THE feast of All Saints can lead to a flood of self-deprecation.
The saints come over as towering spiritual and moral victors, way
above our league; we look on their heroic deeds and falter. St
Catherine endured being broken on a wheel, and Peter, so legend has
it, was crucified upside down so as not to emulate Christ. St
Teresa of Ávila reached the supreme heights of mystical experience
through spiritual marriage with God.
All this makes us feel like parents competing in a school
sports-day race, and finding ourselves pitted against Olympic
gold-medallists. As the hymn wryly notes: "We feebly struggle, they
in glory shine."
St John of the Cross puts forward a startling and paradoxical
analysis of the path to sainthood - one that can reformulate and
re-energise our take on the spiritual life. "If a man wishes to be
sure of the road he travels on, he must close his eyes and walk in
This brings potential sainthood firmly down to the level of the
church pew. Everyone experiences darkness at some point in life.
"The still, sad music of humanity," as Wordsworth describes it in
his poem "Tintern Abbey".
This may be spiritual. A crisis of faith, or an experience that
leads us to negativity, can knock the stuffing out of us. Perhaps
the liturgy has become a meaningless formula, and the standards
demanded by scripture seem unattainable. Our view of God
diminishes, so that he becomes no more than a patriarchal Freudian
figment of the imagination.
More devastatingly, he may disappear from our horizons
altogether. Prayer seems pointless and even counterproductive in
this wilderness. In the words of the theologian Karl Rahner, you
get down on your knees and "shout into the impotent, unbounded
darkness of your dead heart's wasteland" - and nobody answers.
The wellspring of darkness often emerges from life's rough and
tumble. Anger may rankle, and the winter blues can throw us into
the pit. Illness can be frightening, and bereavement creates a
terrible yearning and emptiness. World events on a local or
international level may hurl us out of kilter, so that we feel
appalled at the depth of depravity to which humankind (of which we
are a part) can sink.
I remember being tossed into the deep end as a green curate,
when the vicar asked me to take the funeral of a ten-year-old girl.
As was the custom in the West Country at that time, she lay in an
open coffin, golden-haired, pale-faced, profoundly beautiful.
Almost tongue-tied at this pathetic glimpse of reality, I could do
no more than stumble out the words of Lord's Prayer. It shook my
immature theological complacency and assured spirituality.
For St John of the Cross, the path to sanctity lies in striding
out into the darkness, unseeing, not comprehending, clinging on to
a tattered faith - or even no faith at all. It entails battling
against the emptiness; having "the courage to be", in the face of
lurking despair and nihilistic thinking. It demands that we hold
fast against the nothingness.
Being a saint is not just being broken on a wheel, or
experiencing spiritual ecstasy. It is keeping on going, hoping
against hope that a glimmer of light will appear. The poet R. S.
Thomas put this succinctly, after reflecting on Michaelangelo's
portrait of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, stretching out his hand to
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo's
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating
Stick in there, hold fast, and, God willing, that will
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in