Intimacy is no dream, it’s flesh-and-blood reality

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  • October 30, 2006

After intensive soul-searching and searing heartache, a person I know has divorced. She aches for her children and for herself as a Catholic facing lonely solitude. A faithful person, she thought she was following the voice of love, both in getting married and in the way she tried to live her marriage. How could love have led her to divorce?

Listening to my friend’s questions, wishing I had a helpful answer, I was recalled to a time when the same questions were wrenched out of me. My situation was different, but I was in the same horror of losing everything precious and wondering how love could have led me to such a place. Unable to escape, I stayed in that desert. There an astonishing thing happened: people came and met me in ways I had not known humans could meet.

One was an empathic person whom I met only once and have never seen since. I would not have spoken with him at all had I not been desperate. He gave me a picture, which remained with me and still sits above my desk, entitled, “The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul.” Not “the Anthony who finds things,” and not Paul of Tarsus. This Anthony lived in Egypt during the third century. When he was still young, his parents died, leaving everything to him. Instead of fleeing into wealth and worldliness, as he might have done, he went the other way: he gave away everything and fled alone into the Egyptian desert. He was listening to a guiding voice.

Earlier, unknown to Anthony, a man named Paul lost his parents when only 16. Paul, who lived in Thebes, gave away his inheritance and entered the same desert. Paul and Anthony did not know each other, nor did they know of each other’s quests. Years later, Anthony heard that a holy man lived in the desert and set out to find him. They met not in the bustle of the marketplace, not in a pub or at a sporting event, but in the bare desert to which loss, love and inner thirst had brought them both.

The artist portrayed this meeting in a way that was mystifying to me, for it painted words like “solitude” and “emptiness” with colours I never imagined they could wear. The landscape in the painting was not barren and terrifying, but fruitful and welcoming. The strangers met with joy, embraced and looked at each other as though they were old friends.

These three people, one living and two dead, reached out to me and kept me from dying of thirst. They taught me that I was not alone in the quest. They showed me that human intimacy was no dream but a flesh-and-blood reality.

This is what the feast of All Saints is about. We connect with people who have lived before us, carved out paths of love and made an opening for God in the world. They did so, not by being more than human, but by being very human indeed. When I was little, I loved hearing the litany of saints sung at Easter. The names were unfamiliar but compelling, sung with such affection that I felt their beauty and longed to know the stories of these cherished people. Where did Athanasius come from? Why were Perpetua and Felicity always named together? Who was Agatha? St. Anthony was one of the names I heard and wondered about long ago, but he waited until I was ready before showing me who he is.

Responding to an experience of loss in his life, Anthony went to the desert. He trusted the God who lures us out of what we have, only to give us what we long for. There he found not isolation, but communion with himself, God and others. Historians say that St. Anthony and his followers, the first monastics, “made of the desert a city,” for so many gathered there. Could it be that my friend who lost so much is also at the threshold of discovering a new way to trust?

This feast day of All Saints brings us home to ourselves and to our own longing for relationship, a longing which is God’s gift to us. We finally meet one another, the living and the dead. In this meeting, we find the living God who has been waiting to welcome us into the communion which is divine.

It may not seem much help when we are trying to survive a broken relationship or worrying about our kids or our marriage. The dead may seem remote and unable to aid us, the living even more so. But the communion of saints is real and abiding. This is what we call Grace.

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