Recently, I checked off a bucket list item by summiting the nose of the Sleeping Giant while on a guided hike. It was the most physically and emotionally challenging activity I had ever undertaken. The terrain was varied; always a degree of incline, sometimes the path turning to shale that shifted under our feet. My breathing increased with the physical exertion; the beauty of the surroundings took my breath away. The views were expansive, the sky closer, the rock formations complex.
The final summit to the nose was a scramble up rock that required some stretches and reaches. After getting past those, I came to the final stretch and reach and thought, this is where I stop. I couldn’t do it. Then I heard the encouraging words of our two guides, who pointed exactly to where I should plant my feet and hands. Doing as directed, I completed the final scramble and soon stood atop the nose, looking down at the Missouri River and across to Mann Gulch, and beholding the natural beauty of God’s creation for as far as my eyes could see.
It’s not a reach to see parallels between a physical walk and our spiritual walks. The paths we walk are sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky and slippery. Life experiences and circumstances both make our heart full with peace and hope, and make our heart break with hurt and sorrow. At times we face obstacles that we doubt we summit. How do we go forward, and continue to reach and stretch forward, putting one foot in front of the other?
Reflecting on that day on the mountain and on my life, what has helped me get over the obstacles? The answer for both is the same. Community. People. God’s people.
From the very beginning, God created us to be in community. This is woven throughout Scripture. After God created Adam, God said “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” God chose the Israelites to be his people. “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, and all who believed were together.” St. Paul also describes what this community looks like when he writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.” The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews attests that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”
The Christian Church came to confess belief in the communion of saints. While there are differences between what the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant traditions believe about the communion of saints, the Christian Church sets aside Nov. 1 as All Saint’s Day. We are a couple of weeks past that celebration, but it is never too late to get to know the saints. Jesus is, of course, the founder and perfector of our faith whom we turn to for guidance and strength. We also have saints who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. The saints offer us assurance in moments both smooth and rocky, peaceful and tumultuous, hopeful and sorrowful.
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If the church’s saints seem unreachable to us, nothing could be further from the truth. The saints of the church were real human beings, with real shortcomings, real failures, real struggles of faith. St. Augustine led a worldly life, until his conversion to Christianity at the age of 31. He would become one of the most important church fathers, writing of God that “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
St. Julian of Norwich is beloved by both Catholic and Protestants. She lived in the 14th century in a time of political and religious unrest, and personal adversity. After becoming gravely ill and receiving an outpouring of divine love, she wrote “Revelations of Divine Love,” a work of profound hopefulness steeped in the assurance of God’s unfaltering love. She wrote, “I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly hold in the faith, and that I should take my stand on and earnestly believe that all shall be well, all shall be well, and that all manner of things shall be well."
St. Teresa of Calcutta – Mother Teresa – is remembered for her tireless works of mercy and compassion for the sick and the dying. She also endured a dark night of the soul that lasted almost 50 years. Yet while she lamented that she no longer experienced closeness to God, she did not question that God was real and working through her.
There are hundreds of saints who, as Pope Francis said in his most recent All Saint’s Day address, “lived with their feet on the ground, experienced the daily toil of existence with its successes and failures, finding in the Lord the strength to always get up and continue the journey.” They planted their feet, hands, and hearts in the certainty of God's love. In the midst of trial and tribulation, sickness and suffering, confusion and doubt, they remained unwavering in their faith.
This is the common ground on which we stand with all of the saints. Taking the journey as so many before us and we can be strengthened. In times of trial, moments of despair, and in impossible circumstances for which there appear to be no answer and no end, these great women and men of the faith turn our troubled hearts to God who loves us, and whose love for us is our beginning and our life everlasting. We too, have the certainty and assurance of God’s love and protection for all times, in all times, and through all times. "And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Thanks be to God.