Let the saints remind you to look up at the sky.
Each day, no matter how busy I am, I try to stop at least for a few seconds and look at the sky. It doesn’t matter if it’s an expanse of damp wintery gray, or prodigally spread with clouds in a sea of summer blue, or inky black and shimmering with stars. I simply pause and take it all in. This past spring, I would take our toddler out for little adventures in the yard to discover new flowers that we could look at and smell. We would take turns putting the blossom to right up to our nose and exclaiming how delicious the scent was. The more enthusiastic I became, the more enthusiastic she became. We are now like connoisseurs of fine wines, only our field of study is floral fragrances.
I desperately need these moments to break me loose from the white noise of life-as-usual. How many of us, day after day, wander around in a daze? With our eyes lowered to our phones, the stress of cars and commuting, and the cult of economic productivity sapping our concentration? How often do we come to the end of a day and realize that we haven’t stopped, even a single time, to appreciate the strangeness and wonder of being alive?
For me, having our children around helps, because, like most children, they approach everything with a sense of wonder. They help me see with fresh eyes, but even with our little sky-staring and flower-smelling disciplines it isn’t difficult at all to roll through a day and have absolutely no awareness of how precious it is. I wake up, go to work, drive home, run an errand, eat a perfunctory dinner with the family, watch television, and fall asleep. That’s it.
That can’t be all there is to life. We know this. And yet, in spite of this knowledge we still fall into habits of dullness and ingratitude. I know exactly why. It’s easier this way. It’s comfortable. There’s a certain amount of effort required to maintain a spark of life. We must carefully guard that ember so that it can burst into flame. This requires attentiveness and a willingness to rise to a challenge. Sometimes, I admit, I’m not up to it.
This is one of the reasons I love the Catholic calendar so much. Each week, as a Catholic, I’ve learned to mark the time, not by chores or days off work or a number on a calendar, but by the saints. Like a sacred roll call of amazing people, they march past one by one – today John Paul II, the next day John Capistrano, then Anthony Mary Claret, and so on in a procession of feasts and fasts. This isn’t a practical calendar; it’s more like poetry. It’s personal. Often, these saints remain on my mind throughout the day, and I’ve even started associating seasons and times with particular Catholic saints.
The saints go past in a magnificent parade until, finally, we arrive at today – All Saints’ Day. If we celebrate it right, the feast of All Saints is the shock to our system that we so desperately need each year — an annual attempt to come to grips with the mysteries of the universe and strength of the human bond. The air hums with the prayers of our ancestors, and even if the sun doesn’t rise tomorrow, their embrace will be ready to catch us up to glory.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my favorite poets, has a poem about the communion of the saints called “The Starlight Night.” In it, he says, “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!” The fire-folk he’s talking about are the stars, which his imagination has turned into all the saints gathering around and lighting our way. Later in the poem, he describes the saints as shocks of wheat – a shock is a bundle laid up for drying – and he uses that word “shock,” intentionally. The saints shock us and shake us free from life as usual. The shocks of wheat, Hopkins, says, are gathered up into the barn with Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
Last night my children put on their costumes and we marched through the leaf-strewn sidewalks of our neighborhood. They were miracles in disguise, and I couldn’t help but be somewhat shocked – this is the life I get to live – with these people, these little potential saints. To me, they are like flames that light up the night, and as we ran from door to door, shouting and laughing, demanding candy from neighbor after neighbor, above us the heavens were powdered with stars.