Heaven is Togetherness – Arnel Aquino, SJ

1 November 2015, All Saints’ Day

Thanks to the stampitas that were so popular when I was growing up, for the longest time, my impression of the saints was that they were very solitary people with an uninterrupted line to God. I often envisioned saints on their knees, and their fingers interlocked in prayer, and their eyes—they were either wide open, skywards, or ardently shut, soul-wards. I imagined them listening to God all the time, or even better, listening for God. And yes, of course, in all of this, the saints would be ensconced in the hallowed quiet of a monastery, where the only light was the one shining from God, and the only catcher of that light was the saint’s face. In other words, saints to me were the indefectible, painting-worthy symbols of religious perfection.

Now that I’m almost 50, and 25 years of that in religious life, I’ve begun to wonder: if I were a saint—which I am not and will never be—but let’s just say for the heck of it, if I were a saint, would I want to be remembered as someone like that—always on his knees, hands clasped together in prayer, looking skywards or soul-wards, in a monastery where he was mostly alone with God in all picturesque holiness? Would I want to be celebrated that way? I actually wouldn’t. I still unequivocally believe that our saints are the great models of religious perfection. But, for some reason, I’d much rather remember and celebrate them as the great models of union. Let me explain.

Yes, the saints must’ve spent hours on their knees. But there’s now a part of me that imagines them spending even more hours on their feet, walking with people as they drew towards Christ together. Yes, they must have often clasped their hands together and implored God’s help. But now a deeper part of me believes that more often, the saints flung those arms wide open to welcome the poor as their friends; that they flexed those muscles to help carry the sick and the dying to safety; that they offered those shoulders to comfort the sorrowing, to help bear crosses. Yes, the saints must’ve looked heavenwards and inwards, listening to God in a monastery. But I’m more moved by the thought that our saints heard God the loudest through people’s voices—like a joyful mother, or a contrite penitent, or a troubled family’s prayers to God. In other words, dear sisters and brothers, now that I’m older, I’m more convinced that the religious perfection of our saints was such, because of their union with God’s people.

Many of us in this room were raised and taught towards religious perfection. “You must go to Church on Sunday; say your prayers before you sleep and eat, and as you wake up. Say the correct words of prayer, in fact. You must not eat meat on the Fridays of Lent. You must go to confession at all cost before receiving communion. And when you do receive communion, don’t you dare chew the host! Let it melt, no matter how long it takes. Don’t lie, steal, kill, or disrespect your parents. And be very afraid of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.” And all that served us well, don’t get me wrong. We grew up understanding perfection as faultlessness in front of God, flawlessness, purity, and most of all, saintliness.

But many times, our pursuit of perfection for God gets in the way of our union with our neighbor. Yes, we wish to be irreproachable for God; yet, we have behavior that alienates our neighbor—especially the less fortunate, the less educated amongst us. Sometimes, we’re Dr. Jekyll when within church walls—then Mr. Hyde outside. In other words, in our pursuit of religious perfection, we forget quite often the importance of union.
Union means being not only face to face with God, but also shoulder to shoulder with others before God. Union means not only begging God’s forgiveness so we may be personally reconciled with him, but also apologizing to each other, forgiving one another—because we would rather be friends and stay together, than be always right but stay alone. Union means using all our physical and spiritual capital not only so we’re saved individually and alone, but so we can also be each other’s saviors.

Jesus was the saint of saints. Our saints were the way they were because Jesus was their sole inspiration, and the inspiration of their souls. And more than anything, my dear sisters and brothers, Jesus was a man of union—and I dare say more than a man of religious perfection, the way the Pharisees and religious authorities understood “religious perfection.” People mattered to the Lord more than blind obedience to ritual and law. Nowhere did he pronounce that ritual and law were to be spurned wholesale. But when ritual and law became self-important, the Lord parted ways with them. Instead, the Lord stayed with the poor in spirit, with the sorrowful, the meek. He remained with those who hungered and thirsted for justice, with the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
To attain saintliness is important, dear sisters and brothers. But I imagine the Lord telling us to never forget that a sine qua non of saintliness is union, communion with others—especially the poor; connectedness, community.

Are you often discouraged because after all these years, you’ve not inched that much closer to religious perfection? Allow me to very gently say, be not afraid, be at peace. As long as we stay connected with others, as long as we keep our friendships warm and sincere, as long as we lavish apology and forgiveness so our bridges aren’t burned by resentment—be not afraid, be at peace, God is here.

I think, my dear sisters and brothers, that the phrase, “communion of saints,” is really another way of saying that heaven is togetherness, heaven is friendship and family, heaven is the people who long to see God’s face, as well as the people who see God’s face in each other. So, we ask our favorite saints today to always remind us of that union, and to make us look forward to that heaven. Amen.

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