The month of November begins with a blaze of spiritual light: the Solemnity of All Saints.
This feast day highlights the perpetual beauty of literally the most fascinating people in history: the men, women, and children that we call “saints,” a name which derives from the word “sanctified,” that is, purified. Everyone in the life to come has been purified by God’s grace because it is a law of the Kingdom that “nothing unclean shall enter” (Rev 21:27) the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The stories of those holy confessors, doctors, virgins, religious, missionaries, martyrs, hermits, widows, and wonderworkers are as unique and varied as humanity itself. And those are the marvelous individuals that we can look forward to meeting in Heaven – that is, if we get there! In Heaven we will be “surrounded by this cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), not for a day, but for all eternity.
The formally canonized saints are our predecessors, role models, and publicly-acknowledged heroes of our faith, but let’s not think that they are the only ones who await us in the afterlife – heaven forbid! There are countless other “non-canonized” saints who have also been saved by Christ’s Blood, but who make it into Heaven after a time of purification in purgatory or perhaps without all the fanfare. St. John says in the Book of Revelation that he saw
A huge crowd which no one could count from every nation and race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10)
Reflect on that for a moment: if there are seven billion people on earth right now, and if even a fraction of them made it into heaven, that alone would be a “huge crowd which no one could count.” Imagine the saved from all ethnic groups that ever lived and from every time since the moment when God breathed a human soul into the first man and woman. Heaven is going to be one massive feast!
I have said that the saints in heaven will be the most wonderful people we could know. Like the few special people in our lives that we admire for their goodness, our confreres in the next life will have several qualities of character of which we will never tire when we meet them in heaven:
1) Tested virtue
Here on earth human virtue is a rather unpredictable thing. People are sometimes good, inconsistently honorable, and rarely heroic in their virtue, but the people we admire most are strong and virtuous, in season and out of season. They are the ones who stand on principle, reject vice firmly, and always seem to respond in a righteous way to the challenges in life. Their virtue has passed the test of time and circumstance, and we feel that we are better people whenever we’re around them.
It’s rare to find a person of such character in this life, but – imagine this – in heaven everyone will have tested virtue.
The character trait that most marks the personalities of those who are saved is joy, which is listed by St. Paul as an assured fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22). I think of joy as a radiating furnace filling the room around it with the glow and warmth of what is burning within. That is the state of all saints in heaven, not just as a passing emotion but as a permanent trait.
I once met Mother Angelica in her monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, after the time when she had had her debilitating stroke. She was seated in a wheelchair behind the grate of her cloister and was unable to speak, but the touch of her soft hand and the fire of joy radiating from her countenance was like a wave of warmth washing right through me. It was a true experience of overflowing joy. The joy of the saints! If possible, I would have moved into that monastery to live for the rest of my days, just to be near that joyful radiance. Once again, in heaven, everyone will be so full of divine joy.
Of the three “things that last” (1 Cor 13:13), faith, hope, and love, St. Paul calls love, or charity, the greatest of all. We must not think of charity as philanthropy: helping out a neighbor or poor person in need. Charity is that, but much more. It is a habit of the heart, an attitude which actively seeks of the good of our neighbor.
I heard a story about Mother Teresa which made it clear why she is a canonized blessed (one step below sainthood). At a university commencement ceremony where Mother Teresa was being given an honorary degree, a young woman preceded her to the podium and gave a thoroughly offensive harangue full of pro-choice, leftist, anti-human, distorted ideology – in other words, everything she learned in American higher education. When the woman sat back down, Mother Teresa patted her tenderly on the arm and said, “You did a nice job, dear.” Then Mother got up to speak. Afterward, no one remembered the young woman’s sermon from hell but only Mother’s light-filled words. For Mother Teresa charity was a habit of heart to be bestowed upon enemies as well as friends.
Imagine what love we will experience in heaven where every heart we encounter will be filled with that same charity.
One lesson of All Saints Day is that the “cloud of witnesses” awaits us in heaven! Here on earth, every human interaction and activity is tainted with sin. There, no sin will be possible: only virtue, joy, and the charity of Christ for all redeemed sinners. There’s a good reason why the Church teaches us to long for heaven: it has no down side. In heaven everyone is full of grace and light and all the bitter tears of our earthly existence “will be wiped away” (Rev 21:4) by those wondrous saints forever.
I want to go there. Want to join me?