With All the Company of Heaven

CandlesEach November, in the wake of All Saints’ Day, I’m reminded that celebrating the saints is a valuable practice for spiritually diverse communities like Episcopal schools.

Episcopal institutions occupy a unique and, in my estimation, ideal position with regard to celebrating the saints. On the traditional hand, we don’t shy away from identifying with the communion of saints passed down to us through our Christian heritage. After all, most of our institutions are named after a saint. On the innovative hand, our criteria for being a saint is free enough to speak about our peers as saints among us and, since no religion has a monopoly on holiness, to celebrate holy people outside the Christian tradition. (The word ‘saint’ comes from ‘hallow’ meaning ‘holy person’—hence All Hallows’ Eve before All Saints’ Day.)

Just as each student body has a diversity of learning sensibilities, each also has diversity of spiritual sensibilities. This is particularly true for our schools composed of multiple faith traditions. Despite this diversity, I find that a common purview for what or who qualifies as religious or spiritual is often confined to people and practices you’d find in a place of worship. This limited understanding of holiness is one of the obstacles I face when working with students to discover what spiritual sensibilities or exercises best fit their personalities and passions. Moreover, finding someone to spiritually relate to can be difficult. Exploring the diversity of the saints and holy heroes and discovering their various forms of spirituality helps to overcome these obstacles and limited notions of holy living.

There’s a saint for every occasion and spiritual sensibility, and the diversity of saints and holy people testifies to the diversity of ways to experience God. From St. Francis’ union with nature and service the poor, to the visionary creativity of St. Hildegard, to the poetry and dance of Rumi the Whirling Dervish, to the Buddha’s path towards enlightenment, to Gandhi, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, and Malala Yousafzai’s struggle for social justice, to St. Jude the martyr and patron of lost causes (a personal favorite of mine), saints and holy people from across the religious spectrum are an invaluable resource for establishing a more expansive definition of spirituality and religious experience.

Each saint shows us how to connect to God in a unique and instructive way. Their stories prompt each of us ask of ourselves: What activities and locations help me feel closest to God? What gifts do I have to share to make the world a better and more beautiful place? What people and communities do I share those gifts with? Can I recall a foundational moment in my life when I felt an uncanny harmony with the divine? What am I willing to live for and, if necessary, give my life for?

To show that imagining yourself as a saint can bring out the best parts of you, each November I have students respond to the questions above for a project where each student creates a profile and icon of him or herself as a saint or holy person. I join them in the activity and, inevitably, the results are surprising. The questions give us keys to unlock doors of our spiritual lives that remain otherwise closed. Celebrating the saints teaches to identify our spiritual exercises and spaces, to celebrate our spiritual gifts and communities, and to name our sacred moments and reasons for living.

In the back of my educator’s mind, whenever I consider our responsibility for guiding and encouraging the spiritual development of students, I think of the end of The Brothers Karamazov when the youngest brother says, “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.” While Dostoevsky was writing in the late 1870s, researcher Rebecca Nye’s recent book Children’s Spirituality echoed his hypothesis. Nye highlights how “a surprising number of adults chose a childhood memory as their most important spiritual experience.”

My prayer is that we reach deep within our religious traditions to celebrate the saints and holy people who can expand our understanding of what constitutes spirituality and religious living. The lives of the saints plant seeds in the sacred soil from which our students’ memories and faith will grow.

The Rev. Timothy J.S. Seamans is the Primary and Lower School Chaplain at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, GA.