On Saints and Souls and the Breath of Life

I’m working on my next novel.

In developing my three major characters, I want to hear them speak to me. So I’m having them write their life stories up to the moment of the first page of my newly created plot. I’ve collected over the last year aspects of their personalities and the crises that have formed them, and these lists of attributes and events will hopefully mold a character that rings true. 

This early stage often stuns me with its necessary intricacy (and intimacy), as I also look around me to observe friends and family more closely (watch out). For each one of us is deeply complex with infinite layers of experience, feeling, thought. I often wonder at creation itself, God forming Adam from the dust of the earth, then breathing life into him. It is, of course, the breath of life that makes Adam live, transforming the clay figure with transcendence. It is the breath of God.

No wonder developing my characters’ characters is a complex undertaking, for in this way it is holy, nearly unreachable, untouchable. At times I move through a foggy darkness, reaching out to touch the next detail, character-istic. I pray. I ask for guidance. And I listen to what the characters say to me. And what better way to listen than by reading (and writing) their own biographies? It is a fascinating exercise. 

Icons – colorful saints’ images painted against a golden background – lean against the crowded books on the shelves in my home office, shimmering in the shuttered half-light. They are a pleasant company, glowing, seeming interested in my doings, full of beauty, truth, and I know from their own biographies, full of goodness, Godliness, God.

As we celebrated All Hallows Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day this last week, I have been thinking about the layers of saints’ lives, the “Acts” recorded in the many hagiographies handed down to us through the centuries. The lives of the saints are often written with carefully chosen (or recalled) details that become enshrined, but what about the other fragments of their choices, their loves and their hates, their struggles with the everyday challenges of living with one another in a fallen world, a world not very hallowed, holy.

And I wonder about the rest of those departed, those remembered on All Souls Day, thinking perhaps the two groups merge together, that many of the Souls are Saints and the line between the two isn’t clear. I’ve known men and women who I consider to be saintly, definitely inhabiting that borderland. I spoke with several this morning as I sipped tea in the parish under-croft (no names) after church. What has brought them to this moment in their lives when they are so full of God, so full of love for all those around them? So sacrificial, so humble too. And most of all, so joyful. I simply bask in their love; I breathe it in. 

That breath of God that gave life to Adam continues to breathe life into each of us. We take it for granted. We breathe the air around us, into our bodies from outside, and we are told that it enters our lungs and provides crucial oxygen to our blood that then streams through our flesh and muscle, circulating in a tempo we call our pulse. I try and remember to pause and breathe deeply, to appreciate this simple miracle. And in this same way we breathe in God through prayer, sacrament, worship, so that He may circulate through our souls, our lives. And I must pause and remember to breathe Him in deeply too, for both are life itself.

And both kinds of breathing form us, move us towards and away, direct us, influence our choices. Body and soul, air and spirit, we are complex unions of these things. Complex and beautiful, true human beings of the created order.

We live and breathe and have our being in something of our choosing. The saints we honored on All Saints Day chose God. The souls we prayed for on All Souls Day sometimes chose God or never chose Him.

We are characters in the greatest story ever told, the story of our lives. We live and we love. We choose. We act. We move from soul-hood to saint-hood with each breath, if we remember to breathe. 

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