I grew up a Roman Catholic. We went to mass every Sunday or Saturday night—but never missed a week. As a Catholic, I was taught about the Communion of Saints. The understanding that there were those who had walked this earth and now lived in heaven but might still intercede for me, if I asked. In the Catholic church it is not uncommon to pray to the saints—to ask for them to intercede on one’s behalf—especially if they are the patron saint of something. One of the best-known prayers of intercession is that to Mary, the Mother of God. I’m sure you are familiar with the prayer even if you don’t know it by heart:
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you amongst women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners
Now and at the hour of our passing. Amen.
That is a prayer of intercession to the earthly human who would have been closest to our savior—his mother, the Theotakas. The prayer acknowledges the importance of Mary and then asks for her to intercede on our behalf to the Lord—to stand as an in-between. In part, that prayer reflects a certain reverence for the God-bearer, but it also reflects a sense of humility. It is as if the person praying doesn’t believe they are worthy to ask God to forgive their sins and can only find the courage to ask mary to intervene on their behalf. For Protestants this seems ludicrous. But for Catholics and Anglo-Catholics (or high church Episcopalians), this is a common form of intercessory prayer and the humility it represents is genuine.
Now I am not suggesting that there is some great heavenly office place win the sky with various saints sitting in their cubicles waiting to answer any prayers you might throw at them. (though I do love that image!) Nor am I suggesting that prayer to the saints is some sort of magical fix-it. But I do believe in the power of praying to the saints—of being connected to one another not simply in the realm of this physical world but in the realm of the spiritual one as well.
Several years ago, I was the Big Sister at a Happening at St. Paul’s in Selma. After the Closing Eucharist the staff was packing up and getting ready to leave. One of the other adults for the weekend, Tom Poyner, had lost his keys. He knew I believed in praying to the saints and that my patron saint was St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things (I lose alot of stuff). Though Tom did not believe in praying to the saints and often teased me about my belief, he came up to me after a desperate search for his keys and asked me to pray to St. Anthony to help him find them. I suggested Tom pray himself, but he was reluctant to do so, so I agreed and shot a quick pray up to St. Anthony to help Tom find his keys. Not two minutes later Tom came up to me and asked if I had prayed to St. Anthony yet. I replied that I had and thinking he was being impatient, chided him to give the saint a little bit of time to find the keys. Tom sensed my thoughts and protested saying that he didn’t need any more time. He was asking because as soon as we had finished our earlier conversation he had walked into the church and immediately found his keys sitting on the edge of the choir loft. Tom never teased me about praying to the saints after that.
That day there was a holy connection between the three of us—a thinness had opened up and allowed the space between the earthly realm and the spiritual one to become fluid. I had another even more powerful experience of that relationship between those on earth and those on heaven years later in Honduras.
Every summer St. John’s takes a group on a medical mission in Honduras. I got to go a couple of those years as the spiritual director and pharmacy worker. Typically, we would go to rural areas where clinics were few and medical care was very limited. We would stay for the day, seeing hundreds of patients as news would spread before our arrival. We distributed tons of medications and offered visual and dental care as well. One year, we went to an urban area to offer the clinic in El Progresso. The clinic was to be set up at the local Episcopal Church. I was riding in the van with the physicians and pharmacist. Kat Daily, our coordinator was riding up front and, though somewhat fluent in Spanish, was having a hard time communicating with our van driver. It soon became apparent that he did not know where we were going and we were lost. The minutes kept ticking by and though we drove round and round, we could not find the church. After about an hour of winding our way down streets and through the crowds going to market and about their day, I finally lifted up a prayer to St. Anthony. I told him that I knew we weren’t a “thing” but that we were lost and though he typically helped people find things, could he help us, the lost, find the church. Within seconds of offering my prayer to St. Anthony, I noticed a man on the sidewalk turn and see us. He jogged over to the bus driver and began a conversation in Spanish that I could not follow, seeing that the only thing I know how to say in Spanish is “Cubra Libre sin limone.” After a few moments, the man started jogging in front of the van and we followed him to the church which was only a few blocks away.
When we got to the church and I climbed out of the van, I asked one of our translators if she would come with me to talk to this man. She agreed and we walked over to him. I introduced myself and asked him who he was. He told me his name was Anthony and that he was a member of the church. I asked him why he had approached the van out in the street. He told me that he had been coming to the free clinic that day and while walking along had a feeling he needed to look behind him. As soon as he did, he just knew we were headed to the clinic and were lost. He couldn’t really explain how he knew; he just did. Through the translator, I told him about my prayer to St. Anthony and his immediate response in sending this earthly Anthony to our rescue. As the translator relayed my words, I noticed him starting to get very excited. After she was done, he told me that his patron saint was Anthony, that his son had been born on June 13—St. Anthony’s feast day—and so had also been named Anthony. It was a moment in which not only had the veil between this world and the next become thin, it had parted and St. Anthony, Anthony, and I had become one in each other. I still remember the look of joy and the tears that we both shed as we realized the holiness of what had just happened. Even our translator was crying. Anthony and I embraced one another in that moment and knew the power of the saints that was all around us.
That is what this feast day is for me—a reminder of all the saints that surround us, that embrace us, that remain connected to us even when they have gone from this world to the next. A reminder of the powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the church triumphant) and those on earth (the church militant). In this celebration of All Saints’ Day we give thanks for the lives of all the saints, known or obscure, from those with officially recognized feast days like St. Anthony to those who have shown us Christ in this world—like Steve’s grandmother, Queenie, whose feast day Steve and I celebrate on June 27 each year with a hot dog and a Budweiser. The remembrance of All Saints’ Day connects us to that great cloud of witnesses that Paul talks about in his letter to the Hebrews. It reminds us that we are meant to be one too.
This morning we get to bring three more saints into the body of Christ—Birdie Banks, Reece Barragan, and William Rives will all be baptized later this morning/in a few minutes. And we will welcome them as “Christ’s own forever.” And that is all it means to be a saint of God—that we are Christ’s own forever. The hard part is that we forget—or should I say we lose that knowledge. And I think that is one of the reasons that St. Anthony is such an important saint for me.
Though his popular, every day prayer is “Tony, tony look around. Something’s lost and must be found!” his more endearing prayer speaks to the condition of my soul and to my relationship with God:
St. Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find [name the item] which has been lost. At least
restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss. To this favor, I ask another of you: that I may always remain in possession of the true good that is God. Let me rather lose all things than lose God, my supreme good. Let me never suffer the loss of my greatest treasure, eternal life with God.
The prayer to St. Anthony reminds me that though I often lose my keys, my glasses, and my cell phone what I hope never to lose is my greatest treasure, eternal life with God, my place in the Communion of Saints, and my membership in that great cloud of witnesses. To celebrate All Saints’ Day is to remember who we are in this world and whose we are—that we are all a part of Christ’s body and as such are all connected–the living to the dead. Amen.
All Saints’ Day: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, November 3, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer