When the Saints Go Marching In
By Christian Huebner - Washington, District of Columbia, USA - 21 November 2014
Recently, I saw the light of heaven twice in one weekend. I saw it first in the warm glow of wax candles underneath the shadowy recess of Gothic arches. Then I saw it again in fluorescent industrial tube lights radiating through cotton gauze pinned to a cork tile roof. In both instances it was the same light.
For a few years now, I’ve made it a tradition to visit the local Dominican priory on the Vigil of All Saints -- more popularly known as All Hallows’ Eve, i.e., Halloween. On that night, the Dominicans hold a special liturgy of readings on the lives of saints from throughout the Church’s twenty centuries, interspersed with choral motets, chanted Psalms and a candlelight litany.
As usual, the chapel was packed to overflow with young and old, man and woman, yuppie and immigrant, all eager to hear the voices of the saints emerge in a shadowy cocoon of beauty. This year, the friars chose four very different lives, presented not in their own words, but in the words of still other saints writing in memoriam. So we heard the Victorian Oxford don, Blessed John Henry Newman, give a sermon on Saint Philip Neri, the Renaissance-era Roman priest. We heard Pope St. John Paul II’s canonization homily for his Polish countrywoman, the early 20th century cloistered nun, St. Faustina. We heard St. Gregory of Nyssa’s account of the death of his sister, the 4th century ascetic St. Macrina. And we heard Blessed Jordan of Saxony’s biography of his teacher, the Dominicans’ own founder, St. Dominic.
There is a piercing beauty about the saints. You get to know a little bit about them, you catch just enough of the spirit of one of their lives, and it becomes clear that of course, what other way could there be to live, to really live? That makes All Saints’ Day an especially overwhelming feast. Not simply because we see the procession of so many beautifully burning souls, en masse, but because in seeing them together we see their distinctions, their dizzying, dazzling variety. Seeing the great cloud of witnesses all at once, we are stunned by how many different ways there are to be holy, to be a living torch of charity in such utterly different circumstances: in a concentration camp (St. Maximilian Kolbe), in a middle class French family (St. Therese of Lisieux), in the broom closet of a South American colonial monastery (St. Martin de Porres), on a monarch’s throne (St. Casmir)…the list goes on.
The capstone of the Domincans’ liturgy was the litany. A group of the brothers would chant out the name of a saint, and the whole congregation would sing back: “Pray for us.” Over and over, life after life, young and old, male and female, quiet and bombastic, normal and bizarre, brilliant and simple. Pray for us, we asked; you found the secret, all of you, the secret that has been proclaimed out loud for two thousand years now, of how to give yourself over to the Love of God. Pray for us.
The following afternoon, a group of us went over to the Missionaries of Charity home on the east side of town to help the sisters there, all the blue and white sari-ed daughters of Mother Theresa, put on their annual All Saints’ Pageant. “We are Roman Catholic, yes?” one of the sisters explained in a deadpan Indian accent. “So we celebrate All Saints Day, yes?”
Our first task on arrival was to put the last pins and buttons in place on the residents’ costumes. These were all elderly men and women, suffering from illness, physical pain, and mental deterioration, taken in by the sisters from destitution and given a home.
Today, though, all aches and pains were dressed up in the garb of a particular saint. There were cardboard bishops’ mitres, shepherds’ staffs, spandex nuns’ wimples, camel hair tunics, prisoners’ uniforms, costume-jeweled princes’ crowns, wigs, painted beards, and even one volunteer dressed in a familiar looking blue and white sari. At three o’clock, the sound of drums, maracas, tambourines and toy accordions summoned us from the chapel, and the sisters lead everyone in a procession, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
When we got to the reception hall, it had been transformed into a cotton-ball replica of heaven. God the Father sat with a giant white Santa beard next to a crowned King Jesus, a corn flakes box cut-out Holy Spirit dove dangling above them while a bath-robed Blessed Mother sat in the place of honor at their feet. As the hosts of heaven arrived, God the Father welcomed us and summoned up each resident -- each saint -- one-by-one. He or she would read (or have read for them) a short description of their life, and then everyone would shout out guesses as to who it was. While the saints shuffled or wheeled their way forward, a group of giddy younger sisters in the back of the room would strike up the singing again.
It was a riot. At one point St. Joseph seemed confused about the guessing game and simply told us, “Aww, I’m Saint Joseph!” St. Maximilian Kolbe, a dignified visiting priest, stood up to introduce himself and unknowingly left his too-loose flannel prisoner pants on the floor. Pandemonium ensued. Later, St. Teresa of Avila, could barely get out her D.C.-drawled recitation of mystical poetry because of how wide the smile was stretching her face.
It took over an hour, and by the end the entire army of heavenly residents were seated by the stage, facing out toward the audience. Then Saint Mary, the Blessed Mother, a young woman who volunteered at the home, stood up. “I am the humble handmaiden of the Lord,” she said, while behind her, all the broken bodies in ridiculous costumes looked on. For all the hushed majesty of the Dominican liturgy the night before, I don’t know if I’d ever seen beauty like that before.
Afterwards, as we were pulling down clouds, folding up thrones and cleaning up the room, someone said, “So, that’s pretty much how I imagine heaven.”
“Yeah,” someone else agreed. “You think of heaven as this place where everything is neat and perfect, but…”
I knew what he meant. Heaven is perfect, it is order itself, but the ordering principle is Love. That was the light shining down on all those costumes. It was the light illuminating the invisible words in the chapel the night before. So many different lamps, and the same light.
NotA bene: An earlier version of this essay appeared at Semantics: A Seminarian Blog, http://www.dcpriest.org/meet-us/semantics. Mr. Huebner, its author and one of our editors, is currently in formation for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.