The poet, T.S.Eliot, once said that April was the cruellest month. I don’t know what he had against April, but I would have thought that the cold, dark winter months of November, December and January would have a better claim to such an accolade.
We are approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another. Advent starts the Church Year a good month earlier than the calendar year. It’s a season for reflecting on endings and beginnings. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls at the start of this month are a reminder that our time here on earth is limited – that, as scripture tells us, we have here no lasting city but seek one that is to come. It’s a time for reflecting on our own mortality – not in any morbid way but in a way that helps us makes sense of the here and now and the hereafter.
The two feasts have so much in common that they might more usefully be taken as one. They celebrate the struggle of ordinary people like ourselves and what God can do for us when we turn to Him. To understand this better, we have to peel back crusted layers on perceptions about holiness that are unreal. Indeed, a closer look at some of the great saints gives us grounds for hope.
Augustine for example, led a reckless and dissolute youth and Francis and Clare ran away from loving and wealthy families. Paul persecuted the early Church and Therese feared that God had abandoned her. More recently, St Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote about her own “dark night of the soul.” Here we find frail humanity being transformed by God. Like stained-glass windows, the light of God’s love shines through unusual and unlikely people.
I used to think that holiness was only for a select few. I now believe that it is something real and solid and made of flesh and blood. Indeed, the real test of holiness is a deep awareness of one’s own weakness. The brighter the light, the more evident the cracks and splinters. Holiness is not what we achieve but rather what God does to us when we let him deal with us.
And it has no favourite place or climate: we blossom where we are. And it has a human face. It walks the bedroom at night with a sick child. It is in the home with a family trying to make ends meet with the breadwinners out of work. It sits by a hospital bed. It is in the kindness and support of friends during a bereavement. And it is tested in the struggle to be honest, just and forgiving.
That’s why All Saints and All Souls are the right feasts for the coming winter season. They remind us that the people we remember and pray for during this season have gone home to God, or been “called back” as the poet Emily Dickinson put it. And they tell us powerfully that our deceased loved ones are saints now because they were once sinners like us who just refused to give up trying to be good.