When we moved into our house, we found a collection of letters left by the previous owners. They had received them from the owners before them, who had gotten them from the elderly sister of the man who had built the house at the beginning of the last century. The letters described Roy and the love with which he had built the house by hand with his father and brothers on the ruins of the colonial farmhouse of his great grandfather.
Roy cut out each wall board of wormy chestnut himself and repurposed stones from the ancient fireplace to craft a new one, giving his ancestor’s corner stone, etched with the date “1833,” pride of place just underneath the mantel. Roy’s own initials are etched into the concrete around the foundations of the house, and his pencil markings for some planned and never completed shelf can be found in the dusty corner of one of our closets.
Roy is buried not two minutes down the road from us in a sleepy little rural cemetery. The kids and I drive past it almost every day as we head off to run errands. We always say the prayer for the faithful departed as we pass. It has become such a reflexive part of our day that my three-year-old starts his own version of the prayer just as we crest the hill. “Hi Roy,” he shouts, “forgive us our trespasses!!!”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It is a very fitting prayer. I bet Roy laughs at it every day, hopefully from up in Heaven. Ironically, my son doesn’t think of Roy as dead, even though the man went to meet his Maker almost seventy years ago and we have seen the grave. Roy is part of the house still—I often jokingly remark to the kids when they are being too rough that Roy is going to haunt them if they mess up the nice woodwork. Roy’s dedication to the good crafting of this house lives on. If, indeed, Roy haunts this house, it is a cozy, happy haunting of a man who did all things well.
The dead-who-are-not-dead is, of course, a staple of Catholic Tradition. We are little less than a month out from the feast of All Saints’ Day, but southwestern Pennsylvania, where we live, has already begun to decorate in its rather ghoulish fashion for Halloween. It is a feast that, around here, might be more important than Christmas in some people’s minds. There have been skeletons and ghostly displays on many front lawns for almost a month now, and these often-life-sized depictions of the dead-who-are-not-dead shall tackily inhabit the landscape for at least a month longer.
Perhaps, though, this year, we should liturgically pre-game All Hallows Eve and become as friendly with the Church’s dead-who-are-not-dead as my three-year-old is with Roy. Gaining a cozy, daily familiarity with a handful of the old saints can alleviate some of the depression and loneliness we might feel in the present often unfriendly environment of our Church.
In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton remarked:
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
Obviously, faithful Catholics follow Chesterton’s words when we engage in discussions about Church teaching and praxis. We should also remember that it can hold true for community and spiritual friendship as well. The saints might be in their graves and up in Heaven, but they can also be found walking quietly around us, hoping we stop for a moment in the business of our daily lives and be sociable. They would not mind it at all if we did not simply use them as an occasional request line in prayer but remembered that they are still an active part of the Church family and deeply care about us and about what is happening here in the earthly branch of the Church. The saints might be in their graves and up in Heaven, but they can also be found walking quietly around us, hoping we stop for a moment in the business of our daily lives and be sociable.Tweet This
One of the great benefits of fostering a friendship with one of the old saints is that it can help us see again the great craftmanship that has gone into making the house of the Church. Current Church headlines remind us daily about rotten, neglected beams or the shoddy, criminal “restoration” attempts done by innovators who do not respect the organic architectural lines of the spiritual building of the Church. It is too easy to fall into a black mood that is not alleviated by our mediocre parish life. But, like Roy, the saints put in a considerable amount of love and dedication to building up the Church, and they can remind us of the beauty that is still here, even if it has become hard to see.
Many of those saints encountered a Church crumbling into ruin, like the good St. Francis, and worked to restore it. You can still see his workmanship and initials in the foundations, even if the intervening centuries have again rendered parts of the structure in desperate need of repair. Some saints worked quietly behind the scenes while others took the spotlight; there is a set of initials in the concrete of our basement in the hand of some helper who worked with Roy, but what his full name was, we do not know.
All the saints still care very much about the earthly state of the spiritual home they spent their lives laboring to make beautiful. They are here, still, and ready to help us out as we strive to preserve what they cared about so much.
In the face of all the upheaval in the Church, I am drawn particularly to the really old saints—the ones who dealt with the messy and acrimonious debates around when to celebrate Easter, like St. Hilda of Whitby; or Thomas Beckett, who had to wade his way through the ecclesiastical and secular nightmare of the English and Roman churches of his day.
There has been a push lately to find and foster a devotion to modern saints, and of course modern saints are wonderful testimonials of continued faithfulness in contemporary times. But we should not forget the really old saints, because they can give us a marvelous perspective: the faithful continuity that has survived despite so many epochal upheavals, political persecutions, and ecclesiastical scandals.
The old saints remind us of the timeless relevance of a Faith that has appealed to millions of incredibly diverse peoples, times, and places. The fact that the memory of some of these otherwise obscure members of the Church has been preserved through the centuries is a testimony to the spiritual friendship they fostered with many generations of now nameless ordinary faithful who found their devotions to the St. Brunos, St. Hedwigs, and St. Denises so comforting. They give us a playful little wink when we are tempted to feel alone.
The reality of our Church is that it is “haunted” with a crowd of the dead-who-are-not-dead, and it is a cozy, happy haunting of thousands of witnesses for truth and goodness. We are surrounded by our friends, and we are not alone.