Readings for All Saints Day
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-1-, 13-14
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
In Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town, one of the main characters Emily dies in childbirth and enters an afterlife in which dead souls sit and stare blankly into nothingness, indifferent to earthly events. Emily wants to relive one more day of her earthly life before permanently taking her seat in this detached afterlife. She is given this opportunity and, as she relives this day, she realizes the beauty of each moment and she sees how blind humans are to the wonder that is all around them. She finally can’t bear it anymore and says, “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Then she looks at the Stage Manager and asks him, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager answers, “No.” (pause) “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some. ” Then Emily says, “I’m ready to go back.” And then she takes her seat permanently in the afterlife, where she will grow more and more indifferent to the things that she once loved.
As Christians, we (fortunately) believe in an afterlife that is much less dull than Thornton Wilder’s. However, his play is effective in challenging us, in a sad and troubling way, to be present and to realize life while we live it, because most people don’t. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some. And those are the people that we celebrate today, those saints and poets who learned to see the holy blessedness of every moment, who realized life while they lived it—every, every minute. And the Gospel we just heard reminds us that we don’t celebrate them by putting them on a pedestal and idolizing them. We celebrate them by learning how we can emulate them in our own lives so that we can realize our own life while we live it. That’s why the Gospel does not give us a list of saints who we can only dream of imitating in some meager way. In the Gospel, Jesus provides us with characteristics of those “saints and poets” who have realized life while living it. Jesus then concludes by saying, “Blessed are you,” thus inviting us to adopt those same characteristics ourselves. These characteristics are called the Beatitudes. I like to think of them as “Attitudes that help us Be,” attitudes that help us be present to the fullness of being human. If we get in the habit of practicing these attitudes, we ourselves can be among those saints and poets who know how to “be here now.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Now when Jesus talks about “the poor in the spirit” and “the meek,” he is not talking about people who have no backbone and who let others walk on them like a doormat. Instead he is talking about Rule Number 6. Now allow me to explain Rule Number 6 by telling you a story: I visited an intentional community in upstate New York and had lunch with one of the residents, Heather. As we were eating, another resident stormed into the dining room, clearly frustrated and distraught. Heather did not ask her troubled housemate what was bothering him, but simply said, “Bobby, remember Rule Number 6.” And at this, Bobby calmed down and politely left the room. Ten minutes later, another housemate rushed into the dining room and started yelling as if something terrible just happened. Heather responded to this anxiety again by saying, “Jerry, remember Rule Number 6.” Jerry heard this and immediately relaxed and apologized and politely introduced himself to me. Obviously very curious, I asked Heather, “What in the world is Rule Number 6?” Still eating, she responded, “It’s very simply actually. Rule Number 6 is don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.”
Rule Number 6 helps us understand what Jesus means by “meek” and “poor in spirit.” Being “meek” and “poor in spirit” is about not taking ourselves so damn seriously, about not getting caught up in our ego’s demands, and about letting go of our self-importance so that we can be more open and present to the life that is happening all around us, so that we can “inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Part of being present to the fullness of life involves feeling emotions that might bring us to tears. The Christian canon of saints is replete with holy mourners and weepers. One of my favorite English mystics Margery Kempe heard Jesus speak to her while she is crying. Jesus said, “Daughter, when it pleases me to speak in your soul; I sometimes give you soft weeping and gentle tears as a sign that I love you.” Toxins and stress-related proteins are actually released in tears, which is why we often feel better after a good cry. We experience comfort as we mourn. Although many of us feel self-conscious about crying, we are invited to remember Rule Number 6 and welcome our tears as signs of Christ’s love for us.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is Jesus’ way of talking about the Zen concept of Shoshin or “Beginner’s Mind,” which is about having an attitude of openness and eagerness and a lack of preconceptions. Zen Buddhists have a saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Jesus is inviting his disciples to be amateurs of righteousness, to be empty cups so that they can be filled up.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” In the Christian contemplative tradition, practitioners are taught to quiet the mind of its many thoughts by focusing on a single sacred word. This singular focus allows the contemplative to access and understand God in a radically profound way. And this purifying of the heart and mind allows the contemplative to be present to the moment, to see God in the here and now.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Africans have a concept called ubuntu, which sees humanity not as the human race but as the human family. And in this family, we are so interconnected that if one person is oppressed, we are all oppressed. Jesus teaches this same concept in this Beatitude: as members of the human family, as children of God, working for peace among all peoples is necessary for our own survival and wellbeing.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Prophets, poets and saints often arouse violent anger in other people. Jesus, of all people, knew that this path towards loving aliveness is not an easy one and is often fraught with serious difficulties and pain. It is not easy to stop taking ourselves so damn seriously, to welcome our tears, to have a beginner’s mind, to practice contemplation, and to see the human race as the human family. In our failures to adopt these attitudes, we can easily get down on ourselves and think that we’re no good. Often, the harshest persecutions we experience actually come from ourselves. So before we flagellate ourselves, let us remember the Beatitude of Mercy: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” We need to remember to be patient with ourselves and to show ourselves compassion as we try to break free from our old habits and attitudes. Living fully in the present is very difficult and requires a great deal of practice and patience.
I remember walking along the edge of a pond on a perfect spring afternoon in the small village of Taizé, France. It was the destination of a long pilgrimage and so I was trying very hard to be present to where I was. And for a few moments I felt like I really was present to the wind that was stirring the leaves and caressing my hair. I felt deeply thankful and I realized that even if my whole Christian faith turned out to be completely false, I was still thankful for it because it taught me how to be present to the beauty and wonder of each moment, how to realize life while living it, every, every minute.
 Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), 108.
 For more on holy mourners and weepers, see Kimberly Christine Patton, Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
All photos taken at Taize, France