When I was a girl, I had several appropriately dull little books telling short hagiographies of saints– name, feast day, what they were patrons of and a few stilted paragraphs describing their lives and deaths on the righthand page; and an appropriately stilted illustration on the left. Say what you will, the Eastern church does unusually posed people with non-lifelike facial expressions much better than the west. These were not icons, just kitschy holy card pictures.
It was from these pious books that I learned that most saints always look up. They never look at what they’re doing; they look up, as though they’re examining cobwebs on the ceiling. My saints books showed Our Lady looking up while being assumed into Heaven, which was understandable. But there was also Saint Tarcissus looking up while trying to sneak away to deliver the Eucharist, Saint Catherine looking up while comforting a plague victim, and a suspiciously svelte Saint Thomas Aquinas looking up while penning the Summa Theologiae (which explains a lot about the text). Not one of them was paying attention to what they were doing; they must have walked into walls all the time. Poor Saint Joan of Arc looked up while burning alive. Saint John the Baptist looked up instead of at the Lord when baptizing Him. Saint Vincent DePaul looked up, stalwartly ignoring the orphan moppets tugging on his cloak.
And then there were the saints that looked down– not at anyone, just down, to signify their humility. Saint Gemma Galganni stared at the palms of her hands while Saint Rose of Lima stared at her own lap (male saints hardly ever looked down).
If these illustrations were taken to have literal meaning, then it would seem that a mark of sanctity was absentmindedness. Those investigating a cause for canonization would not only disinter the corpse and sniff it for a smell of roses; they should also ask those who knew the deceased how many times she walked into traffic or fell downstairs. The soul must always be looking elsewhere, never straight ahead. To be a saint, it would seem, means never attending to the people and things around you, or noticing what they’re doing; you must always be staring upward for a sign from Heaven or, if you’re beautiful and female, staring at your navel for fear of catching someone’s eye.
Some people do seem to treat the path to sanctity as if it were fundamentally a path of looking away. I’m not talking about people whose vocation is to be a hermit or enter a cloister, representing with a bold visible sign what the deepest recesses of every soul should do. I mean the people who are always ignoring, shunning or pushing away, and calling it piety. Glare at the baby gurgling in Mass and resent the old woman whose shaking hands keep rattling her Rosary beads, for interrupting your prayers. Step over or around the homeless person to get to Adoration on time. Refuse to speak to your lapsed Catholic relatives. Abandon people who become addicted to drugs, or who commit crimes, or who sin in other ways more visible than your sins. Despise your neighbor in your heart by making them into a caricature and shunning that caricature, rather than communing with a real person– call them perverts or welfare queens or SJWs or whatever it takes until you can’t see them anymore, and then go back to looking up.
But it’s not the path up– not the path to Heaven. And it’s not the path down– the path of deep humility and contemplation which leads ultimately to Heaven. It goes somewhere else, somewhere you don’t want to go. There’s no fun there, no joy, no friendship or love, nothing to eat or drink, nowhere to play, only the fire that burns when a being who was created to be filled with love finds herself forever empty. Don’t go to that place.
Instead, look up, toward Heaven, but look up by looking around you. Heaven is Christ, and Christ is here among you. He’s hidden in all of us. Know yourself. Know your neighbor. Love everything there is to love about yourself and your neighbor– and you’ll find that there is plenty to love. Provide for the material and spiritual needs of the poor and give til it hurts– not just by throwing money but by being present. Befriend people who make terrible mistakes and who sin differently than you. Eat with tax collectors and sinners. Weep with the mourners when you hear the dirge. Dance with the dancers when you hear the flute. Smile at babies who gurgle in church, and at old women who rattle their Rosaries. Purge from yourself every prejudice, every way in which you hide your neighbor behind a label in order to mock them. Forgive your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is the Gospel. This is how we look up to Christ.
Don’t ignore the place where you are. The place where you are is your field ripe for the harvest; someday, it will be your Calvary and then you will ride it to Heaven. Look at the place where you are. In doing so, you look up.
Saints look up. Our cloud of witnesses is always present to us, always looking down to help us in any way they can. And in doing so, they look up at Christ. Look down and up with them. And may my brothers and sisters in the Western Church have a blessed All Saints’ Day.
(Image via Pixabay.)