1st November, 2020

Fr Gabriel's Homily for All Saints

Ampleforth Abbey



Today’ gospel, the Beatitudes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, always used for the solemnity of All Saints, gives us a general indication of the qualities of the saint: humble, gentle, compassionate, zealous to do the right thing, forgiving, pure, makers of peace, resolute, patient and determined even in suffering and persecution. Of course, it all seems a very tall order and more than this quite out of reach. This is its point.

But then great is the reward and therefore great the motivation to strive, to pray for grace to achieve so great a goal, for so great a goal can only possibly be achieved by grace and in Christ. The reward begins and ends with the promise of the kingdom of heaven, and with heaven comes also the promise of a renewed earth. It is a promise of comfort, satisfaction, of mercy, seeing God and of being his sons, his beloved children.

The monks of the central medieval period, the Benedictine centuries, wrote of a great longing for heaven. Jean Leclercq in his book The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, says of this longing that it was of course for an indescribable experience and therefore the writers had to use poetic imagery, all of it biblical in origin. The monk, and we may say the Christian, wants to be in Jerusalem, which is physically anywhere, but which stands for a ‘place’ where far from the world and sin we draw close to God, the angels and the saints who surround us. This is the longing, but it is not yet the achievement. Indeed there are no canonized saints on earth.

Leclercq quotes from an anonymous monk who writes of the city of God which is the kingdom of heaven: ‘In this city dwell our parents and dearest friends ready to call upon God on our behalf; they await our coming, and so far as they are able, they hasten our journey’; ‘On that day, God will manifest Himself to us and to all our friends. He will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the saints. He will give back great things in return for small; for perishable things, bliss. Then all will become clear to us, everything will belong to all; then, visibly, shall we see how God is three and one, all in all, and above all. Then will our hearts rejoice with the fullness of joy, and our joy no one shall take from us: for what we are now in expectation, then shall we be in reality: sons of the kingdom, united to the angels, eternal inheritors of God, co-heirs with Christ’. So this anonymous monk.

What is, is not what seems. This is the point of the All Saints gospel, the uncomfortable and challenging reversals of the Beatitudes that come to a head in the apparently nonsensical happiness of being persecuted and abused. Saints do not look like the happy and the blessed of the world and they do not feel particularly saintly either. We can maybe just about learn to live with not being considered to be on the world’s celebrity A list of the beautiful, the successful, the popular but being instead humble, gentle, vulnerable, principled, forgiving and so forth. But not to feel within ourselves satisfactorily saintly seems a much harder ask. The rest of the world may mock us, but can we not at least be secure in our own self righteousness. No says Jesus. The sanctity of the saints consists only ever in their total openness to God and his mercy, their recognition that it is ‘Not I but Christ in me’, a centre wholly and completely outside themselves and hidden too. The secret of sanctity God seems to like to keep even from the saints themselves, right up to the last moment.

The Gospel wants us to be very realistic and honest about ourselves, feeling only a truly sharp pain of self-recognition, knowing that all of us are only ever saints who have been redeemed, never self made, only made so by God. Even our blessed Mother was a redeemed sinner, it just being very mysteriously in her case that the moment of redemption was differently placed than for us. May we know at the end that there is only one thing that counts – to be a saint and may we yet find in this a judgement that heals and saves.