All Saints Day. All Souls’ Day. Wszystkich Świętych. El Día de los Muertos. This is the moment when in so many cultures the line between living and dead grows thin, when one world touches another. In Poland the cemeteries are currently thronging with people; crowds are gathering at the graves of their beloved dead, lighting candles in reverence and prayer. In Mexico, the celebration of Day of the Dead combines solemnity with comedy; people make beautiful altars in honour of the dead and dance dressed as skeletons during wild festivities. In my current city of Toronto, red poppies are beginning to appear lapels in preparation for Remembrance Day. Though focused on honouring those soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars of the twentieth century, many Canadians treat the eleventh of November as a time to honour all of those who have come before us.

As a Catholic born and raised in the United States of America, I am fascinated by the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I come from a culture where death is a taboo topic, where the elderly and dying are hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes. In American culture, youth is usually seen as the best part of life; most people live in denial of ageing and death. Our Memorial Day in May holds none of the solemnity of Wszystkich Świętych in Poland or Remembrance Day in Canada – most of us treat it as simply the unofficial beginning of summer, a good chance to go to the park and enjoy a nice picnic. I am more than sympathetic to this attitude toward death; indeed, despite my religious faith I live in as much fear and denial of it as anyone. But, this time of year causes me to step back and reflect on my own impending mortality and the memory of my ancestors – not only distant ones, but my own grandparents (both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and I lost my grandmothers during my teenage years), aunts, uncles and cousins. Despite their absence, they live in my memories, and perhaps they still exist in another realm that briefly touches ours during these late-autumn days. Tonight, on this freezing November evening, I am thinking of my father’s mother, Emille, a stoic yet tender Polish-American woman whom I lovingly called Bacci.

If I search for Emille on the Internet, the only results I get are links to ancestry websites that mention her birth and death dates. This is hardly surprising, given that she was born in the era of horse drawn carriages and died when computers and the Internet were only beginning to really transform the world. Nevertheless, there is no Wikipedia page to describe her accomplishments; no biography has been written about her. And yet, for me, she is nothing less than remarkable. In addition to witnessing all of the major events of the twentieth century – from two world wars to the advent of space travel – my Bacci dared to live boldly and passionately, refusing to bend to societal expectations. Born into an upper middle class family with an aristocratic mentality, she studied pharmacy in the 1920’s – a time when few women dared to even imagine pursuing higher education. I must admit I chuckle whenever I pick up her old university yearbook and read the all-male editorial board’s commentary on their female colleague: “Watch out for that frigid stare if she doesn’t like you.” While I used to imagine my grandmother – who indeed had a stern, imperious demeanour – as being somewhat disagreeable, I now suspect that this posture was a survival technique, a means of commanding respect as one of three women daring to enter a male male-dominated class studying for a male-dominated profession.

Upon graduating, Emille didn’t go to work as a pharmacist – not at first. For some years she followed the path that was expected of her (though I suspect it was also the path that she wanted). She married my grandfather, had her children, and devoted herself to living as creatively as she could in the context she was given. She cooked, baked, canned, knitted and crocheted items that received prizes each year at the county fair; she painted, did calligraphy, read in four languages, built gingerbread houses at Christmas, wrote, collected antiques, and maintained a garden that bloomed from February through November. I am always amazed at the range of her abilities (after subsisting on my mother’s meals for the first eighteen years of my life and takeout for the next ten, I have only now begun to experience the joys of cooking; handicrafts and artistic ability are lost on me). However, what amazes me even more is that in the late 1950’s, thirty years after completing her Bachelor of Science degree, my Bacci went to work for the first time. As a pharmacist. Economic need drove her to it – her husband was dying of cancer and could no longer work himself; the family was in deep debt. And so, without making any fuss, she brushed up on what she had learned decades earlier, researched the latest developments in her field, and got to work.

Naturally I wish I could ask her how she did it. Was there no fear, no self-doubt behind that firm expression she always wore? How did she relearn everything, and how did she become informed of all the ways her field had changed in those thirty years? How did she keep her resilience in the face of so much adversity? During my Bacci’s long life, she had the misfortune of losing not only her husband, but three of her five children (one died in infancy, two in the prime of life) as well as her daughter-in-law; she coped with her husband’s alcoholism, endured economic hardships and the challenges of caring for him when his health failed in middle age, and eventually had to face her own ageing and death. And yet, with a fortitude as unassuming as it was strong, she moved through the phases of her life as deftly and gracefully as a trained dancer, always landing on her feet. She worked as a pharmacist for three decades, only retiring in her mid eighties when no longer physically capable of meeting the job’s demands. She continued pursuing her hobbies throughout her life, crocheting the beautiful tablecloth that now adorns my parents’ dining room table. During the second half of her life she travelled to over thirty countries on five continents, hiking in New Zealand, dealing with black market money changers in communist Poland and joining one of the first groups of foreign tourists to visit China after its revolution. She never tired of learning and experiencing as much as life would allow her – which, as she delightfully found out, was quite a lot.

However, what impresses me most about my grandmother is the strength she showed in the face of life’s challenges. Compared to her, I have led an easy life. As of this writing, I have yet to deal with serious financial hardship; I have yet to care for the dying; I have no children and certainly cannot imagine what it would be like to lose them. And yet, I feel like I’m always on the edge of some crisis, always about to stumble into an emotional abyss of loneliness, discouragement or fear. How did she keep her chin up like that? When she died in 1995 I had just turned twelve years old; I was much too young to appreciate the richness of her life and the strength of her character. Sometimes, I wish I could have her back, just for an afternoon or evening meal. I wish I could clasp her hand in mine, look into her big blue eyes, and ask her how she did it. She is one of the ones who made me; one quarter of my genetic material is hers, so surely there must be some of her in me. But at the present moment, as I stand at a crossroads and face a future filled with uncertainty, I don’t know where to find her.

A few years after my Bacci’s death, I attended a charismatic religious retreat intended specifically for youth. I remember it as an impactful and somewhat unnerving event, filled with music and song that put all of us participants into a trance-like state. Suddenly, her face flashed before me; I felt her gnarled hand on my shoulder, reaching out with tenderness and love. It wasn’t a hallucination, and I don’t believe it was her ghost. It was only a memory. But, it still startled me. I hadn’t really thought of her much during my teenage years, and then, all of a sudden, she appeared. “She’s watching over you,” my father said gently when I later told him about my experience. And, while I’m not sure if that is true that the dead watch over the living, I can’t help but imagine that somewhere, in some way she is aware of my life, just as I have become aware of hers.

“Do you think Bacci would approve of how I’ve lived during these years?” I recently asked my father, referring to my twenties, which were filled with travel and educational pursuits. “She’d love it,” he affirmed, and all I can say is that I hope that he’s right. And, now that I can sense challenges on the horizon, I also hope that I can draw strength from this connection that, though tenuous, somehow feels stronger as we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. One of the things I most love about my Catholic faith is the idea that the living and the dead form a community – we call it the communion of saints. Despite our individuality, despite the inevitable isolation that each of us must endure, we can trust that we are all on this human journey together, and we can also rely on one another for strength – not only our living friends and companions, but also the beloved ancestors who have walked this road before us.

In the Company of Saints

November 19, 2011

“I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White

When I try to imagine the Roman Catholic Church from an outsider’s perspective (which can be hard to do, given that I was born and raised in it), I suspect that a lot of its traditions appear strange and even creepy. From the painful image of Christ crucified to the consumption of his flesh and blood during the Eucharist,  so many Catholic customs are tinged with the grotesque.  Excepting these rituals, I would suspect that one of the oddest concepts for most non-Catholics to grasp is that of sainthood.

Most readers of this blog will probably have at least a vague idea of what a saint is.  Patrick, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila – all of them real, historical figures who, through their extraordinary actions, have been granted an official honor by the Church, allowing for the cathedrals  under their name to be built and prayer cards bearing their image to be printed. Fine, you might say, but the next obvious question is, so what? Why do supposedly monotheistic Catholic Christians need to honor these people? Isn’t it enough just to pray to God?

What some of you may not know is that not all saints receive titles of honor from the institution of the Church – indeed, most do not. A saint is simply a witness to the power of God’s glory and goodness, an ordinary person who, in the course of what might otherwise be an uneventful life, does extraordinary things. As Catholics, we believe that we are all called to be saints. I would argue that human history has abounded with non-Catholic and indeed nonreligious saints as well. In every time and place, people have dared to go against the current, raising their voices against injustice and leading lives of holiness that inspire us all.

As for the ecclesiastically recognized saints…we Catholics admire them as models to follow. And, while we certainly believe in praying directly to God, there are many advantages to praying to the saints as well. For us the divine is both transcendent (standing above and beyond the physical world) and immanent (deeply, intimately embedded within it). Hence the Trinity: God the Father, who created the world and holds it in existence, is transcendent; God the Son, who was born a human, ministered to the outcasts of society and died a common criminal, is the supreme example of immanence. God the Spirit, perhaps the most perplexing of the three divine persons, is something of a mediator between these two planes of reality, a reminder that even though Christ has long left this world, his presence is still here among us.

The Trinity is undoubtedly one of the strangest concepts to arise within the last two thousand years of human thought, and its full meaning, history and theological implications lie far beyond the scope of this blog. However, what my brief explanation seeks to show is that, when faced with something as sublimely crazy as the Triune God, who wouldn’t want to pray to a saint?

The Christian God is indeed the gentle Jesus who cured lepers and befriended sinners, but he is also the angry Jesus who attacked the high priests and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He is the loving Father who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, but also the violent whirlwind who refused to offer Job any explanation for his suffering. God is in many ways a personification of the ineffable, the mysterious, the contradiction that evades all resolution, the truth that reveals itself in brief moments only to veil itself again. We approach this God with love and trust, but also with reverent fear. And sometimes, when faced with all this mystery, we need the guidance of someone who can make the divine just a little more tangible, who can serve as a bridge between this world and the next. For this the saints are just great.

This past weekend, I attended a retreat organized by the University of Toronto Newman Centre based on the theme of sainthood. I was hesitant to participate as lately I’ve been swamped with work (hence the decline in frequency of posts to this blog), but as the bus twisted its way out of Toronto and slowly headed toward Orangeville, ON, I knew I’d made the right decision. I spent the next forty-eight hours wandering the grounds of the Mount Alverno Retreat Centre, following a path through the woods marked by the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage to the centre of a labyrinth (modeled on the famous one at Chartres Cathedral),  and discussing life,  faith and sainthood with twenty-five passionate  Catholics from all over the world.

The retreat’s leader, Father Mike Machacek, delivered talks on three different saints of the Church: St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century founder of the Franciscan religious order; St. Therese of Lisieux, the nineteenth century “Little Flower” whose “little way” to Christ continues to inspire Catholics everywhere, and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an ordinary twentieth-century woman who, at a crucial moment of her life, did an extraordinary thing. The basic message? There is no single definition of a good and ethical life, and each one of us must forge our own path toward the truth. But while our roads may be different, the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.

The story of St. Francis (1182-1226) is undoubtedly familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike: the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant, something of a playboy in his youth who, in a way reminiscent of the Buddha, underwent a dramatic spiritual conversion. While fighting in the war between Assisi and the neighboring city-state of Perugia, Francis was captured and taken prisoner. During a year spent in a dungeon (during which he contracted malaria) he heard a voice calling him to a different sort of life. Using his inheritance to rebuild the Church of San Damiano, Francis ultimately broke off contact with his father (who was very disappointed with his life choices), led the life of a poor beggar, and went on to found the Franciscan Order of priests, sisters and lay people, dedicated to leading lives of simplicity and helping the poor.

St. Francis is one of the most famous Catholic saints, and undoubtedly one of the most challenging. “Preach the gospel always,” he is often quoted as saying. “When necessary, use words.” Although this quotation probably was not uttered by Francis himself, it certainly captures the spirit of the Franciscan life: to lead by example, to live simply, offering up all possessions and worldly attachments for the greater good. And in more recent history, many people – religious and nonreligious alike – have answered this call. Groups like the Fifty Percent Club – whose members vow to give half of their income or more to charity for at least three years – certainly embody the Franciscan spirit. And a very close friend of mine has recently expressed his own desire to lead his life in this humbly generous way.

For me, however, the story of St. Francis is extremely challenging. While I strongly desire to live according to the Christian values and virtues with which I was raised, I must admit that I have many other desires which conflict with these. I like wine. I like the opera. I like trips to Poland and England and Uruguay. Hence the E.B. White quotation at the top of this post. I see myself as the hero of a nineteenth century novel, treating my own life as an artistic creation while yearning to make my own unique mark on my environment. Ultimately, while my conscience urges me to save the world, my heart remains bent on savoring it.

And so, I’m afraid I can’t call myself a Franciscan in any sense. However, as the retreat continued, I realized that there may still be a way to save my soul. Looking through the variety of personalities, abilities and life histories of the saints, we see that in Catholicism there is more than one way to lead an ethical life.

It is often remarked that a sad saint is a sorry saint. Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) was neither. As a young woman in Magenta, Italy, she enjoyed living life to the fullest. After studying medicine, she dreamed of working as a Catholic foreign lay missionary, but unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition. Instead, she worked as a doctor, got married and had three children, and enjoyed many of pleasures of life – skiing, painting, dressing up, and travelling.

Just before giving birth to her fourth child, Gianna learned that she had a serious fibroma in her uterous and threatened her life. She was given three options: abortion, hysterectomy, or removal of the fibroma only. Interestingly, the second option would not have been considered morally wrong by the Church – even if it inadvertently led to the death of the baby. In this case, as in many others, Catholic ethics focus on purity of intention rather than desireability of consequence.

For Gianna, however, the consequence was what really mattered. She opted to risk her life for her child. One week after her youngest daughter was born, Gianna herself died.

Gianna’s life was not extraordinary. She did not save the world; she did not even bring any sort of goodness into it in the utilitarian sense. What makes her a saint is the consistent ethic by which she led her life, and the courage she exhibited in her final moments. “Gianna spent her whole life preparing for this final decision,” Father Mike told us. “And it’s the same way with us…We are all called to holiness, no matter what our status in life.”

The last saint discussed on this retreat could in some ways be seen as a synthesis of Francis and Gianna, displaying certain attributes of each. However, her path toward goodness was distinctly her own. The life of Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower,” 1873-1897) was brief, simple, and in its own way very extraordinary. Raised in an ardently religious family (all four of her sisters grew up to become nuns), Therese was determined to join the Carmelite Order already as a teenager. When the convent refused her, saying that she was too young, she accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to Rome and asked none other than the Pope himself to let her enter. With his blessing, she ultimately received the order’s permission and entered the convent in 1888 at the age of fifteen.

For the next nine years she led a quiet life among the sisters, enduring the austerity of Carmelite life despite her ill health, overseeing the novices (newcomers to the convent), and writing her now-famous autobiography, The Story of a Soul. This simple saint, so unremarkable by many standards, has been honored all over the world to this day, and the nun who never traveled beyond the confines of her Carmelite convent is now the patron of Catholic missionaries.

For me, Therese is similar to Saint Francis in that she renounced worldly desires in favor of a purely religious life; however, she is similar to St. Gianna in that her attention was focused primarily internally on her relationship with God. In many ways Therese’s life seems less remarkable than Gianna’s – a simply life in the convent, cut short when she died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. And yet, her “little way” to Christ – which consists of loving God like a little child and seeing his goodness amid the trials and irritations of everyday life – has inspired Catholics all over the world.

What does it mean to live a good life? As long as humans have existed, we have offered so many answers to this question, and in my opinion, no answer has been completely satisfactory. But for me, the lesson which these saints offer is that goodness, beauty and truth – however we might choose to define them – can still be found by those who seek them.

One of my favorite concepts in Catholicism is that of the communion of saints – the idea that we are all part of a great spiritual network that includes the living and the dead, joined together in the mystical Body of Christ.  As I boarded the bus back to Toronto, I reflected on just how fortunate I am to be part of this community which, though created by humans, is guided by the love of the divine. And now, as I struggle to make the transition from wandering meditatively among falling leaves to the more laborious tasks of preparing for exams and marking papers, I must remember Gianna’s joy, Therese’s perseverence and Francis’ commitment. Life’s journey is not easy, but thankfully I find myself surrounded by companions. And, as Father Mike said, the roads may be different, but the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.