This academic year is beginning with a very good omen for us at SLU: our Mass of the Holy Spirit happens to fall on the solemnity of Louis IX, king of France in the thirteenth century and patron saint of our city and our university. This warms my heart, as a medieval historian who teaches History 1110, which some call the brightest gem in the crown of our curriculum. In that survey course, which stretches from cavemen to Columbus, I always talk about Louis—if only to explain that he was not, in fact, the inventor of toasted ravioli and provel cheese. (Likewise, his mother, Blanche de Castile, whose name means “White Castle,” had nothing to do with sliders.) But now I have something more substantial to say, because I had the opportunity this summer to visit Louis’ original city, Paris. It’s no St. Louis, of course, but it has its charms, among which is the royal chapel Louis built: the unforgettable Sainte-Chapelle. Maybe some of you have seen it. Louis had it constructed in 1248 to house the collection of relics he had acquired, most notably the Crown of Thorns itself. As I climbed the spiral stairway leading up into this amazing building, the young woman ahead of me, apparently an American, stepped out into the chapel and, despite all the signs calling for quiet, cried out, “Holy”—and then a word I can’t repeat in church. I can sympathize with her: it is truly awe-inspiring.
The walls of the Sainte-Chapelle are vast sheets of multicolored stained glass that surround you on all sides, so that you have the feeling you’re standing in a jewel box—literally, a box made of jewels. As the sun pours in, the whole chapel is filled with a blaze of beauty, a riot of light and color that dazzles the eye. This overpowering impression is formed from thousands of small glass bits, each one different in size and shape and hue, each one catching the sunlight at a slightly different position and angle. Yet the same light shines through them all, and together they form row upon row of pictures—scenes that tell the story of salvation, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Old Testament patriarchs to the life of Christ to the history of the Crown of Thorns’ arrival in Paris. I spent two hours walking back and forth, taking in this spectacular sight. And it hit me that God works in a similar way. Each of us has our own size, shape, and hue, but one sun enlightens us all, and the one bath of sunlight streaming down—call it the Holy Spirit—surrounds us, penetrates us, shines through us to create a stunning panorama telling a story. Each of us refracts the rays in our own manner, but instead of chaos or cacophony, the result is beauty and harmony. Yes, some pieces of glass may be chipped or cracked, but the power of the light overwhelms all defects, and the overall effect is never dimmed.
But you don’t have to go to Paris to experience such a radiant display. Another thing I do in History 1110 is offer the students a tour of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a mile west down Lindell Boulevard. This monumental Byzantine-style church, the world’s largest collection of mosaics, makes a similar impact. Forty-one and a half million gold, glass, and marble tiles in more than seven thousand colors cover 83,000 square feet of wall and ceiling and arch and dome, each slightly off-kilter from the others so that the light catches every one differently, with the result that the images sparkle and glitter. Those images coalesce to depict the great mysteries of the faith and how they have played out in the world, including not only creation, redemption, and the end of time, but also the life of Louis IX and the history of our local church. (There’s even a mosaic, high up on the left, of Saint Louis University!) One arch, left of the main dome, portrays God the Father, out of whose bosom comes the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Branching off from this dove are seven angels bearing seven smaller doves, the seven gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Scripture—wisdom, understanding, good counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and wonder. And below them, filling both legs of the arch, are a company of saints, great teachers on one side and great missionaries on the other—all those who, inspired by the Spirit, spread the Good News through their words and labors. It’s as if the mosaics are telling us: a dove is just a symbol, but if you really want to see the Holy Spirit, you have to look at its action in particular people’s lives and loves.
That’s why I’ve always treasured the lives of the saints in the Catholic tradition. These men and women are wildly different in background, personality, interests, talents, achievements, and yes, faults. But like the tiles in the cathedral, or the pieces of glass in the Sainte-Chapelle, they caught the light of the Spirit and allowed it to use them to form something beautiful that became part of the story of salvation. In fact, the light is rendered more brilliant by being transmitted and reflected in so many different ways, like the facets of a sparkling gem. And that’s why it’s wonderful that our Mass of the Holy Spirit falls on this feast of St. Louis. Louis himself shows us the Spirit, in one particular way, through a life dedicated to nobility, justice, courage, and piety. As I tell my students, Louis was considered the ideal king in the Middle Ages: not a ruler who lorded it over his subjects, or exploited them, or claimed to be divine, but rather a servant who took seriously his special responsibility to look out for those who had no one else to look out for them—the poor and powerless, widows and orphans, the vulnerable and oppressed. In a world without a social safety net, this God-given duty was essential.
That’s why our readings describe the life of virtue that Louis demonstrated for us. The first reading talks about releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into your house, clothing the naked, not turning your back on the afflicted. These are works of the Spirit. It’s not how we typically imagine medieval kings, but it’s what they hoped for themselves. Dedication to social justice is not a modern invention. And, in this election year, this description of a just ruler is something our own politicians ought to keep in mind. The second reading adds a few more virtues: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, living in love and promoting peace. Louis impressed his contemporaries as such a person. Don’t get me wrong: he wasn’t perfect. His dedication to crusading, even though his motives were pure, is sometimes a source of embarrassment nowadays, and his anti-Jewish measures make us cringe. Failings cannot be ignored, but no one except Christ himself perfectly reflects the light of the Spirit. Still, the Spirit can make use of us, despite—and even through—our flaws, because the light is more powerful than the darkness.
But Louis’ life is just one pane in the Church’s great window. So what does all this mean—the stained glass of the Sainte-Chapelle, the mosaics of the cathedral, the lives of the saints? To me, it means that God doesn’t work apart from his creation, but in and through it, in and through us. God’s Spirit surrounds, penetrates, shines through everyone and everything, if we let it. In a sense, there is no such thing as “secular”; the universe is luminescent with divinity in abundant variety. We Jesuits have a term for this: “finding God in all things.” At SLU, we are a large, diverse community, each with his or her own gifts and roles and contributions, passions and perspectives and personalities. But when we let the light shine through us, uniting us into a single picture, we do not compete or cancel out, but rather complement and culminate in the work of art God is making of us. Grace builds on nature; it does not negate the diversity of who and what we are, but brings it all together. For there is one Spirit prompting us, and there is one purpose we aim at (and I quote): “the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and the service of humanity.” None of us, nothing of what we do can be understood apart from that single inspiration and that single mission.