If you walked into St. James Academy this week, you were greeted by some different faces than usual.
No, I’m not talking about the three or four people in the halls pointing to the new door you have to walk through to check in (the double-buzzer system throws everyone for a loop the first time they try it). I’m talking about the Dia de los Muertos ofrenda set up in the entryway.
This beautiful altar, set up by Señora Leon and a student committee, honors the memories of each of the students, alumni, and staff members from our St. James community who have passed away since we opened in 2005.
As someone who has been here fifteen years and has personally known almost everyone represented on that altar, I got emotional when I first saw it. I choked up, silently looking at each face, a prayer spilling spontaneously from my lips. From Mike Alex, the leader who helped start St. James and first hired me as a teacher, to our dear Izzy Ford who passed last year, to the dozen or so others, stories and memories attached to each of these souls washed over me as my eyes passed slowly from frame to frame.
It struck me just how different each of their stories was. On the same altar, there were adults and kids, rebels and rule followers, athletes and scholars, and musicians. Yet when taken as a whole, you could almost weave together the entire story of our school: the pioneer who envisioned this school; the teacher who made its mission alive; the students with all of their talents and crosses, successes and failures, hopes and fears, dreams realized and dreams lost too soon.
This week we celebrated the feasts of All-Saints and All-Souls. We remember those who have gone before us in faith, those who are our advocates and helpers in heaven (all the saints, canonized or not), and those who are still preparing for that heaven in purgatory. It felt fitting to have our own little “communion of saints” in the entryway, greeting us as we arrived and bringing us to remembrance as we left, each day a reminder of each of those stories, some of which we don’t even know, that help make up our own.
Ofrenda’s are a part of Mexican culture that I was unfamiliar with until our Spanish III students started creating them a few years back. But there is a need in each of our hearts for piety, that gratitude and humility born of reverence for the people and places to which we owe our identities, and this tradition provides a concrete expression of that very human need, one for which I am personally grateful.
As a school, we are trying to be more intentional about people seeing that various cultures and backgrounds are welcome at St. James, which has inspired some new elements of cultural celebration and artwork, such as the school-wide ofrenda and our new mural.
We make these efforts in a world that is obsessed with diversity as an ultimate end to be found or engineered in every situation possible. This has obvious practical limitations as well as philosophical problems: is difference or variety, in and of itself, always a good to be pursued? If so, why? If not, which differences are important in what contexts, and why?
The beauty for us as Catholics is that we are in this world, but not of it. We are members of the body of Christ, distinct, yet one, and it is precisely this ability to understand that which is different about each of us in the context of the whole to which we belong that separates our understanding of the richness of human experience and tradition from the well-intentioned yet often vapid approach to diversity in the secular world.
Difference for its own sake can devolve into discord, while difference within the context of a united whole can be music. It is precisely the relation of the parts to the whole that makes an orchestra not just noise, but a symphony capable of moving one’s heart; it’s precisely this relation that makes the varied looks and sounds and stories of the saints of our universal Church so moving as well. Though the saints are as different as the Ethiopian murderer-turned-monk Moses the Black and the Peruvian, chaste contemplative Rose of Lima (who were chosen by our students as the patron and patroness of male and female athletics at St. James), there is a common melody one hears in their lives: the same Word sung softly in harmony across time and space.
It is this same relation that moved my heart when looking at the faces on the ofrenda. Such different people, stories with such varied beginnings, middles, and ends, yet a common Father that loved them; stories that walked such different paths, yet intersected at this same place where we tried to help them know the love of that common Father.
This November, I ask you to pray for all those souls which we have lost from our community, as well as their families and friends. I invite you to take time this month to tell your children the stories of your loved ones whose stories are part of theirs and take time to pray together for their souls. And know that we are praying for each of you!
Your brother in Christ,