In thirty-two-plus years of working in liturgical publishing, you accumulate a lot of memories, along with subsequent stories to share. One of my most potent memories comes from early on in my work when, in 1992, I was given a saints’ hymnal submission to peruse and evaluate.
The hymns—one for each saint on the U.S. liturgical calendar—had been written by a well-meaning pastor who had typed (on a manual typewriter) each text on a sheet of music manuscript paper, all with hymntunes already photocopied on them. His skill as a hymn text craftsman, sad to say, was not up to the honorable nature of his intent. In addition, the texts were put into a fixed rotation of commonly-known tunes, with the result that (for example) on June 3, we had this text set to Beethoven’s HYMN TO JOY:
Charles Lwanga and companions spread the faith in Uganda;
In their witness and their dying, faith was known in Africa.
(I didn’t say all the memories were necessarily positive ones.)
One thing from that pastor’s cover letter, however, has also stuck with me: that the saints on the liturgical calendar are a largely-untapped resource to inspire us in our own daily living. He wanted to show that saints are, indeed, ordinary and oftentimes sinful people who nevertheless continued their striving to attain holiness through God’s grace.
I’ve had substantial opportunity lately to reflect anew on his insight, and on saints in general. The recent release of The Divine Office Hymnal put a new compendium of sanctoral hymns on my shelf. Earlier this month, I assisted in leading a “Singing the Saints” workshop for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, utilizing For All the Saints, another compendium of sanctoral hymns by J. Michael Thompson, for which I served as an editor.
Our workshop took place at St. Thomas Aquinas cathedral in Reno, NV (site of the NPM convention). It was there that I encountered a remarkable statue of St. Joseph in one of the side hallways.
What I loved about it immediately was the overt expression of paternal and filial love expressed there, as a young Jesus reaches up to his earthly father, who bends down to give him a kiss on his head. We rarely (if ever) see such a three-dimensional embodied display of love between these two, the kind of love incarnate we understand to be a basis for sacramentality. (I also served as an editor and contributor for Br. Mickey McGrath’s book Go to Joseph, where there are a number of illustrations that do present this same love between Jesus and Joseph.)
The detail that stood out to me as most notable was the space between the left heel of Jesus and the ground beneath it, as Jesus stretches up to receive his kiss on the head. I wish I had been able to learn/discover the name of the sculptor, because this is precisely the reason that I have such admiration (and, OK, a bit of envy) for those who work in the visual/graphic arts. So much is expressed in that small lifting of a small foot!
It seems to me that little bit of space is, in a substantive way, where the saints—named and unnamed—lived and continue to live. Their lives oriented toward that reaching up, that making of effort to draw a bit closer to the many paths by which we come to know divinity here on earth. Saintly stories are filled with innumerable accounts of the varied ways that heel-lifting love continued to lift them up.
It also seems to me that the same little bit of space is precisely where the liturgy needs to live, and move, and have its being. The gift of liturgy (and the joy of our work in it) is to provide that lift—from wherever we may be—to receive a divine kiss of grace.