Anna Klein* taught third grade at Winchester public school near Wellesley and Parliament. She had taught there for several years and enjoyed seeing the children in her class flourish.
Her students came from Asia, the Caribbean, as well as North America. Some lived in fashionable Cabbagetown to the east and others in crowed extended-family apartments in St. Jamestown a block north.
In early October, near Thanksgiving, Anna asked her students to draw a picture of something for which they were thankful. She was curious about what they would identify.
After they finished she asked the children to imagine the story behind the drawing before she asked each student-artist to talk a bit about the picture that they had drawn and what made them thankful.
She wanted to engage the imagination of the children and their understanding of each other. She also wanted to honour the legitimacy of each child’s experience.
There were pictures of parents, a favorite doll, a cat and some trees and a lake from summer camp.
The children were respectful in how they interpreted the pictures and were intrigued by the true meaning that the student-artists gave. Some kids just said a word or two in explanation and Anna had to ask them to expand but most others told longer stories.
She was particularly intrigued by the picture drawn by one of the boys, named Doug. He was smaller than others in his class. He wore hand-me-down clothes that were patched and didn’t fit properly. He routinely hung back from others at recess.
Doug was the youngest of three boys in a single-parent family, living in a one bedroom apartment. His father had left when he was about four. His mother worked at a coffee shop and had to leave early each day. She would wake the boys, make sure they were up and put out cereal and a lunch with sandwich, cookies and a drink before she left but they had to make their own way to and from school.
In the afternoon when Doug went home his older brother took care of him until his mother returned from work. By then she was often tired, busy making dinner then cleaning up.
From the information on Doug’s reports and stories that she had heard from other teachers Anna had learned that Doug’s mother was often so stressed by trying to keep things together that she didn’t have the time or ability for much emotional energy for her children.
Doug’s drawing was simply a single, slightly cupped hand. The class was captivated by his image which was less obvious than most of the other pictures. One child said it looked “like a farmer’s hand, because they grow food.” Another, from a religious family said, “I think it must be the hand of God giving us good things.” “It looks more like the crossing guard’s hand” said one who had to crossed Wellesley Street every day in the traffic like Doug, and relied on the crossing guard to stop traffic.
When Anna asked Doug to explain the hand, he mumbled, “It’s yours, Mrs. Klein.” She hadn’t expected the response and was stumped about what to say and it was clear that Doug didn’t want to say more, so she continued with the class.
Later, Anna thought about Doug’s reply. She sometimes held children’s hands at recess or at lunch hour in the school yard. It seemed natural. Most of the time it was little girls who held her hand, but sometimes it was boys.
Anna remembered that when Doug was in grade one, she had seen him watching her holding hands with other children. Then one day, when she was standing alone, he came up behind her and slipped his hand into hers.
He hadn’t said anything at the time, or subsequently, when he would wait until she was by herself and come up to her and take her hand.
It hadn’t happened often, but once a month or so, he put out his hand out silently and she took it. He had done it most recently about a week ago.
Anna Klein’s heart swelled … then broke to know that her simple gesture of affection meant so much to Doug.
The gospel for All Hallows Eve is dramatic. Jesus asked his Father to raise Lazarus from the dead. And he did. It was a stunning reversal of death.
But the point of the feast of All Saints is not about dramatic acts, but about the all the saints who don’t get their own particular day. It’s about all the people who go about their lives in a simple and understated way, like Anna Klein, who simply offered her hand, affection and emotional support to a lonely fatherless child. And it’s about other saints who peel potatoes, cook and cut turkeys, bake cookies or deliver food for Christmas lunches.
Our call to be saints is not as dramatic as Jesus’ call to Peter as he and Andrew were casting nets by the side of the lake or Paul being knocked off his horse or Francis having a vision while on his way to a crusade.
For most of us, the call is to be alert to the gentle needs of the moment and to respond.
In his apostolic letter of 2018, “Rejoice and Be Glad” Pope Francis wrote about the call to holiness…to be a saint. He focused on daily life… the interruptions and the moment-to-moment decisions that make up the bulk of our days, …rather than heroic or miraculous works.
He reminded us that each person has a unique call to holiness …a vocation to be a saint…and to build up the kingdom of God based on the gifts we have…even if it is only a hand to hold.
He said “we should not grow discouraged by examples of holiness that appear unattainable. Some testimonies we are not meant to copy. Each believer needs to discern his or her own path to bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.”
Significantly, he said, “no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of inter-personal relationships present in a human community.”
We are saved together.
By reflecting on what he was thankful for and articulating that, Doug was responding to grace too.
Saints ARE grateful. And perhaps, Doug will go on to be a gentle and responsive to others in his life,
Anna and Doug’s story is sweet and gentle, but there are other, unlikely, saints who demonstrate significant reversals in their own way in response to the grace of God.
One Sunday in March 2012 two guys came into the St. Stephen’s breakfast program . They were loud, profane and thuggish looking. Each one was about 6’5” or 6’6”. They tried to take more food than was permitted. Then, when they got their food and sat down at a table on the south side of the room, other guests moved away in fear.
I’d never seen them before in the 10 years that I’d been there.
I was mopping away the slush that people were tracking in that morning, so I made my way towards them, introduced myself and asked their names.
Al was the bigger and louder of the two. He was missing a tooth, and had a red mark on his cheek that looked like the result of a punch. He wanted to know how late the program was open and whether they could have more food.
As I was talking with them suddenly the room, with about 50 people in it, went silent. This was unprecedented. I could see that the two guys were not paying attention to me but looking over my shoulder to something that was happening behind me.
I turned around to see a young woman with a baby in a ‘snuggler’ walking up to the serving table. She was so stunningly beautiful that people were staring at her in silence. She got a tea and some toast then went to the far corner to sit. I’d never seen her…. or anyone with a baby… before.
After a few moments the noise level resumed and I moved on to mop the floor near the side door where the young woman was sitting with her baby. I stopped to introduce myself and ask if I could get her anything else. She said ‘no thanks’. She told me that Fr. Christian, the interim priest in charge, had told her about the meal.
As the breakfast was ending near 8 AM I was stacking chairs and Al, the bigger and louder of the two guys, came to me and said “See that woman in the corner. What’s her story?”
I wondered to myself, ‘what’s your interest?’ instead I told him honestly, “I don’t know her. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her.”
Then he said, “I got my welfare cheque last week and I still have some money left. Would you offer it to her if she needs something for the baby? I don’t want to creep her out by going and talking to her.”
Just then Fr. Christian came in and I directed Al to him.
Most people would think of Al as a thug. But his act of kindness in offering the money and wanting to do it without frightening the young woman was a saintly thing to do. It was a response to grace in the moment.
As Pope Francis says, “God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that God himself chooses…even when someone’s life appears devastated by vices or addictions,
God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.”
Our invitation to sainthood may come from a lonely child a vulnerable young woman or someone completely unexpected.
The Feast of All Saints is a call for us to act as Jesus would in the daily circumstance of our lives and to see the love of God at work in each person, to know that each of us is called to build up the kingdom of love and peace and to enjoy eternal life, …no matter their appearance or their personal history…and to be a saint.
That includes Al and Anna, Doug and each of you
Happy Feast Day.
* Names were changed and the year of Anna and Doug's story has been omitted