The Great Cloud of Witnesses

In memory of Trey Sellstrom who joined the blessed throng of witnesses one year ago.

Today is All Saints Day.  For the first 27 years of my life, the only connection I felt with the day came from its etymological connection to Halloween.  Frankly, I was creeped out by Catholic devotion to saints. Talking to dead people seemed unnecessary at best, dangerous at worst.  Not that I made any attempt to educate myself regarding Catholic teaching, mind you.  I just didn't want to think about those beyond the the saints came to me.

I was still very Protestant at the time, with no thought of ever becoming Catholic, when my friend Caroline loaned me a teaching tape about Joan of Arc - a teaching by a Protestant woman.  At the time I knew very little about Joan, but as I listened to that tape over and over my heart was set aflame.  I cannot recall exactly what moved me so deeply. In any case,  I began to think about St. Joan all the time.  I wanted to hear the Holy Spirit with the clarity she heard.  I longed for her courage.  I had so many questions to ask her!

I expected my Joan fascination to pass quickly, but it didn't.  To my horror, I unwittingly found myself asking her what she thought about this or that.  I repented immediately as that felt fearfully close to consorting with the dead.  But I couldn't stop the love I felt for her - a love as visceral as that I held for my flesh and blood friends.  It was disturbing.

I was confused, and honestly a bit afraid.  One day while on a walk with my little daughter I heaved aloud, "I've never felt this way about a dead person!"

And then the clouds in my soul seemed to part. "Amy," I said to myself (or was it the Holy Spirit?), "if what you believe about death and resurrection is true, then Joan is more alive than you are.  She is united with Christ in glory. She is eternal.  You are the one living in the shadow-lands."  A great peace settled over me.

After that incident, Joan's "presence" in my life receded significantly.  But I was changed.  I realized that though I was well acquainted with biblical saints and their encounters with God, I knew little about the holy men and women who had followed them.  I wanted, I needed to learn more.  For me it was rather easy to regard biblical heroes as exceptions - men and women especially chosen for a specific purpose which was long past. Despite a great yearning  for intimacy with God, it was easy to blunt my expectations. .What if God had continued to make Himself know in miraculous, mystical  ways throughout the ages to men and women who sought Him wholeheartedly? What if such intimacy with God were still possible?

Not long after the Joan incident, I found myself in a tiny branch library in far east Austin. Remember, this was decades ago.  That branch was located in a  mobile home with tightly packed aisles, no room for seating, no privacy.  Though I wasn't there to research the saints, I found my eyes drawn to a book on Saint Francis which I picked up and began to peruse. I had heard stories about Francis preaching to animals, but I had never heard the story of how, late in life, he received the wounds of Christ on his hands, his feet and side. I had never even imagined that a mortal being could be clothed in such honor!  What love Jesus must have for Francis to dress him in the signs of His glory.  I broke down weeping in the aisle of  that tiny library and I didn't care who heard. In fact I wanted to tell the whole world about this man Francis who loved Jesus so purely.

Over the past two decades I have grown in my love for that Great Cloud of Witnesses - for Ignatius of Antioch, and Ignatius of Loyola, for Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, for Catherine and Francis and Francis de Sales.  And of course there are many Protestant voices in that mighty choir - C.S. Lewis, Watchman Nee. the Wesleys, the ten Boom family. And thousands upon thousands whose stories we have never heard. If they are united fully with Christ, in unity with the Blessed Trinity, I have no doubt the saints intercede most fervently for us, alongside their Lord who constantly makes intercession our behalf.

To my friends who are uncomfortable asking the saints for intercession, I say that is fine.  Don't do it. Paul tells us that anything we do without faith is sin (Romans 14:23).  But I believe we would all do well to learn more about the glorious witnesses who cheer us on.

Bernard of Clairvaux calls us to celebrate this day with joy. "When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory...  Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on."