By Chris Haw
Author, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism
I give thanks here not for a person, but for a beloved ritual at my Church. The month of November, in the Catholic tradition, is the month of remembrance. Beginning this month, on All Saints Day, we kneel while our women cantors sing (for perhaps 15 minutes) a long litany of saints’ names. And we chant in reply, “pray for us!” Even people not officially recognized as Christian saints are sung:
Meister Eckhart, Holy Mystics…pray for us!
Thomas Merton, holy Gandhi…pray for us!
Martin Luther King…pray for us!
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin…pray for us!
At the start of this month’s liturgies, we continue to sing this litany of saints while a slow procession moves down the middle aisle toward the altar. At the front of the procession is the crucifix of Christ held high, the crucified God who is the hope for all who have “fallen asleep,” who has “descended into hell” and triumphed over hopelessness and godlessness. Processing behind the crucifix is someone who has recently lost a loved one, and has been offered the place to hold the “book of remembrance”, filled with the names of family and friends who have gone before us. We also post their pictures upon the altar, and re-member them back into our community. The priest walks at the end of the procession, swinging incense at us, and we bow our heads while crossing ourselves. There’s something about that smoky blessing that invites me to soberly bow in acknowledgement of my own future death, with the smoke symbolizing our own passing existence and the priest offering what feels like a hint of last rights in advance. We are “beings unto death”; or, with Bonhoeffer, we are somehow homesick for the hour of our death. The priest, arriving at the altar and standing in quiet contemplation before the pictures of lost ones, wafts the incense upon their blessed memory. The smoke floats upon us and the pictures of the dead, connecting our mortality. In lifting them all with thanksgiving to God, this priest is symbolizing before everyone’s eyes the heart-squeezing combination of grief and thankful remembering that we have all done or will do.
It is a practice of such gravity, of such deferential love for our ancestors, that I cry every Mass of this month. It’s one thing to vaguely believe that we live among “a cloud of witnesses,” of the past (and present) saints. But it is another thing to compress this love into an affectionate ritual of song, procession, kneeling, and presentation—to enact it, to actually sing out their names in what some might call startling, mystical performance art. It conjures a weighty burden of emotion to imagine that a gentle and genius soul like, say, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (or St. Teresa of Avila, or Therese of Liseux, or St. Claire, or Franz Jaggerstater, or Athanasius, or St. Joseph, or the Blessed Mother Mary, or Gandhi), from the bosom of Abraham shares in God’s infinite love for us, and is tenderly praying for us as our elder sister or brother.
This shared ritual of memory is one of the many things I am so thankful for. It offers me occasion to humble myself (and thereby gain true humor) before the humiliation that I will someday return to the humus. It helps me to look down the dark well of mortality and embrace that fear with the living and the dead, it invites me to honor and love my elders, and even more excitingly, it gives a momentary chance for a vision of an ultimate transfiguration of the universe to break through into our hearts. It is a vision for when all things and people might somehow be united in love, when all are remembered, healed, and brought to a whole, for when the glass through which we see through dimly is shattered, and we see the beatific vision.
Chris Haw is a husband, father, carpenter, potter, adjunct professor at Cabrini College, and founder of Camden Houses, an intentional community. In 2008 he cowrote Jesus for President with Shane Claiborne. He has been interviewed by Christianity Today, Sojourner’s, CNN, and Al-Jazeera.
For more on Chris Haw and his book From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart, visit the Patheos Book Club here.