Good evening, everyone, and happy All Saints. Glad that you are able to come here to rejoice, and all of those of us who have gone before us who are gazing upon God for all eternity in Heaven, and I’m glad that you got here to Mass at the last minute here, too. This is a holy day. So very blessed that we’re all here together, and also that you’ve had a very nice Halloween yesterday as well, and that you’re enjoying all your candy.
One thing I have to say is that every All Saints Day, it’s hard for me not to think about a very, very interesting conversation that took place between Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic monk of the 20th Century, and his professor in college named Robert Lax.
Robert Lax was himself a convert to the Faith, just as Thomas Merton was, and Lax played a very instrumental role in helping Merton discover his faith in Jesus and eventually becoming a Catholic. And after Merton became a Catholic, he and Lax were talking, and Robert Lax asked him saying, “Well now that you’re a Catholic, what do you hope to do?”
And Merton very much admired Lax, and he wants to impress him with some type of really sophisticated answer, now that he was a Catholic. So he kind of just thought it over and then he just kind of resort to saying,”well I hope to be a very, very devout Catholic and learn more and more about the Faith”. And Robert Lax looked at him with almost disappointment in his eyes, and he said, “You know, there’s only one thing you should hope to do now that you’re a Catholic, and that is to become a saint.” To become a saint – that it’s not necessarily about becoming part of a tribe and finding joy in becoming just Catholic for the sake of finding some sense of truth and meaning and what it means to be Catholic, but to look beyond what this world is and offers to where we are bound to go, and that is Heaven, right? That is what the Saints desire. Saints desire Heaven.
You know, it’s always profound for me thinking about that, because I have to ask myself the question: you know here as a Catholic priest; you know being in the world of Catholicism, so to speak: do I ever really think about the fact that fundamentally why I do all these things? Why I participate in the sacramental life of the Church? It is for the reason that I desire union with God: intimate union with God, and not just because I think that’s a nice thing, but because to be with He who has created and willed me into existence from the very beginning knows exactly what I need, how I need it, and desires me to want to be with him for all eternity. That is ultimately what a relationship with God looks like, right?
So this very famous encounter between Thomas Merton and Robert Lax is something that we can kind of take away and ask ourselves, “what is it that we really desire?”
Everyday or every year on All Saints Day, we hear the Beatitudes, and of course the Beatitudes we hear very often. We all know that in some way that this is the new teaching of Jesus, in a way to augment the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament that were given to Moses. And just on the surface level, we can always say that the Beatitudes always seem to have this, more of this positive tone, because it’s talking about blessed are you when you do these things, because then you receive these things as a result. Whereas the Ten Commandments are all about not doing certain things – prohibitions.
In our spiritual journey, we kind of need both. There are times where we need to really have a clear understanding what not to do. There’s going to be times for us know exactly what to do. We understand that just by the basic nature – for who we are are human beings, right? – I mean when you’re young, you’re a child, it’s better to be told what not to do than what to do, because when you’re told what to do, you end up doing the opposite.
So perhaps it is better as a rule to just understand what I should not do, because that is ultimately going to be at the problems if I do end up touching the burner when it’s hot, so to speak, right?
Yet I often find it that as well, as positive as the Beatitudes may sound, they can also have a tinge of legalism intertwined – the same type of legalism which is all too often associated with the Ten Commandments. What I mean by that is that there’s this understanding that could arrive that the Beatitudes are all about us, and our activity, and how we do things, and so we can go through them. If you just think, well okay, if I’m poor, if I try to detach myself more from the things of the world, I’m going to be blessed. Or if I really work for peace and I really try my best to mitigate peace in different relationships within my life, in the monks, the people I know, then I will be blessed, I will be a child of God.
And even the Beatitudes then become a source of obligation, a source of measuring ourselves up to see how well we’re doing. Going through them can often make us feel almost guilty because we’re not working hard enough at being detached from things. We’re not working hard enough at being humble, or we’re not working hard enough being a peacemaker. We’re not working hard enough and just allowing persecutions to hit us and being okay with that.
Yet, the Gospel of Jesus is not about us working harder in order to earn something. The Gospel – the good news of Jesus – is all about revealing the profound love that God has for us, despite our failures, despite our sin.
So just as Robert Lax challenges Merton to desire to become a saint, perhaps the best way for us to engage the Beatitudes is not thinking about what we need to do, but what we need to desire. And the way to know what we need to desire is to always go to the latter portion of the answer: if we desire the Kingdom of Heaven, the result will be for us to naturally want to be detached from the things of the world. If we desire to be confident, you’ll be okay when we mourn, because we know that God is with us. If we desire to inherit the land, you will know that God will give us everything that we need in order to not just survive, but to thrive and find a joyful life.
The Beatitudes aren’t caught up in us trying to live a more virtuous, moral life. They get to the very heart of speaking to our desires. What do we desire? I think in one word you could say that we all desire happiness, who desire a life – whether we are free of suffering, of pain, of anxiety – we desire a world where there’s justice. We desire a world where there’s peace. Because we know that these things resonate with how we are hardwired, because we’re hardwired not to live in a broken existence, but a whole existence.
If we take that one step further, we realize that what we ultimately desire is Heaven. Yet, we often think that Heaven is something that sounds better than Hell, but it’s not necessary something that can bring us happiness.
I was often taken from my first assignment as a priest saying daily masses, and most daily Masses are early in the morning. Especially there’s lots of older people, retired people – and there was someone who I think celebrated like an 86th birthday. I said, “Oh, happy birthday”. I said, “You’re one year now closer to Heaven.” And you think I was sentencing him to prison when I said that.
”Don’t wish on that me now, Father. Don’t talk about that.”
Don’t talk about that?! Why do you show up at Mass if you’re not thinking about Heaven?
We come here today on this holy day of obligation not just so that we can become good Catholics like Thomas Merton and what he thought he was supposed to be. We come here because we are obligated in our very being for complete union with God in Heaven. And in that sense, it’s not a burden, nor is it something that we wish to just kind of push off and one day, we’ll think about it, but it’s something that happens to us now. Because the desire for Heaven means to live life now, in its fullness, so that we can live in Heaven on Earth. And while it’s not Heaven in its fullness, it gets us more and more yearning and desiring what we are ultimately made for.
So today, on this Feast of All Saints, let’s look at our brothers and sisters who have gone before us and have reached the final goal of their life as being an inspiration for all of us who still journey and are distracted by the things of this world, thinking that they can possibly serve us, when we are made to be served by an infinite love that no finite person or thing could ever match.
God bless us all.