The Rev’d Chris Bowhay
May 17, 2018
Whitsunday at St. John’s, Ashwood is a deeply moving experience—particularly what happens at the end of the service. Small children in robes lead the Procession to the graveyard while carrying flowers. Together, we walk to each of the six graves of the Episcopal bishops buried there and, after a blessing or a prayer, the children place those flowers on each grave. And then they run to change for the picnic. On that day, time collapses: the past, the present, and the future become one. The Bishops’ graves, like the others there, are reminders of those in the past who shaped us and taught us have to love. And yet when we pray at those graves, we cannot help but think of our own graves that await us in the future. During our enjoyment of a picnic in the present and the sight of the children at play among those moments to the past, we think of how one day in the future they will enjoy another picnic and watch their children play. Whitsunday at St. John’s, Ashwood is a perfect picture of what we describe when, in the Creeds, we say that we believe in the Communion of Saints: the saints of the past surround the saints of the present while we anticipate and help God form the saints of the future.*
What do we believe about the Communion of the saints? Our culture tends to think of saints as inspiring examples of people with heroic virtue. But “heroes” and “examples” are distant and elevated; we do not find them in ordinary life, but in libraries, museums, and statuaries. To think of saints only as holy exemplars is to reduce them to two-dimensional figures who are alien to how we live, struggle, and love today. If saints are found only in distant “examples,” then so is holiness, and so is God, the all-Holy One. When we describe the saints as a Communion—a living community bound together in love—then they must be more than examples. To believe in a Communion of Saints is to believe that holiness is personal, active, and engaged in the present.
At the same time, our culture is deeply suspicious of claims that Saints are somehow aware of and engaged with our daily life. Western Protestant Christians react instinctively against claims that people “pray to” the Saints for their helping intercession; rejecting that concept as unacceptably superstitious, our culture views the veneration of the saints with condescension at best, and mockery at worst. Perhaps Protestant religious sensibilities are still seared by the excesses and corruption of the Western Medieval Church. We insist on a direct, unmediated faith in and experience of Jesus Who alone is worthy of veneration and intercessory prayer.
But what if this is a false and unnecessary distinction? What if a relationship with Jesus naturally involves a relationship with all of His friends, whether on earth or in Paradise? It must be noted that an awareness of the Saints as both active examples and engaged intercessors is found not only in Western Roman Catholicism’s novenas, and not only in Eastern Orthodoxy’s ikons, but also in the Undivided Church prior to the 11th century and even in the very first generations of Christians. In 1st century Rome, our kin in Christ gathered to celebrate the Eucharist at the tombs of their friends who had died in the persecutions on the day of their death and, they believed, interceded for them in their times of trial. It is true that Article XXII of the Articles of Religion (BCP p. 872)—that summary of Anglican doctrine in the 16th and 17th century—declares that “The Romish Doctrine concerning […] Invocation of the Saints is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” But not all Reformers felt that way about all of the saints: Martin Luther himself said, “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart (Sermon, September 1, 1520.)”
That is worth our attention. As Episcopalians, we steadfastly support a healthy diversity of doctrinal belief: some among us believe that the Saints are examples and some believe that they are intercessors. That diversity is healthy; it teaches us through experience how to love those whose opinions differ from ours. But have we not all reached out in a kind of prayer—if only a short, mental conversation—to loved ones who are departed? Have we all not all known people who felt certain that, at moments, their beloved departed have been very near? There seems to be a kind of knowledge born from experience that the Saints in Paradise are still somehow connected to us. One could argue that these experiences are born from our own yearning for connection. But, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feel hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water […] If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity). Our instinct to reach out to the saints, whether the great ones of history or of the ordinary ones we have known, suggests that there is something and someone to reach out to which is a real as food or water, bread or wine.
Marina Keegan was a magnum cum laude Yale graduate who died in five days after her graduation. Her final essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness” became an internet sensation. She wrote:
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow after Commencement and leave this place. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four A.M. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
As biblical scholar Michael Cover told our recent Clergy Colloquium, “There is a word for the opposite of loneliness: Communion.” There seems to be a “Communion of the Saints”-sized hole in us that cries out for participation in that Communion which bridges the border of death. That is what we see, if only as a glimpse, at the Whitsunday picnic at St. John’s, Ashwood: a meal among friends of Jesus that crosses the boundaries of time and helps us not feel so lonely.