Saints within Diverse Religions

Goshen College Chapel, All Saints Day – October 29, 2001

Student Readers: Dykshya, Kashif, Tsigi, Tobias, Charletta
Prayer – # 672 Hymnal A Worship Book – read by Sylvia Shirk Charles, Campus Minister

With all your saints across the generations we gather, Holy God,
To approach your mystery and hear your judgment.
We come seeking the faith of those who have gone before us in righteousness and truth.
Lead us by your Word to walk in your ways and observe your commandments. AMEN

Today we honor saints. November 1 is known as All Saints Day, a day first kept holy in the ninth century church. By naming a few saints, we honor all of “the faithful,” not only among Christians.

You may ask, just who is a “saint”? How does a person receive that title? And who decides that a person deserves it? The term can be used in a formal or informal way. When you’re caught on the highway with a stalled car and a stranger stops to offer her cell phone to call for help, you might call her “a saint.” That sample contrasts with an eastern view. Ramakrishna, a Hindu, says that to attain sainthood involves a “long struggle to a higher level of being, to another state of consciousness” gained through precise steps.

Recently, I read an article about the “First sainthood step for Mother Teresa.” The Roman Catholic diocese in Calcutta, India completed a two-year study of the “life, virtues and reputation” of Mother Teresa.This founder of the Missionaries of Charity died four years ago. More than thirty-five thousand pages of documents about her were sealed in boxes, to send to the Vatican in Rome. Yet, ordinary people do not doubt her sainthood. Many people pray at her tomb; I too have done that. Sister Nirmala, the superior general after Mother Teresa, reports, [Some] “Hindus have already canonized her in their hearts.” Yet, to declare her a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition could take another three years.

The process can be both valued and critiqued. Maria Goretti was canonized in 1950. She lived for twelve years before dying in 1902. The daughter of a poor peasant farmer, Maria and her family shared a house with a sixteen-year-old Alessandro and his father. After Maria rejected the son’s repeated sexual advances and threats, he stabbed her. During the days that she lingered before dying, she forgave Alessandro. During thirty years in prison, Alessandro’s dreams included Maria. In them, she forgave him. When released, he found Maria’s mother, begged her forgiveness and thereafter lived in seclusion. Marie was declared a saint because she was willing to die rather than be “defiled,” and because by forgiving her attacker, he came to conversion. Yet, some feminists wonder if her sainthood supports violence against women.

Regardless, All Saints Day is an occasion to honor those who achieve a high level of human character or God-like being, those who redeem others. It calls us to re-commit ourselves to disciplined living and be-ing. We honor saints, then, as we thank God for what they teach; as we strengthen our faith by looking at theirs, as we imitate them.

Many saints have guarded religions through time. Yet, traditions that honor saints can enrich or mar their view of history. Of those named by Christians as saints, about three-quarters are men. That fact is of course a mistake; it smacks of power, of control. Today, we recall more women saints, purposely. In this setting of Christian worship, we also name people of different living faiths, from the east and west. Women and men, Hindus and Muslims make up the Communion of Saints. They have been “friends of God and prophets,” as Elizabeth Johnson’s book states. They are living stories of God’s mercy.

Today, students make “I” statements, as if they were the person whose statement they are reading.

Mennonites do not canonize saints. But, to honor our foremothers, a group created a “Mennonite Women’s Calendar” several years ago. You may take a copy of this project as you leave chapel today, if such history interests you.

When Protestants fault Roman Catholics for “praying to saints,” we distort their view of intercession. To negate reveals our ignorance. John Delaney, priest at the local Catholic parish, explained the practice to me. People who lived before us can assist our prayer to God. Not that they replace God, saints enable those who live. As with images in a stained-glass window in places of worship, saints remind worshipers of God’s presence. They guide thoughts; they serve as living role models do.

Let’s recall others who have died, who remind us of God.
In 1590 Leo Gamo Ujisato became Lord of the area of Aizu in Japan. He built a castle, renamed the city, and brought in new industry, like making lacquerware and pottery. Baptized earlier, he introduced Christianity to northern Japan. Five years later he died at the age of forty.

Hideyoshi, the virtual ruler of Japan, issued an edict against Christianity. Perhaps three hundred thousand Christians died during the great persecution. A memorial now stands at the Kirishitan-zuka burial mound. To visit the place where many Christians became martyrs both inspires and humbles a person. Would we renounce or die for our faith?

In Germany’s Nazi era, some people thought that persecution went too far. Some Christians learned and bought from Jewish merchants. Others housed Jews—the fleeing target of hatred. Still other Christians did nothing to stop the concentration camp fervor; they indoctrinated children to demonstrate against Jews. Likely twice as many people died in Germany as died from persecution in Japan. They weren’t of so-called “pure” stock. And Jewish people were blamed for Jesus’ crucifixion actually done by Roman soldiers. To visit the place where many Jews were martyrs calls us to never forget that saints abound. It calls us to never repeat such hatred of people who differ for religious reasons.

These candles burn as we remember saints of diverse traditions. The flame burns in the spirit of unity and in the spirit of courage. It reflects the sacred in all people, diverse as we are. Not everybody walks or talks alike. Nor do we worship in the same way. Yet, we each have a holy heritage to honor. As we claim our faith, let’s learn from the unique features of other living faiths. For, as Friedrich Max Muller, [from the 19th century,] stated: “[The person] who knows only one religion knows none.” We present a few saints—Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist and Christian.

Rabi’a – Muslim Sufi
I, Rabi’a, was born in Basra, Iraq, in 717 and lived eighty years. My religious parents were very poor. Someone took me from the street and sold me to a cruel master. Strong spirited, I maintained a deep faith. One night my master woke up and found a suspended lamp over my head. It lit the house. Afraid of such power, he freed me the next morning. I lived secluded in the desert a while before returning to Basra. I turned down suitors and chose to be celibate. Devoted to worship and serve God alone, I practiced meditation and preached. Being a Muslim mystic with complete control over my physical being, I became a renowned, early Sufi saint. I gave spiritual advice to a large number of disciples; we often prayed together.

Two main qualities of the early Sufi rule of life were asceticism and quietism. We practiced severe penance and kept removed from worldly things and desires. Intent on spiritual perfection, we maintained a quiet focus on God. Our ethics stressed repentance, patience, gratitude, and a mix of hope and fear. We feared separation from God and hoped for union with God, a kind of all-absorbing, passionate longing for the Beloved. People valued my distinct personality and many quotes. For example, I prayed: “O my Lord, if I worship Thee for fear of hell, burn me in hell; if I worship Thee for hope of Paradise, exclude me thence; but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not from me Thine eternal Beauty.”

Sri Sarada Devi – Hindu – Known as the “Holy Mother”
I’m Sri Sarada Devi. My Brahmin parents, from the state of Bengal in India, were poor but deeply religious. Early on in my simple village, I had mystical experiences. I saw divine visions and showed spiritual instincts. Though I was married to Sri Ramakrishna at age 6, when he was 23, I was betrothed to God, the Divine Mother. While I had deep meditation on her, Ramakrishna achieved high states of spiritual consciousness, partly through harsh practices. Pure in body and mind, he knew an exalted love of God. He realized truths of other religions and the basic harmony of all faiths. We saw the Divine Mother in each other. In worship, I could be absorbed in her as One. When Ramakrishna died in 1886, I continued his spiritual mission. He had taught me the great mantras and how to instruct others. After being on pilgrimage for a couple years with several disciples, I settled in Calcutta. My place was called “The Mother’s House.” I gave thirty years to the life of a guru. I knew intense communion with God and taught principles like: “If you do not pray to God, what is that to Him? It is only your misfortune.” When I was dying, a disciple came for guidance. I said: “If you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Learn rather to see your own faults. Learn to make the whole world your own; no one is a stranger, my child, the whole world is your own.” I warned the visitor against false ego strength and stressed the basic unity of people.

Archbishop Oscar RomeroRoman Catholic/Christian
I’m Archbishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador. In San Salvador, I lived in a cottage next to a cancer hospital staffed by Carmelite nuns. I’m told that a nun and close friend wrote the following after I was assassinated in March of 1980.

“His last homily spoke of the grain of wheat. If it does not die, it cannot bear fruit. Then he prayed on behalf of all the poor. Monsignor often felt powerless. He denounced injustice and admitted that doing so made him fearful. So, in advance he forgave those who were going to kill him. For, he knew that he would be resurrected in his people, in their hope. Those who would follow—those who are the new fruit—must be patient. Having faith in God and the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace to whom he was so devoted, Monsignor assured us that “one day we will live in peace.”

Henrietta Szold, – Jewish
I, Henrietta Szold, founded the hospital and welfare services in Palestine. I administered the organization that rescued thousands of orphan children from Nazi cruelty. But earlier, I was born in Baltimore in 1860, the daughter of a Rabbi. When a teen, I toured Europe with my father. I gained a sense of belonging to my Jewish roots. On returning, I started a school for despised, Russian immigrants in the US; I taught for fourteen years. Then I was the first woman to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I wrote articles for the Jewish Encyclopedia and gave lectures at the World Parliament of Religions, in Chicago in 1893. Back to Europe and Palestine again, I determined to establish health and social welfare services for all of Palestine—Jews and Arabs alike. After raising funds for the Zionists in the States, I returned to Palestine to provide health and education service for immigrants deep in poverty. For, by the 1930’s, Hitler was attacking Jews. Over sixty thousand children arrived in Palestine to live in Children’s Villages. I “loved doing good.” Judaism does not make saints of members, but people say that I embody the values of my community in a unique way.

Gopa, Gautami and Kisa Gautami – Buddhist
Inspired by the life and teachings of Buddha in India, many of us women renounced home and family to join a new order of nuns – the first of its kind anywhere. We women, like our religious brothers, lived in ashrams or wandered about to spread the light of Truth. Meet a few of us.

I’m Gopa, wife of Buddha, or as I called him, Blessed One. When he left me and our son Rahula one night, I understood his pity for the world’s suffering. After his Enlightenment, he returned—a servant, not a prince as before. I too chose to renounce possessions. I became a faithful disciple and supported Rahula when he adopted the begging-bowl and yellow cloth.

I’m Gautami, a younger sister of Buddha’s mother. She died seven days after Siddharta was born, so I cared for him like a mother. He influenced me a lot too. Later, I led a group of five hundred women to Buddha, to take the vows of Buddhist nuns. My deep spiritual being taught as I preached the new religion.

I Kisa Gautami grew up with very poor parents and then married into a family that treated me very badly. Things improved when I gave birth to a son. But one day while playing in the garden, a poisonous snake bit my boy. He died instantly. I was destroyed. Then the Buddha passed by. When I saw his compassion, I asked him to bring light to my dark world. Buddha replied, “O thou blessed one, go and bring one tola of mustard seed. (That amounts to less than a half ounce.) I’ll restore your son but there’s one condition: You must get the tola from a home that has never been visited by death.” I went to all the homes but returned to report that “though many were willing to give me the mustard seed, I can’t fulfill the condition.” Buddha gently said: “O thou blessed one, birth and death are the law that governs the world.” Resigned, I performed the last rites for my son and took up the role of a nun. Spiritual insight led me to transcend the limits of pleasure and pain. I attained the position of a liberated soul.

Joan of Arc – 15th century soldier-saint
Some of you have heard of me, Joan of Arc. I am not able to read or write. When a peasant girl of seventeen, I left my village and asked the local lord for armor of men. I admit that I was brave, cocky, and even maddening, but not always smart. But no one can deny that I was strong and that I forgot myself in a cause greater than myself. Two years later they burned me at the stake because a church court declared that I was a heretic.

To tell the truth, that late medieval church needed reform. There was widespread prophecy that a virgin would save France. People came to think that I fulfilled the promise. Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret—all pictured with swords—advised me. When the clergy asked if I believed in God, I said: “Yes, better than you.” Those questioning me in court said that my cross-dressing was a sign of idolatry. I was denied the Eucharist as long as I refused to wear woman’s dress.

To bring you up to date, I was ‘Reinstated’ twenty-five years after I died and finally canonized in 1920. Perhaps I should be called the “first Protestant.” I understood and bravely followed God’s will, with no desire for fame or gain. Mine was a single-minded triumph; I feared nothing. I knew that I was right and chosen “of the Lord.”

Dom Helder Camara – Roman Catholic/Christian
I, Dom Helder Camara, from Recife, Brazil, have been called a leader of the twentieth century. For a while I was a politician with links to both the rich and powerful and to students, rebels, and the press. Devoted to the poor, I defined Catholic liberation. I had confidence in lay people, women and men. But among repressive military officials who ruled Brazil from 1964-85, I had enemies. I was ordained at 22 and made a bishop in 1952. Convinced of liberation theology, I directed Brazilian Catholic Action, with ties to grass-roots church groups. The church became more vital and the bishops’ concern for social and economic problems grew. I was known as “bishop of the favelas.” At Vatican II (1962-65), I became spokesman for the world’s less developed people. During a campaign for human rights and social justice, in Paris in 1970, while speaking to a large crowd I denounced the practice of torture in Brazil. After that, I was thought to be too suspect to become a cardinal. I retired as archbishop in 1985 after which the church retreated to a more conservative posture.

Litany – “All Saints’ Day, Days of Remembrance [All respond “Stay with us now” after each statement]

The God of Columba, the wandering one . . .
The God of Clare, the poor one . . .
The God of Luther, the reforming one . . .
The God of Europe’s Beguines, the transforming ones . . .
The God of Sojourner Truth, the free one . . .
The God of Sub-ok, the Korean Buddhist nun . . .
The God of Desmond Tutu, the wanted one . . .
The God of Gandhi, the Hindu peacemaker . . .

Stay with us now and always. [Let’s stand to sing the hymn “For all the saints”]