“Therefore, surrounded as we are by such a vast cloud of witnesses,
let us fling aside every encumbrance and the sin that so readily entangles our feet.
And let us run with patient endurance
the race that lies before us.”
~ Hebrews 12:1
the indefinite temporal
Most of us, perhaps all of us, are creatures of habit. We like what we like, and we are consoled by what consoles us. There are several ways to specifically define our own creature comforts: one is to notice our preferences during times of leisure, another is to notice our reactions to distress, yet another includes what we’ll do to comfort another person. All are drawn from our experiences - at any age- of what has set us at ease. As workplace oppression presses, artistic pursuits and the worlds of imagination and scholarship can be medicinal sources. The wilderness ahead is as trackless as it was for me a year ago, five years ago, or ten years ago. In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing particularly new. Even as a high school student, I used to say that independence comes at a price. Well into adulthood, the basics of life continue in their uncertainty. The indefinite temporal forces an acute awareness and practice of spiritual consolations. The voyage can be desolate and undefended- granted there is occasional cheer and respite- yet throughout is the imperative to keep focused. For many years, I’ve admired the Greek title parakletos, referring to the Spirit of God, which translates to the advocate, the at one’s side, the consoler. This, in itself, is a poignant point of contemplation.
the saints that have gone before us
Sources of consolation can also be as earthily human as we are. I believe each of us emulate those we hold in highest esteem, those who’ve set examples we comprehend as worth following. We couldn’t imagine perceiving without them. Such individuals surface throughout our lives. These are the saintly souls that have gone before us. And if we know them during our own lifetimes, they are presently before us. It may be the exception to the rule to not have a personal roster of saints and role-models that influence and encourage from their respective experiences and words. Our predecessor saints, upon our reflection, continue attending to us. I notice countless occasions at which perspectives and even the words I’ve learned come out of me. Often it’s the voice of common sense, particularly amidst situations that do not make sense. Hardly a day passes without my issuing forth my father’s “what do you mean by that?”- or “what’s the point?” To go with that are the conciliatory monastic words of “let’s find a way,” with the gems gentle, patient, and humble. Of the spiritual mind, Austin Farrer observed that it is...
“...incapable of proving faith in seventy years of imperfection, adds the years of others to its own and extends experiment by proxy. We live and feel through the friends we know, or through the saints and apostles we read. And now the balance swings the other way. Instead of valuing what we have received as a prescription for the experiments we may make, we begin to value our own experiences as clues to a labyrinth of spiritual history.”
As in the Johannine letters, that which we have seen and held lives within us as strongly as we can manifest such divine gifts. Our best learning really does provide clues to labyrinthine roads. One of my mentoring historic saints, San Juan de la Cruz, reminded his readers that “The light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul.” Among the 20th century minds long established in my pantheon of saints, Thomas Merton, saw many sides of contemporary life. He warned of the dangers of defining ourselves with our careers, obsessively looking in mirrors for reassurance. Activities that were meant to exalt, wind up reproaching and condemning us, Merton wrote in No Man is an Island. “The less he is able to bethe more he has to do. He becomes his own slave driver- a shadow whipping a shadow to death.” He added, “we must stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in God.” Merton was surely not advocating misery, but quite the opposite. Seeking peace within ourselves, we learn to commune with ourselves so that we can communicate with others and support their wellbeing: “We cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves.” The accompanying wisdom of saints provides a guiding cloud by day, and light by night.
saints, heroes, and tangibles
Surely less austere and subtle- but surely evident in popular culture are the crossroads of patron saints and personal identity. The traditional idea of a patron saint relates to personally identifying with an exemplary historic personage. The devoted becomes something of a student of their chosen patron saint, following through by learning about that person’s life and observing the saint’s feast day- which may be their date of birth, or decease, or an anniversary of remark. The “popular” part enters the equation with our reasons for attaching to a patron saint: perhaps a trait, a surmounted adversity, something the saint was known for having accomplished, or a national saint. Saint Francis of Assisi is admired for his respectful attitude toward animals; students in France celebrate Charlemagne, who is believed to be the founder of public education. Saint Joseph is regarded as patron saint of Canada, among other countries, virtues, and workers. The converging of popular ideas and these historic mortals manifest in ways that can reflect our human gestures and aspirations more than anything else. We naturally ask for help; spiritual life brings us to be grateful for favors granted.
Remembering Thomas Merton’s words, how much of our selves are we pursuing? How do we express our allegiances and affinities? We all tend to need tangibles, looking for the sense of things, for hopefulness, for paths in the wilderness. Do we represent those we admire, or are they representing us? Perhaps it’s both, in varying degrees. Who identifies whom? Often the exhilaration of festivities- or the severity of solemnities- can subvert the questions. I diverted from my studies last fall, with a few lively strolls through Boston’s North End during the Feast of San Gennaro. Among the pleasant diversions are musical events and savoury Italian cuisine, centered around celebrating the patron saint of Naples. For the occasion, Hanover Street becomes a pedestrian mall, lined with dining tables and vendors. At the heart of the event is Saint Leonard’s Church, and a nearby year-round landmark on Battery Street called All Saints Way also draws enhanced attention. Being a reverent observer, I enjoyed colors, sounds, and impromptu sidewalk chats, with the prayerful silence inside Saint Leonard’s. From the muffled Baroque sanctuary, I could hear the outdoor animated festivities. Celebrations like this are replete with visual language and reminders of those before us.
Below: Saint Leonard's Church.
On one of my many visits to the Saint Anthony shrine in downtown Boston, a greeter gave me a holy card. A small, humble, printed treasure, picturing the decorated statue on Arch Street, there are some good and calming words printed on the verso side. It is a miniature reminder of the nearness of holiness that I keep with me at work. It is also something of an icon, representing how iconographic we are. Long before I’d ever seen a holy card, I knew plenty from my childhood about sports cards. The photos of athletes are backed with their respective statistics. They are collected and revered as objects by many, even at auction houses. The subjects of the cards have numerous fans who celebrate their heroes’ accomplishments. Sports genres honor their achievers and eras. There are halls of fame; the one for hockey, in Canada, has the less-subtle title of Le Temple de la Renommée. Athletes themselves often like to wear the same uniform numbers as their personal heroes- in some ways their patron saints. In reverence, Jackie Robinson’s number 42 is not worn by any major league baseball player. In other genres, buildings, campuses, and various locations often bear the names of saints, of benefactors, and the sundry famous. There’s always a reason and story for each person of note. And many of these individuals, with their imperfections, were endearingly normal people albeit of extraordinary achievement.
Indeed, there are many more examples of how we enshrine- whether globally or within our own hearts. But the degree of influence and personal proximity will be different for as many souls as encounter such things as landmarks. For this instance, let’s imagine the individual soul as a walking repository: an individual person to be sure; unique and unlike anyone else- but there are influences, sources, and mentors that make us who we are. They’ve preceded us: our saints that we have ever before us. Lives providing noble examples, as the lines of our roads give way to occasion. The way is not always a clearly-marked road with dividers, lanes, lighting, and directional signs. Amidst the wilderness immediately ahead and at all sides, I have little more than instincts and the words of saints for my navigational senses. In these scarce and oppressive times, it becomes necessary to lean heavily into the words and legacies of those who have been mentoring me- both in my lifetime and through their words handed down to me in written observations.
taught from within
Those souls most treasured are individuals that have taught me the most compassionately. That latter trait is decisive, as I’ve surely learned enduring lessons though hardships, and too many unkind situations and people. But to offset oppressions and bullying are all the lifegiving examples I’ve seen before me, and those that lived before my time. Before my eyes and ears have been family members, friends, mentors, and colleagues. Before my era are the subtle role models that have been teaching me from within, through my studies and travels. Sometimes my first impressions are through biographical writing, most other times the initial acquaintances are through their own written works or by trusted recommendations. Among the great benefits of studying physical books in well-stocked libraries are editorial and bibliographic notes. The way to find is to seek, and one of the best ways to seek new influences is to browse for the serendipitous. Another is to pinpoint specific sources by reading general treatments.
During a highly unusual weekday off from work, this past May, I made the opportunity to read in the Boston Athenaeum’s inner sanctum, the Vershbow Room. With time for just one item, I chose a 17th century imprint containing selections of Saint Anselm. The saint of the 11th century came to mind as I’d gotten tastes of his thought and work through studies of philosophical surveys by Paul Vignaux, and by D.J.B. Hawkins. The Athenaeum has just one tome of Anselm in English, albeit in the 1600s vernacular, and the delicate volume can only be viewed in the pencils-only room. Due to what I’d been reading through the winter, I expected speculative philosophy- perhaps some more of the Neoplatonist texts of my familiarity. Well, what I found was something more personal and quite captivating.
Considering the author’s time and the context of his writing, the stern and austere words were not surprising to read. Some of the tone of reformist writings 600 years later are detectable in the ways Anselm laments, “I cannot look upon my past life without horror.” He addresses his own self, as an observer, with: “Open thine eyes, my Soul, and let them overflow with tears of godly sorrow. Force yourself to see and hear the danger of thy Condition.” But as much as Anselm is unlike the puritanical authors of a half-millennium later, these writings were also unlike what I’d been reading thus far in his philosophical texts. Turning the fragile leaves of the book, I found an inviting tenderness. Anselm rhetorically asks, “Who will be my Defence? Is there not one, who is call’d the Angel of the Covenant?’ Then he speaks to the reader- to me- and implores:
“Look up, and sink not in despair.”
Right about there, I found my study submerging beneath the mere reading of words. As it often happens when I discover such sources, I became aware of the guidance before me. Continuing on, as I only had an afternoon in the rare books room that day, the book proceeded into Anselm’s Incentive to Holy Love. This turns out to be a set of meditations that Anselm based upon the Passion, which is also known as “the way of the cross.” I took many notes for my future reference, as the writing was intimately compelling. Though he tracks through the narrative, as with Saint Augustine, the fascinating “teachable moments” are in the tangential reflections and prayers. Anselm pauses along the way, with this:
“I, who invoke thee here as my Pilot, to conduct me through this rough and hazardous Sea of Life, may, by thy guidance be preserved from making Shipwreck of Faith and a good Conscience, and at length be safe landed at the Haven of eternal Rest.”
As with any effective instructor, the teaching is patient, respectful, and challenging. After completing my reading and signing out of the secure room, I went out to the Athenaeum’s terrace for a bit of transitional air. The words of Saint Anselm were so prominently in my thoughts, I could simply stand and look down toward the Granary Yard and Tremont Street- and then up toward the skyline. The saintly, brilliant minds that have gone before me, are ever before us, went my thoughts. The words, books, and their various manifestations await. Such guiding consolations are as directing clouds by day, and lights in the night.