For all the saints

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For columnist Wayne Holst, Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town, has been one of a number of spiritual mentors—teachers about right living and dying. Photo: Shutterstock

The Christian festival of All Saints (November 1) seemed to slip past me almost unnoticed this year; but perhaps it’s still not too late to share my thoughts with you about saintly mentors.

I have always been captivated by the great saints of the church, like Augustine of Hippo or Anselm of Canterbury. But my earliest awareness of noteworthy mentors of the faith came to me at a small burial ground—St. James Lutheran Cemetery—in St. Jacobs, Ont., the town where I grew up and was first formed as a Christian.

My mother and father were faithful Christians and raised their family according to deeply held beliefs. As I grew through ages six to 16, and every Thursday evening from spring to autumn, my father and I would serve as caretakers of our church cemetery. We mowed grass and clipped around the tombstones, making sure that “God’s holy acre” would always be at its best when visitors came to honour their loved ones.

After an evening of working together, we would usually sit, reflect and pray together on a bench near the entrance. My father would describe this as a place where persons who died were transformed from “the church militant” to “the church triumphant.”

Those tombstones were not rock slabs to me. The names on many of them were not decoration. Those stones and names became my friends. Some were actual relatives. Others were known only because I could recall their descendants still living in our small town.

That decade-long experience with my dad, during impressionable years, was my introduction to the “Communion of Saints” we celebrate on All Saints Day. I am constantly drawn back to that time whenever I reflect on what Christian sainthood means to me.

What I had actually been introduced to by my father was the process of spiritual mentorship. From my earliest years, I was being made aware of people—some of whom I had known personally—who taught me how to live and to die well as saints.

Since that time, mentors like this remain important guides as I move through my eighth decade. I continue to associate with people who can teach me about right living and dying. My mentors have changed over time and experience, but their contributions remain constant.

Some are great models of the Christian faith about whom I read and teach—like Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Perhaps they are models of holy living from other faiths—like the Dalai Lama of Tibet, though now living in exile In Dharamsala, northern India. (Spiritual mentorship is the focus of a book our church study group is appreciating. It is entitled The Book of Joy.)

Perhaps the models are ordinary folk like you and me.

My father would be intrigued by the fact that I am currently learning four stages of preparation for death and following a rather detailed “clear light of death” meditational discipline taught by the Dalai Lama.

The more I find meaning in other faith traditions, the more I am made mindful of Christian traditions I never realized existed.

So perhaps, in spite of myself, I have been honouring “all the saints” these days without even realizing it.

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Wayne Holst
Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for 25 years. He taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and co-ordinates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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