Sermon: All Saints’ Sunday

“I now observed — with what horror it is needless to say — that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. Like a razor also, it seemed massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air.” The unnamed narrator used those words to describe the pendulum in Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Pit and the Pendulum. On the whole, a very good Halloween story, but I’ll not scare you with the entire tale today. There is, however, a pendulum story that I will.

A college student was given the assignment of preparing a lesson for his speech class. He says, We were to be graded on our creativity and ability to drive home a point in a memorable way. The title of my talk was, “The Law of the Pendulum.” I spent 20 minutes carefully teaching the physical principle that governs a swinging pendulum. The law of the pendulum is: A pendulum can never return to a point higher than the point from which it was released. Because of friction and gravity, when the pendulum returns, it will fall short of its original release point. Each time it swings it makes less and less of an arc, until finally it is at rest. This point of rest is called the state of equilibrium, where all forces acting on the pendulum are equal.

The student goes on to report, I attached a 3-foot string to a child’s toy top and secured it to the top of the blackboard with a thumbtack. I pulled the top to one side and made a mark on the blackboard where I let it go. Each time it swung back I made a new mark. It took less than a minute for the top to complete its swinging and come to rest. When I finished the demonstration, the markings on the blackboard proved my thesis. I then asked how many people in the room believed the law of the pendulum was true. All of my classmates raised their hands, so did the teacher. The teacher started to walk to the front of the room thinking the class was over. In reality it had just begun. Hanging from the steel ceiling beams in the middle of the room was a large, crude but functional pendulum (250 pounds of metal weights tied to four strands of 500-pound test parachute cord.).

I invited the instructor to climb up on a table and sit in a chair with the back of his head against a cement wall. Then I brought the 250 pounds of metal up to his nose. Holding the huge pendulum just a fraction of an inch from his face, I once again explained the law of the pendulum he had applauded only moments before, “If the law of the pendulum is true, then when I release this mass of metal, it will swing across the room and return short of the release point. Your nose will be in no danger.” After that final restatement of this law, I looked him in the eye and asked, “Sir, do you believe this law is true?” There was a long pause. Huge beads of sweat formed on his upper lip and then weakly he nodded and whispered, “Yes.” I released the pendulum. It made a swishing sound as it arced across the room. At the far end of its swing, it paused momentarily and started back. I never saw a man move so fast in my life. He literally dove from the table. Deftly stepping around the still-swinging pendulum, I asked the class, “Does he believe in the law of the pendulum?” (Adapted from Ken Davis’, How To Speak To Youth, pp 104-106.)

The story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den is a good one. Daniel’s only crime is that he has refused to worship the king as a god and instead remained faithful to the one true God. Those around him are jealous, so they devise the plan to trap him in order to have him removed. The plan is simple: have the king pass an edict that for one month it is illegal – punishable by death – to pray to any other god other than himself. Daniel does not make a big show of it – scripture tells us that he went to his room, shut the door, and there prayed to the one true God, but those who want him removed crash in on him praying and report it to the king, who then has no choice but to throw Daniel to the lions.

Now, when you look at the artwork depicting these events you will find a Daniel standing stoically in defiance of the lions or a Daniel on his knees praying with the lions circling him. You get the impression that if Daniel had been the one sitting in the classroom with the pendulum swinging toward him, he wouldn’t have even broken a sweat or even flinched, much less gone diving out of the way needing a clean pair of shorts. It is true, the scriptures do not report on Daniel’s state of mind during these events, but it stands to reason that at the first glimpse of the lions he was probably terrified. Who wouldn’t be? Like the teacher with the pendulum making its return arc, there has got to be a point when Daniel not only thinks, but knows it’s all over. I don’t think he went screaming and tried to climb the walls, but he was human.

Consider Jesus. We are told that on the night before he was crucified he was praying in the garden in Gethsemane, “‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” “…and being in anguish” – the dictionary defines anguish as “excruciating or acute distress, suffering, or pain.” Jesus experienced this anguish, so without diminishing Daniel’s character, we can confidently say that he too experienced anguish as he watched the pendulum on its return arc – as he watched the lions circling about him. So what kept him from losing his sanity with fear? Why didn’t he go screaming, trying to climb the walls? The answer is simple, but it’s the application of it where we can find difficulty. The answer: Daniel knew that he wasn’t alone. Knowing that and believing that – just as the professor knew the law of the pendulum, but failed to believe it – are two very different things. If you only know that God is with you, you will bolt at the first sight of the lions. If you believe, you will be able to stand firm.

Today is the Sunday of All Saints, it is the day that the Church celebrates the known Saints. I could share with you all sorts of stories about them. The ones like Agnes and Francis or the ones that died silently in the great persecutions. I could tell you about the great missionaries, healers, preachers, and so on, but if we were to take them all and look for one similar characteristic, it wouldn’t be that they never doubted or had difficulties, that they were the holiest of holies never once committing an error or sin, or that they never experienced anguish or fear, because all of them did. For example, we know that Thomas Merton one of the greatest spiritual masters of the 20th century, could be vain, impatient, and short-tempered. As a youth, St. Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, may be the only saint with a notarized police record, the charge: nighttime brawling with intent to inflict serious harm. St. Paul wrote, “Unhappy man that I am, who will deliver me from this body death?” And, citing this passage, St. Josemaria Escriva wrote, “Courage! Paul too had to fight.”

In one way or another, all the saints had to fight against their sinful nature. They weren’t without faults, but there was that one piece of knowledge that they all possessed, it was the same that Daniel possessed in the lion’s den: they knew that they were never alone. One of the great nuns and mystics, St. Faustina, wrote, “I know God is in my heart. With Him I go to work, with Him I go to recreation, with Him I suffer, with Him I rejoice; I live in Him and He in me. I am never alone, because He is my constant companion. He is present to me at every moment. Our intimacy is very close, through a union of blood and flesh.”

St. Peter writes, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Yet, with the knowledge of the saints, the knowledge that God is with you, then you can stand and face lions with courage and conviction, and you can have that same courage when the pendulum begins it’s return arc, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.” Blessed are you, for our God is with you, just as he has been with all the saints throughout the ages.

This prayer is called The Anima Christi, The Soul of Christ. I invite you to pray the words as your own. Let us pray:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, inebriate me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O good Jesus hear me;
Within your wounds hide me;
separated from you, let me never be;
From the evil one protect me;
At the hour of my death, call me;
And close to you bid me; That with your saints,
I may be praising you forever and ever. Amen.

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