Seen and Unseen

When the saints come marching in.

angel art black and white clouds

The Lives of the Saints is a book that captured my childhood imagination, perhaps because it reads like a catalogue of horrific challenges and mystical superpowers. Opening the illustrated version felt somewhat transgressive, like indulging in an arcane comic book. I first found it in the rectory waiting room while I waited for my grandparents, and again in the home of the sisters, where we brought ice cream and visited and sometimes attended midday mass in the chapel. It was the 1980s, and I was ignorant of most of what the adults of my parents’ generation seemed to discuss. What was it? I don’t remember, only that their conversations and general absorptions seemed tied to being in the world in ways that didn’t make much sense to me, and the inscrutability of adult life tended to make me anxious when I considered that one day I would have to become one. 

I was aware that I was a hopeless sinner, guilty of fighting with my sisters and of gluttony around Halloween candy and holiday desserts, and of wondering, during the high point of a Mass, whether my grandparents would be moved to make a stop at the deli on Post Road after church, visions of poppyseed buns dancing in my head when it should have been the mystery of transubstantiation of the body and blood.  It was doubtful I had any of the merits of a saint, and yet their strangeness made more sense to me than what passed for normalcy.

The saints, as I read them, tended toward singular obsessions: Francis with his poverty and love of creatures, Bernadette with her daily visits to the water at Lourdes, Eustachius who became transfixed by a vision of the savior in the antlers of a deer. I was awed by, and felt oddly familiar with, their various intensities, and with how they tended to give themselves over to visions that ran parallel to this world while being apart from what was generally taken to be real. These were my people, I thought, even though, given my accumulation of sin, I knew I had no right. But I didn’t get the impression that any of these saints spent much time worrying about sins. They were too busy with their visions and singular obsessions, so it seemed possible that if we met, they would welcome me into their community of oddball misfits. 

To mark the occasion, I opened my old copy this morning. I made the grave mistake, when I found it used on amazon a few years ago, of neglecting to specify the illustrated version, so my stodgy copy bears little resemblance to the book of wonders I remember. My point, as it often is when I am looking for these Breadcrumbs, was to gather what phrases seemed useful, regarding the celebrations that mark All Saints and All Souls Day. Here’s what I found:

For the martyrs whose names are not recorded, and the children lost in innocence, for those who died in a state of grace known only to them and the angels who carried them home, who remembered and held us in their intercessions, and for all the souls, that they may be loosed. Let us bear in mind the dead, holding them in our earnest intentions. Remember.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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