I’m thinking of saints, this being the season of All Saints—and Halloween—not perhaps an obvious connection. Halloween is one of the most lucrative holidays in the U.S., whereas many remain oblivious to All Saints’ Day, which follows it. I cherish the moment when I learned (it must have been in college) that “Halloween” means the Eve of (i.e., “e’en” or “even” or “evening before”) All Hallows, and that “hallows” is an old word for saints. So, while ghosts and skeletons and vampires come out this week, I’m thinking of saints.
Saints are beyond numbering. They include parents caring for difficult children, children about whom it is often said it would be better had they never been born. They are also parents of children “perfect” in the world’s eyes but who are difficult in not so obvious ways. These parents often admit that it’s hard sometimes, but then they add that it’s also a blessing: “This child is a person unique in the universe, and I get to know him!” Sometimes the saints are children. It is the first day of kindergarten, and the girl is crying because she is not at home. The boy sitting across from her says, “It’s okay; we all miss our mothers.”
Sometimes saints are adults who want children but can’t have them. There was a woman who had two; she wanted more, but none came. She learned she could be a foster parent for babies. “Social services” brought them to her, one at a time: little ones whose mothers had been on drugs, whose fathers had dislocated their shoulder, babies whose existence was hidden by being left in a locked car all day. She loved them for as long as she had them, anywhere from two weeks to several months. She did not expect to be remembered, although she prayed that the little ones would remember being held and cared for and loved.
Sometimes the saints are lawyers who take up the defense of prolifers. Sometimes they are people blessed with money who give it to the cause.
How many saints are there? Millions upon millions, a vast throng that no one can number, all over our planet. Most of them are invisible to the world, but surely it is their work that keeps the world going.
One thing we learn from saints is that our worth is not measured by the heft of our resumé; they show us that an important life can also be a short one.
Glenn Peter—I write of him in A Priest’s Journal—was 21 years old when he suddenly died, alone, while filling the tank of his truck on the family farm. His funeral was packed: people everywhere; inside, outside, downstairs. In my sermon, I wondered out loud about the meaning of a life cut short. We say that a person is not supposed to die at the threshold of adulthood. But no person is supposed to die; death at any age is something that shouldn’t be. Death is ever a cheat.
We will say that what grieves us is the loss of potential: He was so young, there was so much still left for him to do. Yet that, too, is not quite right. Every human life, no matter what its length, falls short of its potential. You doubtless know people, of many different ages, who look back to when they were 21 with melancholy; they think of all the things that, at 21, they imagined they might do, and realize now how few of those things have actually come to pass.
Every one of us is going to be cut short from achieving what we might have; there is something fundamentally wrong with our human condition, something wrong that we experience in death. It’s not that the rest of us are okay, but there was something wrong with Glenn. There was indeed something wrong with Glenn’s physical heart. But there is something wrong with every human heart.
That was a hard funeral, with many sad and shocked young people. Hard also was the funeral of a boy, age 6, who had lived all his life with a deadly disease to which he finally succumbed. In this context, one thinks of Jesus’ love for children. There are scenes in paintings where Jesus is sitting, and he has a child standing beside him: The “visual” is that they are of the same height. Jesus ever loved children, always noticed them, never patronized them; he would not say they were “future people” or “future citizens” but made it clear that in his eyes they were just as human as anyone else—just as important, just as worthy of attention. I suggested that this boy’s life was complete, already, mysteriously held in Jesus’ arms.
I said that Glenn died alone, and such are the reports. But in my mind, I do not see him alone. I think that as his body fell to the ground he was embraced—that Jesus was there, like a shock absorber, catching his fall, cushioning him. For it is not only that ordinary care for one another is the most important thing in life, and not only that the meaning of a life is not in its length: It is that no one is ever alone. The one who taught us to pray that the Father’s Name be hallowed has, in some manner, united himself with every human being.