They Were Here

We need the writing on the wall.
Suzanne Farrell, ‘Ballerinas Backstage Never Stand Still,’ 2011 (AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

I remember, or think I remember, what it was like to take a plastic, black permanent marker in my hand and, after a glance over my shoulder to assure myself that I wasn’t being watched, touch it to the plastered wall of the cast dressing room and quickly write my name: one more name among many, a small witness to my short presence in that theater and the work I had done there. That wall, that dressing room, that entire theatrical space is gone, demolished this past summer shortly after graduation exercises at the high school that housed it. This is much to the good: the building looked like a military-supply shack built in hostile territory, all bare sheet metal on the outside walls. Now there is a new performing-arts center elsewhere on the school grounds, and though I have not seen it, I am sure that it boasts better acoustics, more welcoming performance spaces, more versatile lighting, and all the accoutrements that a wealthy and arts-conscious private-school budget could buy.

The first students to enjoy the new building began with blank walls and were doubtless enjoined not to write on them. Perhaps they even listened for a year or two: it’s hard to work up the courage to make the first mark. And even after someone or a group of someones made the first inscription—as they certainly have—people and productions will have to keep adding names until the space no longer feels so starkly empty, and then someday, somebody will walk in and see the names on the walls and will both know and feel how many people were in that place before them.

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Inscriptions are a special kind of monument because of the inseparability of text from material context: they’re written on something, by someone, for some purpose. Graffiti, in turn, is a special kind of inscription: made for personal rather than official reasons, on some kind of public wall but without the official sanction of the public-facing body that owns or oversees the building. The act of writing graffiti can be a small rebellion against the impersonal design of, say, school institutions—a sign that people passing through did matter, that their presence made a difference. Even when that difference is nothing more than people’s names on walls, the sheer accumulation of names thickens a place and sets it aside, renders it sacred in the oldest sense. Their having been here and having left the sign of their presence makes the difference. They were here, just as you are here.

 

The communion of saints is an old doctrine, and often misunderstood. Both those who practice veneration of saints and those who do not tend to emphasize the saints whose names and stories are widely known: St. George and his dragon, St. Catherine and her wheel, and the many scholars and mystics whom we know through their writings. To be sure, it is much for the better that we know their lives and their voices and have their examples before us: the Catholic Church has long commended “friendship with the saints” as a way to holiness. But, fallen as we are, our knowledge of them can easily become plagued by misapprehension and perverted by idolatry. Thus St. George becomes a hero of English nationalism, St. Maria Goretti takes up as a youth-conference chastity speaker, and St. Thomas Aquinas boorishly patrols the boundaries of orthodoxy. And this is the trouble: lives that can be “read” can be misread, and if we are persuaded by the testimony of history, they will be.

Through the presence of the saints we can have tangible experience of God’s shaping and permeation of a whole lifetime.

We are fortunate, however, to have at our disposal the resources of a theological tradition to which the problem of such misreading is neither new nor difficult, and the corrective it offers has always been apophasis, the refusal of speaking in order to avoid falsehood and nonsense. But where do we find the apophatic view of the communion of saints? Precisely at the point where our knowledge ends. The Church has always taught that its list of canonized saints is not exhaustive: the number of the blessed is unknown and unknowable. Not having the names of this host or biographies that we might misuse, we cannot make them other than what they are: Christians in whom God’s work is fully realized, who have passed through death into the abundance of life. All we know is that they once were here like us, and that God has done for them what he might do for us. In approaching the saints through our ignorance, we can better see the futility of our attempts to repurpose them. They do not lend sanctity to our works and causes because sanctity is not theirs to lend; it is theirs precisely because they have no cause but God’s own.

A lack of names, a lack of biography, orients us more clearly toward what makes a person a saint: not the particular acts of a life but the work of God in those acts. In this light, what the known saints can and do give us is presence, or rather the signs thereof. We know of God’s presence in our lives, but through the presence of the saints we can have tangible experience of God’s shaping and permeation of a whole lifetime. Though the Catholic fascination with relics has at times metastasized into a grotesque trade in human remains, we continue to venerate these signs of holy life. Relics of the first and second class—that is, the body and the habitual possessions of a holy person—are the stuff of life, the physical remains or means of life by which God did something strange and mighty in the world. They are signs of presence, sensory proof of a person who lived as we did, who ate and drank as we did, who sinned and repented as we might do. Our communion with them is for us the sight of a possibility: their past becomes a sign of our future.

 

We need such signs. The kids who flocked to that high school theater dressing room with its thick embellishment of nominals came there because, more often than not, they were the sorts of kids who had trouble seeing themselves in the people held up by the school and by the broader culture as exemplars of success. They were often LGBT kids and neurodivergent kids, kids dealing with difficult mental-health issues or trouble at home or who just needed a place where it was alright to be a little bit strange. Kids in that position cannot rely on the prevailing social imagination to present them with a future, which they are old enough to need but not yet old enough to be able to see for themselves. But in that dressing room that contained our own private roll of honor, they—we—were given proof of our futures. The thing that so many young social oddballs, queer and otherwise, had to find and construct—when, as Eve Tushnet writes, they were “seeking precedents…to figure out what kind of possibilities [their] futures might hold”—was simply there in front of our eyes. Who these people were I did not know, but in my ignorance every name was a possible future, a way forward that led to a place about which I could know nothing except that it was real, and its reality was attested by the reality of the person who, I knew, had taken out a pen or a marker and written their name in the place where I was standing.

It is, I think, the unknown reality of our ultimate destination that makes proper sense of the variegated lives of the saints. None of us can say what our final future means: the guarantees we have been given of bodily resurrection and sharing in the fullness of divine life are in many ways greater mysteries than mute silence would have been. But the firm reality of this future, a reality that, because it partakes more directly of divine life, lies beyond the horizon of our present imaginations, works backward and lends gravity and meaning to our peregrinations. That future is one toward which the relics, records, and miracles of the saints point: such things are evidence for us that God was at work in their lives, bearing them along, pace Fitzgerald, ceaselessly toward the fullness of their future in him.

This is part of what Herbert McCabe means when he writes that “Christians, in a sense, look at the present from the perspective of the future.” A future whose reality is known to us by faith and whose direction is partly mapped by the saints who came before us is a vantage point through which we see how much our lives really do matter. The tokens of presence left behind, like a graffiti tableau of names, make their lives mean something for us: their lives have made a difference simply because they were here, and our own lives, too, make a difference simply by our being here. In seeing that God works in our lives even now, we come to know that being borne by grace to our unknown destination already means something, though we will not yet know what until we get there. Our future need not be visible, need not bear the world’s stamp of approval, for it to be real.

Published in the November 2021 issue: 

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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