The life of man is realized in various kinds of mutual relationships. No one stands by himself alone: everyone depends on others, giving and taking, influencing and being influenced. As we hope that the departed live in God, we must believe that this applies to them, too — for surely that which is one of the most essential parts of life cannot have come to an end for them.
As a matter of fact the Christian has a lively consciousness of his connection with those departed who were linked to him by blood-relationship, love, or spiritual affinity. He hopes for a reunion with them in the life to come; he thinks of the purification which they may have to undergo to attain “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
The idea, however, of appealing to their love on his own behalf hardly ever occurs to him. He may feel the need to prove himself to them, or that he is bound to carry out some instruction which they have given. But beyond that he feels that the gulf of death is too great and that the religious stature of the departed is, on the whole, not sufficient for him to invoke their spiritual aid in any real sense of the word.
It is different when we come to people whose lives were filled with God’s spirit in a very special way. We read that from the earliest times the faithful have asked the martyrs (that is to say, those who bore witness to God by their own blood) for their intercession — perhaps even during their lifetime (for instance, in prison or on the way to execution) but above all after their death. And they did this, not out of a fortuitous impulse of religious sentiment, but in keeping with the very heart of the Liturgy — the holy Mass. In early times it became a custom to erect altars above the tombs of the martyrs and their invocation was included in the prayer of the Mass.
This is true for saints generally. The term saint has changed greatly in the course of the centuries. In the New Testament it included all those who believed in Christ, who were reborn by Baptism, and stood in the communion of the Eucharist — in other words, all Christians. However, with the growing number of the faithful, the meaning of the word saint was narrowed down, and more and more was used to denote something exceptional, which revealed itself (through the call and guidance of God) in the form of an absolute devotion and in greatness of experience and action in certain individuals.
Such people as Martin of Tours, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth of Thuringia, Teresa of Avila, all lived on earth subject to the necessities and the insufficiency of human existence like everyone else; at the same time they were living witnesses of another world and were filled with its mystery. They truly put into effect the commandment to love God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind, and their neighbors as themselves — thus living not for themselves but for the whole of mankind. So man when he appealed to them in his distress felt that he was recognized and received as nowhere else.
Love between human beings can be very great. For example, a father works himself to the bone for his children or a mother devotes her whole life to them. Yet much of this love is simply the tie of blood and instinct; only gradually and through much struggle does it rise above these natural limits. The love of the saints arises from a selflessness which comes from God alone and which, with holy earnestness, desires the good of others. Is it not right, therefore, that we should continue to seek this love, even after the hearts in which it lived have ceased to beat on earth?
Death according to Christian belief is not an end but a transition. Those who die in the name of Christ do not enter into the void but into the fullness of holy reality.
Man instinctively believes that the dead become shadowy and shrinks away from them to seek the warm light of the earthly sun, or he may believe that the dead become an uncanny or destructive influence against which he must seek protection. These instinctive feelings are overcome by faith, which teaches us that those who died in a state of grace have attained to the glorious liberty of the children of God and the pure fulfillment of their being in eternal light. Is it not appropriate, therefore, that we should seek in their glorious liberty those who even while on earth were witnesses of divine love and power?
Love of the saints draws us to God
It may be most important for an individual to become particularly close to one or another among the great number of saints. As we have said, the saints show us the way to Christ. From each one of them radiates certain elements of His infinitely rich and, at the same time, simple plenitude, which thus becomes especially discernible to us. The saints are the explorers in the kingdom of God, the discoverers of His magnitude and power. Thus they blaze a trail which others can tread and they create a way of life which others, who could not have created it for themselves, can also adopt. A saint who is spiritually linked to us may truly become a guide and teacher; such a relationship is, or at least can be, completely mutual. We have reminded ourselves already that the saints do not live merely in books and pictures but in reality. They love those who are joined with them in Christ; and so from this union of a common love there is no knowing what contacts and relationships may spring.
There is a form of zeal for God which contains destructive elements. To make sure that nothing can compete with God it tries, as it were, to exterminate everything around Him which has a sacred character. The Gospels relate a strange incident in the life of our Lord, in which Jesus speaks to the Pharisees — the zealots for the honor of the one God — who are angered because He claimed a position which was, in their opinion, derogatory to this honor. They wanted to stone him, claiming that He was making Himself God. Jesus answered them: “ ‘Is it not written in your law: “I said you are gods?” ’ If he [the poet of Psalm 81] called them gods, to whom the word of God was spoken, and the Scripture cannot be broken; do you say of Him whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world: ‘Thou blasphemest,’ because I said: ‘I am the Son of God’? ”
This is revealing. The opponents of Jesus are zealous for the honor of God but in a manner which surrounds His generosity with a wall. They rage against everything which, in their opinion, challenges God’s uniqueness — with the result that the triune life of God, as revealed in Christ, is branded as a blasphemy. We are quoting this merely by way of illustration of a misplaced jealousy for God. Our own point of emphasis is altogether different. There is only one God and all honor is His. He has allowed the light of His holiness to shine in those who have fully merged with Christ’s love — in every one of them according to his or her own measure and character. This may provoke the same type of pharisaical outburst which we saw in the Gospel story, and misplaced zeal for God’s honor may impose arbitrary restrictions on His generosity. True piety is aware of the uniqueness of God but at the same time may love and honor the revelations of His grace as manifested in His saints.
The unique role and dignity of Mary
Among those invoked in Christian prayer Mary, the mother of our Lord, holds a very special place. She is not merely the greatest of the saints but something altogether different and unique. Volumes have been said and written about her. Much of this is very beautiful and springs from the purest sources of Christian faith, but a great deal is of doubtful value. We must therefore try to be a little discriminating.
If one tries to explain wherein lies the special character and dignity of Mary, one can hardly do better than state the simple truth that she is the mother of the Redeemer: not only the mother of the man Jesus into whom, according to the Gnostics, the Logos entered, but of Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man. “And the angel answering, said to her: ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ ” That infant which was the fulfillment of Mary’s destiny as a woman was to become her Redeemer and ours. What more can be said? By becoming a mother, she became Christian. By living for her child, she grew to full Christian stature. Her life is linked to the life of the Redeemer not only as every man who loves Him is linked to Him, but also as a mother to her son. She took part in His life. The Gospel tells us vividly how she followed Him even to the foot of the Cross, faithful in the truest sense of the word.
The Son of God was incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit and was made man. In that hour the moving principle of creation held sway, not by commanding “Let there be,” as it did when it created the world, but through the hearts and minds of those whom it called to fulfill its design. The message of the angel was at the same time an announcement, a demand, and a question. To this the answer was given in humility and obedience but also in freedom. The event which signified for all humanity the coming of the Redeemer and for the world the beginning of the new creation, also signified for Mary the entry into her own unique relationship with God. The life, Passion, death, and Resurrection of our Lord, which are, for all, the guarantee and the beginning of salvation, were at the same time for her the true end of her personal life. By contributing toward salvation in this unique way, she herself reached the fullness of Christian perfection.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Romano Guardini’s The Art of Praying, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.