In December of 2014, Malala Yousafzai became, at the age of seventeen, the youngest person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Hers is a remarkable story—one of courage, perseverance, and survival. Malala grew up in an area of Pakistan which the Taliban targeted and took control of in 2007, making it a place of war, unrest, and uncertainty. While the Pakistani army was eventually successful in forcing the Taliban to retreat, a number of insurgents remained in Malala’s hometown.
She had begun her public activism advocating for the education of girls when the Taliban invaded, and she eventually became a target. On October 9, 2012, a masked gunman boarded Malala’s school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head, neck, and shoulder. She survived, and after a long period of recovery returned to school and her life of activism. Malala now travels the world, not only raising her voice and telling her story but empowering other girls and women to do the same. Out of such adversity—the horrors of terrorism and war—has sprung an international movement for change.
When I consider the lives of many of the saints, the men and women we celebrate on this day, I am reminded of how often they took stands like Malala. Faced with adversity, regardless of the details, they took a stand and, in the end, made a real difference in the world. Archbishop Oscar Romero, for instance, was forever changed by the death of his close friend at the hands of government soldiers and continued to be converted each day by the poverty and bloodshed experienced by the people he was called to shepherd. In the final years of his life and ministry, he spoke out about the oppression and violence facing his people, preaching in word and deed on the hope of liberation found in Jesus Christ.
Jesuit priest and author Gregory Boyle said in an interview a few years ago, “I read once that the Beatitudes’ original language was not ‘blessed are’ or ‘happy are’ but that the most precise translation is ‘You’re in the right place if.’ I like that better. It turns out the Beatitudes is not a spirituality. It’s a geography. It tells you where you stand.”
Of course, none of us would choose to be in a place where we mourn, are poor in spirit or otherwise, or where we are insulted or persecuted. And yet life presents us with those challenges, which can become opportunities for us. The good news today is that in those places where we are challenged we will also find comfort, satisfaction, mercy, and the opportunity to see God.
We are in the right place if we approach life on life’s terms and in that we will know God’s presence. We are in the right place when we are willing to weep for those we have lost, for at that moment God wraps God’s loving arms around us. We are in the right place when we accept and embrace our own poverty and recognize the poverty that so many others experience. It is there, amid scarcity and on the margins where God sits. We are in the right place if we speak words of mercy in a merciless world if we seek peace where peace seems so far from possible. We are in the right place if we stand for justice and grow increasingly hungry for righteousness. If justice brings us life, and injustice moves us to action, we will be met by a God who seeks the same.
But how do we find the strength and courage to live out this geography? How do we find the path to being in the right place? The lives of the saints offer us a roadmap or at least some ideas.
Today we remember all the saints, those whose names and lives we know well and those we have never encountered. Saint Paul in his epistles addresses all of us as saints, called not to a life of perfection, but to conversion, encounter, and awareness of God. Indeed, we are called to being in the right place, living out the Beatitudes each day of our lives. As we take our stand, let us speak out, raising our own voices and all those voices left unheard.