The first All Saints Day I celebrated was also my most memorable: I gave birth to our firstborn child, Honor. It had been a harrowing, 55-hour labor that nearly ended in a C-section and a stillbirth, but by God’s grace, we avoided both.
Later that evening, our priest visited to check on us and bless our daughter. As I looked at our baby, I said to him, “I never realized how much you’re willing to suffer for the people you truly love.” And it was true. Looking into her sweet face, I knew without a doubt I’d go through that same hell all over again for her.
That was my first real lesson in the truth that’s at the heart of All Saints Day: that when you love a person, you’re willing to endure any sacrifice or suffering for that person’s benefit. I’ve read about hundreds of saints since I became Catholic a decade ago and what’s struck me (and terrified me, too) is that every one of them suffered intensely during his or her lifetime. And most of the suffering they endured makes my worst day look like a trip to Disneyland; our martyrs especially endured agonizing, drawn-out physical tortures as part of their gruesome murders. Even saints who died in less dramatic ways usually suffered profound physical and interior pain for most of their lives. When it comes to suffering, the saints were no lightweights.
Yet despite experiencing so much suffering, the saints also had so much more joy than most people, even those who appeared to have everything the world can offer. How can that be? Few saints, after all, were blessed with visions or spiritual consolations during their lives that could be said to temper the bitterness of their suffering.
I’m convinced the reason is simply that they understood two critical things: 1) that suffering is the currency of love, both for God and their neighbor, and 2) that joy is something we must choose, even in the midst of the darkest valleys.
When we offer our suffering in union with Christ’s on the Cross, we offer to be His companion on that long, bitter road to Calvary. Out of love for Our Lord, we offer to be with him during His Passion. When we offer to suffer for others, either to expiate their sins or to procure graces for them, we live out that highest form of love–agape. The saints did both; they suffered in union with Our Lord and suffered for their fellow man. They did this because like me with my child, they profoundly loved Jesus and their neighbors.
The other thing the saints did was choose to be joyful. And yes, that is possible! As a mother of many young children and as a chronic pain sufferer, I know how easy it is to succumb to life’s daily grind…to flirt with despair that we’ll ever see the end of life’s countless trials and sacrifices. If we endure this long enough, we usually find ourselves in a period of spiritual dryness, when we feel like we’re going through the motions of faith instead of living out a vibrant, authentic faith. More than once I’ve wondered where all that joy is I heard about during RCIA.
It would be foolish to think the saints didn’t experience the same temptations, too. The difference is, they chose to be joyful…they chose to see life’s blessings and beauty over its darkness. Even in the midst of pain, sorrow, and the humdrum monotony of life, they chose to thank God for the simple things, like friendship, food, health, a beautiful sunrise, shoes on their feet. Instead of complaining about cleaning their home, they thanked Him they had a home to clean. Instead of wishing they had better food, they thanked Him they had food at all. Even beyond that, they were able to view the trials of life as opportunities from their loving God to grow in holiness. St. Therese said it perfectly when she said, “All is grace.”
It can be tempting to believe that our saints with a capital “S” were blessed with supernatural graces that enabled them to be holier than it’s possible for us regular folk to be. But the fact is, most of our saints were ordinary people just like us, who endured all the monotony, suffering, disappointments, hopes, and frustrations that we do today. They simply knew how to do something most of us need more practice in: choosing to be joyful, even when our fallen nature wants to throw a pity party for ourselves instead.
Thank you, God, for these holy men and women that we celebrate today. May their lives inspire us to see that there is joy in every life lived for You–if we will just accept it.