The Word Encountered
“First of all the commandments.” (Mk 12:28)
October is a great month for saints. It begins with the commemoration of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and ends with All Hallows Eve, the night of spirits who do not so much haunt streets as inspire hearts.
October is a month of giants: Francis of Assisi, who rebuilt the church and inspired centuries of holy souls; Teresa of Avila, mighty doctor of the church and reformer of the Carmelites; Anthony Claret, missionary, founder, archbishop of Cuba, and chaplain to the Queen of Spain; Simon, Jude, and Luke, apostles and evangelist; Ignatius of Antioch, one of our earliest bishops, a martyr in Rome; Margaret Mary Alacoque, Visitation contemplative, who with her Jesuit friend Claude La Colombière bequeathed the Sacred Heart devotion to the church.
Talk about diversity.
Yet they all had in common the kind of wholeheartedness that the Book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Mark require: to love the Lord our God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength.
At first hearing, the “Great Commandment” might suggest to us, as it did to a young woman at the turn of the twentieth century, a range of high and mighty acts:
All the deeds I long to accomplish for you. I would be a martyr, a doctor of the church. I should like to accomplish the most heroic deeds—the spirit of the crusader bums in me. I long to die on the battlefield in defense of the holy church. I would be a missionary. I would choose to be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or like St. Ignatius of Antioch I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc, I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.
And yet Thérèse Martin, psychologically and physically frail, hidden and protected from the onslaughts of the world, soon realized that her gift was not that of the noble warrior or the martyr of faith, nor that of an apostle, missionary, or preacher. Her grace was to love with whatever heart and mind were given her.
The wisdom shared by all the saints, after all, was not about the particular talents or deficits one brought to the world. It was about the wholeheartedness of love, a willingness to give it all away. They also seemed to know that wholeheartedness was not a matter of “once and for all,” or something that would happen overnight. It was, rather, a matter of opening up their entire lives to the transforming grace of God.
The little Thérèse would learn to love despite countless slights imagined or real, suffocating caregivers, and the frailty of her body and psyche. The great Teresa would face victories and terrible defeats, rewards and rejections—but with a permeating faith, even through disillusionment over projects and performance. Francis of Assisi suffered nerve-wracking discouragement and disappointments with himself and his communities. The wonder of their lives was that even in their defeats they abandoned everything into the care of God.
We imagine that wholeheartedness is some achievement or jewel of ours that we bestow upon the grateful Almighty. Or we fear that if we offer our all, something cherished will be snatched away from us. Too much might be asked. Something terrible demanded.
We miss the point. Wholeheartedness means that we present everything of ourselves before our God, even our dust and dross. The gift is not taken away, it is transformed. We are not robbed, we are revitalized.
Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, in his Gitanjali tells the story of a beggar going from door to door asking for alms. He suddenly sees his celestial king approaching in a chariot and dreams of bountiful gifts and lavish endowments showered upon him by his liege. But to his surprise, the king asks him what he has to give. He stares, confused and undecided. But finally he peers into his sack of meager possessions, takes out a tiny grain of corn and gives it to the king.
But how great my surprise when at the day's end I emptied my bag on the floor to find a least little grain of gold among the poor heap! I bitterly wept and wished that I had the heart to give thee my all.
All the saints, whether celebrated or unknown, would not cry bitter tears but weep for joy. Placing every grain of hope in God, they became likened to God. And in poverty or mourning, in gentleness or hunger, in the mercy they gave and the peace they brought, even in the terrible losses they endured, they found the happiness we all long for.
Saints have entered into the mystery of Christ, described by Karl Rahner as “the unique case of the perfect fulfillment of human reality (a nature which, by giving itself fully to the mystery of fullness, so empties itself that it becomes God) which means that humans only are when they give themselves away.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University