LIFE WITH THE SAINTS

Author: Fr. Mike Byron
December 16, 2018

One of the best parts of being in full-time church ministry is that I regularly get to mingle with Saints.  I know that we’re all Saints in virtue of our baptism, but here I’m thinking of these people who astonish me with their faith, their generosity, their kindness, their grace in suffering, and their perseverance in trials.  Those aren’t the kinds of qualities that are acquired in a moment.  They are cultivated over years and decades, living into each day, one at a time, with a serenity and a confidence of God’s abiding presence, God’s grace at work.  

And the Saints are possessed of two other things as well; gratitude and joy.  I want to be like them and I’m only too often aware that I am not yet, which is why I admire them.  They are God’s regular revelations of what is possible in a fully ripened holy life.  I wish to become ripe and not merely aged.  Of course the Saints pray too, but not all the time, because they know that sometimes prayer can become an escape, and often it’s easier to do than all of those other things.

A few weeks ago I got a four page hand-written letter from one of the Saints I know and with whom I worked until recently.  She is a religious sister who has been dealing with a number of health issues as she ages.  This year she had to give up her ministry of spiritual direction, quit visiting the senior living home at which she was a regular occasion of grace for those who are confined to their rooms, and leave the parish community that she loved.  Most recently she had to give up her car because of her deteriorating vision, and she had to move from the Twin Cities to her mother’s house in a small town three hours from here.

And from the midst of all that, about ¾ of her letter was about me, concerned for my own recent life transition.  Here’s what a Saint sounds like when she put pen to paper:

 “I miss my ministries and all that held so much meaning for me.  As I navigate this new path I grieve my losses and make space for the ‘unknown new’ to which I am invited.  As you celebrate your first Thanksgiving at Pax Christi, may you experience more and more the ‘call’ to this parish and its people, and gratitude for all in life that has prepared you to serve them well.”

In these latter days of Advent we hear much in our Sacred Scriptures and in our liturgical prayers about anticipating and welcoming God’s salvation into this world.  But what does that word really mean—“Salvation?”  Like so many churchy things we use it in sentences as if we all agree about what we are talking about.  If we’re waiting to welcome it, perhaps we ought to reflect upon what it is.
For some it’s understood as a kind of ‘Get out of Hell Free’ card, that’s all focused on the next life.  For others it’s understood as a guarantee for rich rewards in this life—what is sometimes called the “prosperity gospel” that can be heard preached not far from here on any given Sunday morning, or on your TV.

Both are wrong, and that prosperity thing is demonstrably wrong.  The true Saints, like my religious friend, do not enjoy the good life on account of their deep and abiding faith, at least not as we usually think of “the good life.”  The disciples of Jesus didn’t either.

For as beautiful and stirring as are St. Paul’s words to the Philippians in today’s 2nd reading, they are also almost incredible:

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again; rejoice!  The Lord is near.  Have no anxiety at all, but let the peace of God guard your hearts and minds…”

These sentiments from the man who spent his years of ministry being imprisoned, shipwrecked, betrayed by his associates, abandoned by his communities and ultimately executed.  These are the sentiments of one who surely understood the meaning of the word “salvation.”

So what is it really?  What is the salvation for which we so eagerly await and hope?  It is the gift of being able to live as the Saints do—in this world in our own situations and predicaments, in our successes and failures, our happiness and sorrow, our blessings and our losses—all with the absolute confidence that the Lord is near.  The Lord is here, and that nothing else at all is needed.  No greater consolation can be found.  That is the treasure that is “salvation.”  The treasure that can exclaim, “Rejoice!”  Here.  Now.

So how does that look in practice, in the day-to-day?  Well that depends upon who and where and how we are.  The followers of John the Baptist in today’s gospel were full of very practical questions like that.  They all asked, “What are we supposed to do?”  And to each the answer was different.  John’s response was not a generic command like “pray more” or “do more penance” or “change your job or your residence or way of life.”  It was more of an invitation to embrace life as it is for each of us with a changed heart, with a new assurance of God’s presence to everything, everywhere—not just as an impersonal life force, but as embedded in the Saints who surround us all the time.  Which means the only way we can threatened to be apart from the intimate presence of God is to cut ourselves off from Christian community.  That’s where, and among whom, God lives every day.  That’s how salvation happens.

For many of us that may seem counter-intuitive.  We tend to be impressed by the mystics, by those who seem to have an inner direct channel to God on their own, and who enjoy visions or inner enlightenment that is not accessible to the rest of us.  That’s not only incorrect, it’s more nearly heresy, according to our own tradition.  Salvation is something that happens to all of us when Saints come together.

I am not the only one here who gets to spend live among the Saints.  It’s just a little easier for me to see it and appreciate it every day, and to be astonished by God’s presence.  May our Advent prayer cause us all to be opened to see what is already here, and may we strive each day to become one of those Saints through whom salvation is lived out.
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Eden Prairie, MN 55347

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