Today is All Saints Day. The history of the solemnity can basically be summed up this way: as the amount of martyrs for the Church grew during the sub-apostolic era, beginning with the death of John in ~100 CE, through the mid-patristic era (~ 5th century), it was impossible for each martyr to be accorded the honor of an individual celebration. There were simply not enough days in the year. The Solemnity of All Saints was established to remember and venerate the merits of all the Saints, known and unknown, during this one celebration.
An additional historical datum about the celebration can be found in Pope Urban IV’s (r. 1261-1264) Decretale Si Dominum; in it, he wrote:
Any negligence, omission and irreverence committed in the celebration of the saints’ feasts throughout the year is to be atoned for by the faithful, and thus due honor may still be offered these saints.
So if a person was bound by some rule or vow to attend Mass on the feast of a particular Saint (for me that would be St. Dominic) and didn’t go, All Saints Day provides an opportunity for the faithful to still fulfill their obligation.
I’d like to turn away from the history of the Solemnity and spend some time reflecting on something all saints have in common – suffering. In fact, all believers have that common. I think the crucial difference between most people and those recognized by the Church as a “Saint” is what they do with that suffering when they experience it.
The most well known story from scripture of someone suffering, apart from Jesus’ Passion, is the story of Job. His story, and where it is placed in the Old Testament canon, is significant because it turns the Jewish idea of God as a dealer in retributive justice on its head. The prevailing idea was, if you were good, you will receive good things from God. Conversely, if you are bad, then God will punish you. The author of Job introduced us to a man who was “was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil;” however, this blameless man still suffered the most horrendous pains. Why is that? The logical two assumptions are: 1) Job wasn’t truly as blameless as believed or 2) God does not deal in retributive justice; he doesn’t pay us back good for good, bad for bad.
Peter Kreeft described the story of Job and suffering this way:
God let Job suffer not because he lacked love but precisely out of his love, to bring Job to the point of the Beatific Vision of God face to face (Job 42:5), which is humanity’s supreme happiness. Job’s suffering hollowed out a big space in him so that a big piece of God and joy could fill it. Job’s experience is paradigmatic for all saintly suffering.
Did you see that?
“All saintly suffering.”
Like I said eariler, all saints have suffering in common with each other and with us. The path that leads us to heaven will not be an easy one. We should prepare ourselves for what is likely going to be a long and difficult journey. This is why reflecting on the lives of the canonized Saints in the Church is so crucial. Read the words of Blessed John Henry Newman:
I have not yet mentioned the peculiar benefit to be derived from the observance of Saints’ days: which obviously lies in their setting before the mind patterns of excellence for us to follow. In directing us to these, the Church does but fulfil the design of Scripture. Consider how great a part of the Bible is historical; and how much of the history is merely the lives of those men who were God’s instruments in their respective ages. Some of them are no patterns for us, others show marks of the corruption under which human nature universally lies:—yet the chief of them are specimens of especial faith and sanctity, and are set before us with the evident intention of exciting and guiding us in our religious course. Such are, above others, Abraham, Joseph, Job, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the like; and in the New Testament the Apostles and Evangelists. First of all, and in His own incommunicable glory, our Blessed Lord Himself gives us an example; but His faithful servants lead us on towards Him, and confirm and diversify His pattern (Sermon XXXII: Feast of All Saints).
The lives of the Saints are “patterns of excellence for us to follow.” As Cardinal Newman points out, not all men and women, not even all those in scripture, live lives worthy of emulation; however, there are men and women who lives we can know and study that will “lead us on towards [Jesus].”
I’ve heard it plenty of times, I’m sure I’ve even heard myself saying it, “I am no Saint” or “I could never be a Saint.” Most times people are referring to the formal canonization process which leads to one being declared a “Saint” by the universal Church. While it is true the odds of one person being canonized are very, very high, it is as equally true that we are still called to live our lives in the same manner in which those who are canonized did. Once again, Cardinal Newman:
Let us not forget, that, as we are called to be Saints, so we are, by that very calling, called to suffer; and, if we suffer, must not think it strange concerning the fiery trial that is to try us, nor be puffed up by our privilege of suffering, nor bring suffering needlessly upon us, nor be eager to make out we have suffered for Christ, when we have but suffered for our faults, or not at all. May God give us grace to act upon these rules, as well as to adopt and admire them; and to say nothing for saying’s sake, but to do much and say little! (Sermon XXXII: Feast of All Saints)
We are called to be Saints and so we are called to suffer. The wise cardinal even warns us against the possibility of letting our suffering be an occasion for sin, by allowing ourselves to become “puffed up by our privilege of suffering.”
So why is there suffering? That is a difficult question, the answer to it never really seems to satisfy the person suffering. Just know, suffering does not have to be “for nothing.” Every pain we experience in the midst of suffering is always significantly less than the “greater good of moral and spiritual education” we receive from it.
Finally, do not let your suffering be an occasion of spiritual inaction. Pray! Ask God to show you the lesson he wants you to learn and then open yourself to receive the answer to that prayer. Do not place any conditions on it. And do not suppose you know better than God how to bring you to the end of your suffering. He alone knows what is best. Follow his lead and become the saint you a called to be.