Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us
and persevere in running the race that lies before us
while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,
the leader and perfecter of faith …
To say this passage has served well as my “Rule of Life” is an understatement. When feeling ashamed for past transgressions, the part about ridding ourselves of sin consoles me; when completing that half-marathon, running the race with perseverance pushed me over the finish line; when wanting to throw in the towel on this work called the new evangelization, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus becomes my mantra. Lately, though, it’s the cloud of witnesses part that keeps knocking on my front door.
The Great Cloud
From his August 25, 2010 General Audience address, Pope Benedict XVI shared a few thoughts about this cloud of witnesses.
It is also important to have “travel companions” on the journey of our Christian life: I am thinking of a spiritual director, a confessor, persons with whom we can share the experience of faith, but I am also thinking of the Virgin Mary and of the saints. Each one should have a saint that is familiar to him, to whom he feels close with prayer and intercession, but also to imitate him or her.
When I first read our Holy Father’s words two years ago, it hit me that while I had an intellectual knowledge of the saints, I hadn’t transferred it into my prayer life. Was I really asking for specific intercessions from the saints as Pope Benedict encourages? Had I invited special intercessors to walk beside me along my journey? Was I as familiar with my patron as I could be? No, nada, and nein.
Realizing it was time to do something about those “no’s,” I had to first let go of the idea that Heaven is located in a galaxy millions of miles away. Those who have gone before us are with us all the time. And because they are eternally alive in Christ, the saints are more present and near to us than we are to one another. We are always in supernatural communion Jesus, his mother Mary, and the Communion of Saints.
Wanting to draw nearer to a few select saints, I gave myself the gift of a spiritual board of directors on my birthday last year. I assembled a small group of saints to serve as my cloud of witnesses and guide me, in a particularly intimate way, throughout my daily activities and vocation.
Finding Saints in Solitude
A faithful communion with my spiritual board has brought me peace, happiness, and companionship. I can hear the detractors now, “You mean to tell me dead people brought you all this peace and happiness?”
Oh yes! Yes, sí, and ja.
One of the biggest struggles I face in my vocation as a full-time at-home mom is coping with the loneliness and lack of daily interpersonal interactions with other adults. St. Josemaria Escriva encourages us moms in particular to, “Live a special Communion of Saints, and, in the moments of interior struggle just as in the hours of professional work, each of you will feel the joy and the strength of not being alone,” (The Way, Chapter 24).
I often remind myself that some of the greatest saints were able to find God while in solitude. Take the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola. A soldier in the Spanish army, he was wounded during battle and spent much of his recuperation in solitude. His sister-in-law gave him two books to keep his mind occupied: one on the life of Jesus and the other on the lives of the saints. St. Ignatius found God in those quiet, lonely moments and there and then dedicated the rest of his life to serving the Church. And so the same can be for us.
Talking With the Dead
I recently interviewed Fr. John Riccardo, a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and asked him if he had a spiritual board of directors. “All my best friends are dead,” he said. It took me a few seconds to understand he was saying his best friends are saints such as Joseph, Therese of Lisieux, and Blessed John Paul II. His friendships with them have developed overtime, a slow growth made possible by Fr. Riccardo talking to and calling on their intercession. By his example, I am now more purposeful in turning to Christ, Mary, and my saint board. I often simply ask, “Okay Saint [so-and-so], show me who you are. Help me learn from you.” I can’t say I’m at the point where I call any one of them a best friend, but it’s something I’m working toward.
The highway to Heaven often feels like one step forward and two back. Apathy can set in during these moments, and if we aren’t surrounded by people who help us run the race with perseverance, personal sanctity may fall off our radar. So as the Church reads Hebrews 12 again today, let us call upon the intercession of a few saints to walk with us in a particularly intimate way. They are willing and eager to help us grow in personal sanctity, to serve as our cloud of witnesses, so that one day we can, God-willing, enjoy eternal life with Christ in their company.