…”Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” (Revelation 7:13)
Every year November begins with two important church holidays: All Saints’ Day on November 1, and All Souls’ Day on November 2. Protestants get them all mixed up. Even I, allegedly a professional theologian, had to look it up to remind myself about the difference.
November 1 is All SAINTS’ Day, an occasion to commemorate the blessed and beautiful lives of those who by pure and blameless conduct have already earned perfect sweet communion with God Godself. For them there is nothing more to do or say but thank God for the unmerited gift of their example.
November 2 is All SOULS’ Day, when we pray for those who have not yet quite achieved that perfect sweet communion with God. Having lived good but not exemplary lives, having missed the opportunity to get their heads chopped off by Nero or hung by Hitler, these departed souls are still making their slow and halting way through purgatory. Their souls are still being purged, hence the word purgatory; pronounce it purge-atory if it helps. Their souls are still being purged, purified, perfected, prepared, for that perfect sweet communion with God.
Choose your metaphor: The Saints are the spiritual aristocracy, the Souls the serfs. The Saints are the Varsity, the Souls the JV; the Saints have arrived at their destination, sitting in the sun on Miami Beach; the Souls are languishing in the Atlanta airport waiting out one canceled flight after another, an apt image for purgatory if ever there was one. To keep the two Catholic holidays straight, a Presbyterian friend of mine reminds himself that they arrive in alphabetical order–first All SAINTS, and second All SOULS.
Protestants don’t believe in purgatory, so the distinction is lost on us. Glued fast to the lofty idea of salvation by GRACE not WORKS, Protestants don’t believe that even the saints attain perfect sweet communion with God by anything THEY have done, but only by what JESUS has done on the cross, and he was no respecter of persons; HE loved the prostitute as much as the priest. So that St. Lawrence, grilled alive for his faith, and Debbie Jannotta, fallen asleep, finally, after a long, herculean battle with disease, are both in the same place, in the bosom of Father Abraham. For Protestants, ALL of our departed souls are also our departed saints. We don’t pay much attention to All Souls’ Day.
Actually both concepts, ‘saints’ and ‘souls,’ are kind of indistinct and murky ideas for twenty-first-century rationalists like ourselves. Musty with great age, both words, ‘saints’ and ‘souls,’ have fallen into a kind of bland and benign obsolescence. Someone–I forget who, but someone–said, “We used to go to our priests to save our souls; now we go to our therapists to find our selves.”
We don’t think much about our souls, and we don’t really consult the saints for inspiration in how we live our lives.
All SAINTS, All SOULS–pshaw! We want All-STARS. We want Derek Jeter’s autograph (or maybe Madison Bumgarner is a better example just now). We want to watch the stars on the red carpet. We want to catch a glimpse of Tom Brady and his sexy squeeze walking down the streets. We don’t want to be St. Anthony. We want to be Jay Cutler, at least when he’s not playing football—sort of–because he gets Kristin Cavallari. I mean, who wants to be Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Look what happened to him.
You won’t believe this, but one time at the Woolworth’s in Princeton, Brooke Shields asked me which aisle the shampoo was in. Brooke Shields! I guess she thought I worked there. That was in 1984. I still remember it.
In spite of ourselves we feed this enormous industry in All-Star Adulation– Entertainment Tonight, Hollywood Access, People magazine, Vanity Fair, TMZ, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars–with the STARS! Washed-up, has-been, sitcom stars!
We have diminished spiritual expectations. In self-improvement, in character-building, in personal integrity, in moral courage, our aspirations are what you might call modest, at best.
There’s a reason we call them stars. Like the real ones, they sparkle and shine. They’re hot! They’re on fire! Internal combustion at the core keeps them aflame. They can fill arenas built for ten thousand people and make each and every spectator feel as if they are known and loved. We bask in the glow of their light.
Saints are different from stars. Like stars, saints throw light, but saints are people the light shines through, not from. With saints, the source of their light comes from behind and beyond them. Unlike stars, saints have no internal combustion; their energy is external to their being. Saints are less like stars than like the moon; saints throw a softer, gentler gleam, because they bask in the glow of a reflected glory–the glory of the Son–S-O-N–the brilliance at the center of the sprawling cosmos. Saints magnify, focus, and intensify Jesus’ burning radiance, like those plastic magnifying glasses you used to set dry leaves on fire with from the light of the sun when you were a kid.
Saints are transparent, or at least translucent. They call no attention to themselves, but coax you to attend instead to the light behind and beyond them, the light at the center of the universe. Look at all the saints the light shines through; we’re surrounded by them.
Saints are transparent. You can barely see them. But the light shines through, and maybe it’s time for us to enlarge and expand our spiritual expectations by attending more to saints than to the stars.
Forget the stars. Attend to our local saints. This is the last time you will ever hear Phil Jones and and Dr. McDreamy in the same sentence. Phil Jones taught us everything we need to know about excellence and compassion and the loving, gentle touch. “A white knight in a white coat,” said one of the patients whose life he saved, more than once. A white knight in a white coat, or maybe a white saint in a white robe, which is how the Book of Revelation describes them.
Bo Whittlesey, with all his quirks and oddities, taught me many things. He couldn’t carry a tune in a Patagonia backpack, but there he was every Sunday, belting out the Kyrie’s and the Gloria’s and the Dona Nobis’s with vim and vigor and bone-deep faithfulness.
Debbie Janotta taught me everything I need to know about courage, about thanking God for every gratuitous hour of existence God will grant you in the teeth of a killing illness.
And also, of course, Franklin Bellows, Purcell Macklin, and Manierre Ware. They were part of our congregation too long ago for any of us to know or remember them, but they attended Sunday School here at Kenilworth Union, and when they grew up to be young men, they enlisted in the United States Army, and gave their lives for their country in World War I. As we mark the 100th anniversary this year of the commencement of hostilities in Europe, I need to mention these saints.
Franklin Bellows graduated from New Trier High School in 1913 and then matriculated at Northwestern University. In 1917, one month before his graduation, President Wilson declared war on Germany and Mr. Bellows immediately enlisted at Fort Sheridan. He was the only member of his graduating class to receive his diploma in uniform. On September 13, 1918, he was flying a reconnaissance mission behind German lines when his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. Though the plane was badly damaged, the pilot managed to land safely in friendly territory, but Lieutenant Bellows had been hit by three bullets and died in his plane. For his heroism, General Pershing awarded Lieutenant Bellows the Distinguished Service Cross. Bellows Air Force Station in Hawaii is named after him.
Purcell Macklin was 18 years old when the United States declared war on Germany, too young to enlist in our Armed Forces, so he joined the British Royal Flying Corps instead. On May 30, 1918, witnesses saw his plane go down out of control behind German lines. For a long time nobody knew if he’d been killed or taken prisoner, but some time later a German pilot dropped a notice among the American troops telling them that Lieutenant Macklin had been buried in French soil near Amiens.
Manierre Barlow Ware graduated from New Trier High School in 1913 and the University of Illinois in 1917. As soon as he finished his classes, he enlisted in the U. S. Army. On October 12, 1918, his unit, Company K of the 362nd Infantry, 91st Division, in charge of 37 millimeter guns, was ordered to mop up a German machine gun nest. When the commanding officer was killed, Lieutenant Ware took his place and was then brought down himself. He is buried in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery for American soldiers in France, the largest American cemetery outside the United States. October 12, 1918–exactly 30 days before the Armistice; 30 days from peace and home.
In 1930, our forbears decided that these three former Kenilworth Union Sunday School students were three of our local saints and memorialized them with these beautiful and evocative windows in our transept. You see how the Light of the World doesn’t shine from them; they have no internal combustion. They are not Stars; they are Saints. The Light of the World shines not from them, but through them. And they’re here, still, to this day, memorialized in this translucent glass and web of lead so that we might learn from them and be more like them.
Writes St. John of the Apocalypse from his lonely, stony prison on the island of Patmos, thinking of all the brave heroes who have taught him how to live the Christian life:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, and every tribe, and every tongue, standing before the throne, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, singing, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ Then someone asked, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ And the answer came, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes in blood and made them white. They will hunger and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
I learned this insight from novelist Michael Malone, in an unpublished lecture entitled “Laughter Is a Prayer: Fiction and Faith,” at the Festival of Faith and Writing, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 23, 2004. Mr. Malone used to be a writer for the soap opera One Life to Live, but now writes novels with Christian sensibilities about everyday saints.