My heart leapt with joy as I ran up the steps into church yesterday. The school children were singing one of my favorite hymns – the Catholic Litany of the Saints. When we sat, I settled quietly into a back pew, where I took this photo. There were six adorable third graders dressed as saints standing on the altar, and approximately 250 kids up front, with my Kindergartener somewhere in the midst of them. They are all so little – they are invisible behind adult heads.
As often as I can, I try to attend the kids’ prayer services, and because we celebrated All Saints Day on November 1, the topic of this one was the lives of the saints. Our deacon lead us in a simple prayer.
Thank you for this beautiful day.
Thank you for all the blessings in our lives.
Thank you for all the saints in heaven.
Thank you for the example of their lives.
May we all try to be a saint.
Growing up in Protestant churches, I didn’t give much thought to the notion of saints. They seemed a foreign concept, distant from Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. But all of that changed during my junior year of college when I went to France. And perhaps not for the reasons you might think.
Yes – I was a French major and studying a tremendous amount of art history, so I was surrounded by illustrations of the saints every day – in museums, in town squares, in building facades. But to truly appreciate the art of Europe, you must visit its cathedrals, where sculptures and paintings of saints are in every direction you turn. Yet this is not what led me to consider saints in a different light. The story has a subtle beginning, years earlier.
As I mentioned in my last post, I am blessed with one living grandma. But I also have a grandma in heaven.
After suffering a stroke and then being in a coma for 11 days, my Grandma Elaine (Grandma ‘Chris,’ as we called her) passed exactly 30 years ago on All Saints Day, November 1, 1985. My mother was in such grief that she didn’t even make the connection to this Holy Day until the priest mentioned it in his funeral homily. At 12, I didn’t know what the day meant – what was special about it. But I do remember walking out of the service, into the Florida sunshine, and feeling that somehow, Grandma was ok.
Two weeks later, I woke up one morning and went directly into the kitchen to tell my mom I’d had a dream.
“Grandma was sitting at a square table,” I said, “playing cards with three other ladies. She had on a black dress with small red flowers on it. She looked so happy. Her dark hair was up, and I was walking around the table looking at her. She looked up, right at me, and smiled at me.”
Then I said, “Mom. Did Grandma ever play cards?”
My mom stood there frozen.
“She hadn’t played in years.”
To my knowledge, no one else in our immediate family had a vivid ‘Grandma dream’ like mine following her death. And the details of it have never scared me or left me.
In the time I’d known her, my grandma had also not attended church. But she was a Catholic. In fact, she converted to Catholicism sometime before marrying my grandfather.
So, when I called my mom from France and told her that I felt that Grandma was with me every time I visited a cathedral, she said, “That’s weird. She really wasn’t into church.”
All of this brings me back to the saints. What do we believe about them? We believe they are our Loved Ones, our Family of Faith. This is why we have sculptures and paintings of them in our churches, so that we will remember them, just as we have photos of our relatives and friends in our homes. And just as we ask our family and friends here to pray for us, we can ask the saints to pray for us as well. The saints are clear examples of people who truly lived Jesus’s commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) And since “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much,” (James 5:16), it is fitting to ask the saints to appeal to the Lord on our behalf.
While there are thousands of saints officially recognized by the Catholic church, it is accepted that the names of millions if not billions more are known only to God, just like only God knows the hearts of men. “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
For my Confirmation on April 7, 2007, I was invited to take the name of a saint, as many Catholics do for this sacrament, though it is not required. I hemmed and hawed over this decision for weeks, but finally decided that my own name “Gretchen Elaine” was sufficient. Only later did I realize – when I was confirmed ‘Gretchen Elaine,’ that perhaps I had taken a saint’s name anyway.
Click Catholic Litany of the Saints to hear the song and see some beautiful artwork. This song was played at the Easter Vigil when I was confirmed.