Saturday, October 31, 2009

Loving the Saints

This essay was written for, and now appears in, the November 1 issue of The Living Church.

I don’t know precisely where “All Saints” ranks on the list of most-popular names for Episcopal churches, but I suspect it’s near the top. Anglicans tend to look on All Saints’ Day with a considerable degree of affection, and W.W. How’s text “For All the Saints” (set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ tune Sine Nomine) is widely popular. Most congregations avail themselves of the rubrical permission to observe this principal feast on the Sunday following, so it is adorned with whatever embellishments local custom assigns to festival occasions.

Beyond that, however, I think it’s safe to say that the saints don’t have a particularly prominent place in popular piety among a great many Episcopalians and other Anglicans. This is no doubt partly attributable simply to indifference and lax catechesis, and partly to an innate reactivity —inbred among Christians influenced by the Reformation tradition—against what some perceive as excess devotion to the saints among our Roman Catholic cousins (“praying to” particular saints depending on the nature of the petition).

In any case, we are spiritually — and, I would dare say, theologically — impoverished as a result. This was brought home to me pointedly in a recent conversation I had with a longtime friend and former colleague, an Episcopal priest who has now become Eastern Orthodox. It was fallout from the recent unpleasantness within Anglicanism that set him on this path — I have never known anyone with as much of an “Anglican soul” as this man — but he has embraced the ethos of his new church family with discipline and enthusiasm. He worships in a parish under the patronage of St. Nicholas of Myra. He told me he has pondered the question of what he would miss most from his short time in Orthodoxy if for some reason he were to return to Anglicanism. (He doesn’t anticipate doing so; this is a spiritual exercise.)

His response? “I would miss Nicholas.”

My friend went on to tell me how the icon of a parish’s patron saint is always placed in the same prominent position in the ikonostasis, the row of icons that screens the altar area in an Orthodox church. From worshiping in that space, receiving Holy Communion week by week under the gaze, as it were, of St. Nicholas, he knows himself to have developed a relationship with the saint. Nicholas is more than just an interesting historical personage to him, more than a hero of the faith whose example is worthy of emulation. He is each of those things, of course, but he is also much more: Nicholas is a member of the family. My friend went on to say unashamedly, “I love Nicholas.”

I have had similar moments of spiritual insight. When I was a seminarian in the mid-to-late ’80s, I often practiced preaching in the graveyard. Though I never got a response from anyone in the “congregation,” I did over time feel like I “got to know” many of them, one of whom was Jackson Kemper, the great missionary bishop who is featured prominently elsewhere in this issue. For more than 30 years now, I have been privileged to worship in communities — as a lay person, a seminarian, and a priest — where the celebration of the Easter Vigil includes chanting the Litany of the Saints en route to the baptismal font. We are, after all, at that moment on the verge of making a new Christian, about as radically presumptuous an act as could be imagined. We need all the help we can get! So we invoke the prayers of the entire Christian family, not only across space, but across time as well. No matter how many breathing human beings are present in the room, I never fail to sense the additional palpable presence of many more than can be seen, joining their prayers with ours as we once again witness the miracle of new birth by water and the Holy Spirit.

What I feel on the way to the font, what I felt preaching in the graveyard at Nashotah House, what my Orthodox friend feels when he’s in the company of St Nicholas, is nothing other than the truth of what we all profess whenever we proclaim our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. These are experiences of the communion (koinonia) of saints. Do we not sometimes gloss over this article of the creed? Yet, of all that we say at that point in the liturgy, these words may be the ones that have the most immediate practical impact on our lives. Both “communion” and “fellowship” can render the Greek word koinonia, but neither one is quite up to the task. Koinonia implies a relationship several degrees deeper and more intimate. It implies a relationship not just of admiration from a distance, but of love up close. How much richer and more satisfying our spiritual experience is when we broaden our horizon to experience the saints not only as heroes worthy of our study and imitation, but as family members whom we include in the circle of our love.

All holy men and women of God, pray for us.

3 comments:

Lauren said...

Amen!

andrea said...

Excellent, Dan! Thank you.

Caminante said...

I feel particularly close to Mary, having been rector of a congregation named after her. For 14.25 years, I presided at the HE at a side altar, the Mary altar, with a statue of Mary watching over what I did... and votives alongside to keep the path lit.

Now at a place called Trinity, I am importing some of those saints, putting an icon of Mary next to the one written for the parish on the occasion of its 200th anniversary, John Henry Hopkins (first bishop of Vermont who also designed the church in which we worship).

The more saints, the better.

So many congregations do not observe the feast of All Saints' -- I don't see how you can do that! We need the yearly remembrance and the occasion to enter into that thin place that seems so close on All Saints'. So there will always be a Eucharist on All Saints.

Thanks for the reflection.