Keep the light burning brightly
On Tuesday our reredos, the great decorative structure in the apse of the church surrounding the high altar, will be ablaze with the light of fifty-two lamps, one for each of the statues of the saints and angels. It is an impressive illustration of the light of Christ in which we share through our baptism, a light which is to be kept burning brightly as a flame of faith alive in our hearts so that — as the rite of baptism says — “when the Lord comes, we may go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom”.
On the first day of November each year we celebrate the feast of All Saints. But the saints we celebrate are not just the ones on our reredos, or paintings, or stained-glass windows. Not just St Philip and St Francis and St Ignatius and St Theresa. Not just those whose lives we remember in the Church’s liturgical calendar. But all those millions of our brothers and sisters in whom God’s light has burned brightly and who are now reigning forever with him in heaven, “a large number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language”.
We may often find it hard to identify with those saints whose stories we know so well. They seem so different to us. They seem so otherworldly. We put them on pedestals and light candles in front of them, but they’re not like us — or rather, we think we are nothing like them. But we can be absolutely sure that, as unique as each of us is, somewhere in the house of our Father, there is someone who has struggled and fought with all the trials, difficulties and temptations that trouble us — and they have won. Whatever your besetting sin may be, the thing that you just cannot seem to shake off, whatever it is that seems to dominate and control you, the temptation that never seems to go away, you can be sure that there are plenty of others in Heaven, plenty of saints, who have struggled just as you do, and in the end, which God’s help, they have triumphed. That is why the feast of All Saints is so special, and so encouraging. The lives of the saints give us a glimpse of just what God can do in any person’s life, and so they show us just what is possible. That holiness and faithfulness are possible. That living the commandments, and the Beatitudes, and the Christian life, is possible — and not for the few, but for all of us.
St John Henry Newman once wrote: “As the sun’s light comes to us reflected and refracted, so God’s saints are the means under which his glory comes to us”. Newman was convinced that the struggle for holiness, the struggle to become saints, was the heart of the Christian life, and for most of us it is a long, slow, life-long process of transformation: “a habit of prayer”, says our Cardinal, “the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency — prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualising and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before gradually… he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles”. In another sermon of his, St John Henry explained that good works are not important in themselves, they do not store up merit for us like rewards for good behaviour, or pounds in a celestial bank account; rather, they are important because little by little they change and transform us into good people — into saints. Acts of love, of patience, of kindness and generosity accumulate into habits that we do more and more easily, more and more naturally.
St John Henry’s path to holiness (which is actually our Holy Father St Philip’s path to holiness) is attractive because it does not demand great and dramatic acts. We don’t have to perform great penances, or preach the Gospel to thousands, or shed our blood for the name of Christ. It simply invites us to be faithful in all the circumstances of ordinary life, to believe that God can help us to be re-formed and re-made. Whatever it is that you feel stands between you and God, whatever it is you struggle with most strongly, Heaven is full of known and unknown saints who have fought the same struggle and have triumphed, with God’s grace, and kept the light burning brightly.
If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first— Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
St John Henry Newman: A short road to perfection
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