is a holiness to this place—
a holiness borne on the shoulders
of a simple, illiterate country girl,
whom God knew was a saint.

A girl so simple and free
she could talk face to face to the Mother of God;
a girl who helped to transform
our cold and barren human hearts.

It is not in the high and mighty
that the Spirit finds its throne;
but in every simple, loving soul
that knows this Earth as home.

Then, in Fatima in Portugal, there were two more dear buds in our bouquet of saints—two very precious and fragile flowers, tender flowers indeed—Francisco and Jacinta Marcos, two of the three shepherds, or pastorales, of Fatima, whose vision came in 1917 when Francisco was nine, and Jacinta was just seven. (The third Fatima visionary, their cousin Lucia Dos Santos, is still alive, 97 years old, a nun at a convent outside Lisbon). In their visions, Francisco and Jacinta were told that they would not live much longer; indeed, Francisco died in 1919, and Jacinta just a little more than a year later. In May of 2000, Francisco and Jacinta were beatified by Pope John Paul II, making them two of the youngest saints in the history of the Church. Their lives show us, perhaps, that the Spirit knows no bar of age—that one is never too young (or too old) to lead a life in the Spirit:

In time, of course,
they came to know
that they were saints,
that there was something essentially different
within themselves,
and that in their short lives,
they would be called upon to lead the way
for all of us.

But were they born
that way, or did they only
take up their crosses
when they realized
the immensity of the task
their visions led them to?

One hopes, I think,
that in those early years
there were plenty of
gay and carefree days
of just being children:
running along these dusty paths;
swinging from the branches
of olive trees;
poking sticks into the spaces
of these ancient stone walls.

You seem so wise
(so already saintly)
in these beautiful, sad-eyed photographs
time has given us;
you look like
old men and women
infinitely before your time;
as though each of the years you lived among us
was a decade’s worth of ours
(and perhaps each month was, truly,
an eternity for you).

But heaven can only be
a happier place now
because you’re there.
And the communion of saints
now dances with a childlike joy.

As you taught us to be holy,
so perhaps you could even teach
the sometimes sad and severe holy ones
how to be children once again.

What makes someone a “saint”?

One attribute, I think, is their sense of connectedness. So often, it seems that our lives are made up of brief, separate incidents, unrelated to those which came before, and to those which will come after. There seem, constantly, to be so many demands being made upon us. Our only choice often seems to be to spread ourselves (all too thinly) over the whole mass, and hope for the best. What we desperately lack, oftentimes, is that all-abiding sense of continuity: a sense that we are moving toward our goals; moving toward the wider horizon of Being; a sense that our little paths are joined, somehow, to the great sweep of history and life.

The saints we choose to allow to speak to us can remind us that life can have some sense of meaning and purpose. But to achieve this sense, we need a goal, a vision, a dream, a cause. We have to awaken to the call of our own revelation, and behold our own apparitions of the holy, standing before us. We have to find our “bliss”, as Joseph Campbell said. Each of us has to discern for ourselves why we are on this Earth, and how we are going to repay the debt we owe to Life itself.

Then, we have to act. We have to integrate our dream with our being; integrate who we are with whom we aspire to become. The saints we choose are paradigms—models—for how this can be done. Their lives can be inspiring examples of just what greatness the individual human being can accomplish when we let go of our little selves and connect with a Spirit greater than we are. They remind us that individual men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit and profound humility are as much a spiritual force to be reckoned with as all the power and principalities and impersonal corporations and mass media and government bureaucracies that the ways of this world can muster.

As Sister Joan Chichester has said, saints give us “a glimpse of the face of God in the context of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness within ourselves.”

The lives of saints, living and dead, can be models for us—not to be copied blindly or worshipped obediently and then forgotten—but rather, models the essence of which can be grasped, savored, and made to live anew in our own lives. We can commune with the great spirits of all ages, and armed with this new spirit, we can continue along our journeys here and now, alive with spirits of faith, hope, expectancy, and joy.

When we behold the magnificent garden of the saints—this glorious full flowering of our humanity which the Spirit has given us—then we know, at last, this greater truth of life {in the words of Waldemar Argow} that caring is sharing; that living is giving; that life is eternal—and that Love—our love for one another, and our love for all creatures of the world—is its crown.

God grant that it may be so.

 


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