The question is the same in every age: how are we to navigate the waters of life? How do we get from the start of the river of life to its end without swamping the canoe, turning the canoe over, or crashing the thing into the bank? You and I and all of us seem to be searching, constantly, for a reliable way to walk alongside life’s challenges and uncertainties and difficulties. We want to know that our lives have some meaning. We want reassurance that our existence is connected to something much larger than ourselves.
And we want to know, on this Sunday of All Saints, that we are, in truth, a part of the river of life, the river of life that has flowed on for countless ages before my time and your time and that will continue to flow for countless ages after we’re gone.
Most of us go our whole lives without looming large on the world stage. Hardly any of us is a Saint Paul, a Maya Angelou, a Saint Mother Teresa. But know this: no matter how compact and ordinary our lives might seem, God knows you and me and the cries of our hearts.
Most of us have been shown that to navigate the waters of life we should want to chase after power and strength, ambition and acquisition. We work to be rich so we can have what we want. We seek power so we can take what we want. We argue to be right so we can have our way. We compete to win so we’ll be respected and admired. We want to be beautiful so we’ll be liked and desired. Any of that sound familiar? Ever tried those ways of getting through life?
Those attitudes fill headline news, magazine articles, tabloid pictures, television, and our own lives. The idea is that I must build myself up and make my own life, that if you don’t look out for Number One, no one else will. And that is a lie. No one makes her own life. No one builds his legacy unassisted. Life is not a solo act. God’s first action is one of relationship, existing in three persons, and so each of us, beloved of God, is a creation of relationship.
To navigate the waters of life as a beloved child of God, to navigate the waters of life with Jesus steering the canoe, is to receive the blessing, to receive the God-given opportunity, to make it along the river of life as God means for us to do.
Pope Francis has this to say about why our journey along the river of life is not a solitary undertaking: “Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is…. Life is good when you are happy, but much better when others are happy because of you.”
That’s really the first step toward understanding the journey of our lives, is knowing that every one of us is a product of the saints who have gone before us, the saints who have contributed to our selves, our self-worth, our knowledge, our practices, and our habits. And the second is like it: “Life is much better when others are happy because of you.”
Counting life a success means letting Jesus steer that canoe. And the Gospel lesson for this Day of All Saints shows us what such a journey can look like.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit.
- Blessed are those who mourn.
- Blessed are the meek.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
- Blessed are the merciful.
- Blessed are the pure in heart.
- Blessed are the peacemakers.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
That is how Jesus has invited me, and you, and Saint Mother Teresa, and your grandmother, and Bishop Tim, and all the saints, to navigate life – a complete reversal of what the world recommends.
This is what you and I can model for our children and grandchildren. A lifetime of living the beatitudes day after day, year after year, is how you and I join ourselves to the great cloud of witnesses.
The beatitudes are the mind of God and the heart of Jesus. They shape and form our journeys, our lives and longings, to be like God’s life and God’s longings. That’s a pretty different approach. Most of the time we twist and distort God’s life and longings to fit ours. That’s why the beatitudes are so radical and often seem so out of reach.
The temptation is to think that the beatitudes are rules or conditions for being blessed or receiving our heavenly reward. They are not that at all. Just the opposite! They are about letting go, surrendering, living with a vulnerable and open heart.
That does not mean we run away, back down, or isolate ourselves from the realities of our life and world. It means we engage them in a different way, Jesus’ way. The beatitudes teach us to trust God more than the external circumstances of our lives. They invite dependence on God rather than self-reliance.
In today’s world, that sounds a lot like weakness and foolishness. That’s what it sounds like in every age. But to those who are being saved it is the power of God. The beatitudes are nothing less than the way of the cross, the way of all the saints.
And it is in the crossroads of our journeys, the traumas and the setbacks, that you find, and that I find, that life is not a solo act. It’s not a solo canoe ride. We cannot, we must not, do life by ourselves.
All that we are and have is from God – and that is when we begin to know ourselves as poor in spirit. Our own misfortunes open our eyes, and our hearts, to the pain of the world, and we begin to grow in mercy toward everyone else.
When that happens, when we gaze upon the face of God in everyone we encounter, we find a growing hunger and thirst for righteousness, for God’s life, and we become peacemakers reconciling ourselves to God and our neighbor.
This is the life for which Christ’s disciples are willing to be persecuted, a life of righteousness, the life for which Christ died and rose again.
The beatitudes are not a checklist, something to take care of and cross off. The beatitudes make up the river of life. The beatitudes are what give us that great cloud of witnesses. To live the beatitudes is to live a life of reckless, exuberant, self-abandonment to God and our neighbor. That’s called love. The only reason we can do that is because we know and trust ourselves to have already been blessed by God. We live the beatitudes as a response to God blessing us. That is the way of Christ. That is the way of all saints. That is the way of the river of life.