Today we celebrate All Saints – known and Unknown.
Who likes celebrating saints? This RC kid right here! I know, this is your surprised face.
In general, the holy see requires some proof of a candidate’s saintliness in order to get on the road to beatification (and eventually, canonization) There are a few paths this can take – martyrdom (ouch), being venerated by as holy by Catholics, giving up their life for another person (this is a relatively new one), and living a life of Christian virtue (even if one is not technically Catholic). You also need to be responsible for a bonafide miracle bestowed upon someone who prays to you for intercession.
This last part is kind of the gotcha for lots of people living a pretty solid life of virtue and grace. And it might just be because the RC Kids of the world don’t know who they are – the unknown saints.
When Child was in Grade 10 or so, his class went on a field trip and I was able to chaperone. One of the stops we made was at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto. We talked about how symbols were used in artwork on the walls and ceiling of the church, and it was fascinating. I kept the worksheet that the kids used, and whenever I’m in a different church (or, when I sit in a different place in my own church, I look at the artwork up in the vaulted ceiling or in the stained glass windows. I’m not gonna lie, I like visiting different churches, and I have to work and not having my head on a swivel the whole time to gawk at the really amazing art and craftsmanship, especially in big old gothic-style churches.
Part of what was so great about the worksheet we got at St. Paul’s was that it helped me to be able to sleuth out who some (but only some) of the anonymous saints are supposed to be. I always liked the religious paintings with rosy cheeked putti and rosebud lipped Madonnas in the National Art Gallery.
But I digress.
For a long time, I always just assumed that everyone knew who all these paintings were supposed to be, and I just wasn’t paying enough attention. I mean, I’m a Roman Catholic kid who doesn’t read the bible (not that many of the saints actually appear in there). Sure, I have… three, plus an additional New Testament in French for good measure. But I don’t actually read it unless I’m looking for a particular passage, and, frankly, the internets can serve that up for me. Which makes me feel like perhaps I’m a little more lackadaisical than I should be. But that’s something to unpackage not-right-now.
Don’t get me wrong, I know who some of them are because of their patronage – St. Blaise has the crossed candles (which bless our throats on his feast day); St. Michael (defend us in battle! With his sword and shield), St Agnus and her lamb; St Hubert has the stag with the cross between his antlers; St. Gabriel (the archangel – patron of messengers) has a scroll or a trumpet; St. Christopher with a child on his shoulder; St Genesius (patron of actors) has the theatre mask. Our high school theatre teacher (and director of shows), the indominable Anna Maria Morris, ended her pep talk at our 5 minute curtain call with a prayer, concluding it with “St. Genesius, pray for us”. St. George and the dragon. St Patrick and the shamrock. There are some hints in some of the paintings, for sure. Sometimes, in searching for the patron saint of helping me get good weather for my barbecue or the patron saint for getting a stain out of my favourite shirt, I fall headlong into the rabbit hole of obscure amazing patronages.
But the nondescript white-robed, haloed observers? Apparently they’re just saints unknown. They represent everyone who just did their proper Catholic best to make good choices and live in grace as much as possible, throughout their lives. Anonymously, in obscurity. Known only to God.
And that, friends, is where the triduum of Hallowtide and the Remembrance project overlap.
There are thousands of graves around the world containing the remains of someone known only to God. There are thousands of brothers, husbands, sons, daughters, and sisters. They answered a call to duty and did not make it home at the end of their toil. So yeah, how does one honour the life of someone unknown? For me, it’s like sending a card or package to a member of the Canadian Armed Forces currently deployed. You can send it to a particular member, or you can send it to Any Deployed Serviceperson, or thanks to the magic of Technology, you can leave a message on the CAF Operations Facebook page). Someone who might not otherwise get a card or gift receives the one you send. You don’t know who eventually receives your gesture – this is similar. It’s honouring the Unknown Soldier – who could be (And was intended to be) a proxy for anyone who could not be identified and did not return home.
Past year’s reflections on the Unknown Soldier: REMEMBRANCE PROJECT – DAY 4: THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (2018), and The Unknown Soldier (2019).