All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2009
A reflection by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the holy spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
I believe in the communion of saints, and I have recently begun to see how little I understand what that means. It goes almost without saying, but not quite, that all people of faith are saints, and that churches celebrate exceptional lives of faith by calling the people who lived them a capital-S Saint. But the communion of saints is what fascinates, puzzles, and sometimes frustrates me. What does it mean to be a part of that communion? What is it like? Behind that lies the question: What does it mean to be a Christian?
Some non-Christians, having had painful experiences with Christians who were busier telling them what they ought to do than showing them Christ’s love, can list negative characteristics of Christians with a clarity and justice that should get more attention, and more repentance, from Christians. Those of us who think we are not like THOSE Christians need, as soon as we think that, to examine our own biases. Some people find it easy to say Christians have certain defining characteristics, though many of them are eager to define those characteristics in ways that exclude other people who also call themselves Christians. Some people, both Christians and non-Christians, assume that Christians always agree with each other: the reality is more like the quiet observation of a former Catholic priest I once met. He said that people asked him what the Catholic position on an issue was, and he could only say that there were a lot of Catholic positions on any issue, some held by the hierarchy and some not. Later on, learning from members of the Order of Preachers, I heard a friar joke, “Two Dominicans, three opinions.”
The communion of saints is certainly not a fellowship of the like-minded, and to prove that, just look at Peter and Paul, whose battle over whether or not to perform surgery on new male Christians prompted the first council of the nascent Christian church. They argued passionately and openly; now they share a feast day, which seems to me to prove a Divine and institutional sense of humor. There is a deep rightness to the linking of Peter and Paul, because in the end, their differences did not divide them. That, for me, is the first clue to what the communion of saints is like. It is also a great relief, because I am not going to agree with Tertullian’s writings about women, nor say there is anything good about them. I have condemned his words as harshly as he condemned women; I cannot imagine what being reconciled to him would mean; yet someday I will be, as Peter and Paul are reconciled.
The exact nature of that reconciliation is what I cannot yet imagine. I take comfort in my growing faith and trust in a God who can love people on both sides of any conflict without downplaying their differences, pretending they don’t matter after all, or requesting that everyone just make nice. Those are human ways of coping, and they don’t work any better than the opposite extreme, which is persecution. People who believe in the communion of saints, but wish to exclude each other, have a shameful history. Having been both an Episcopalian and a Catholic, I have heard stories of Reformation-era martyrs from both sides. Frequently the martyr in one church’s story was the persecutor in another. Thomas More turned Protestants over to be executed for heresy, and was himself executed for treason by Henry VIII for refusing to accept Henry’s sovereignty over the Church of England. More’s response to his execution fascinates me: "albeit your lordships have been my judges to condemnation, yet we may hereafter meet joyfully together in Heaven to our everlasting salvation." This is the sort of generous response that must be treated with care. It could never be asked of someone: it is a gracious gift. It does not diminish the enormity of the judgment, yet it reaches beyond it, and reaches grace.
Several hundred years after More’s death, I was invited to a Vacation Bible School celebration at a Baptist church in which a beloved Catholic child was taking part. Liam’s parents told me the Baptists were very welcoming but couldn’t quite believe that Catholics would come to their VBS. Indeed, when the leader read a list of participating churches, we heard Liam’s parish announced as “St. Thomas More Episcopal Church.” We laughed about it afterward, and told each other that More, the satirist, was laughing too—but if he was, the joke was on us, because he has been listed in the calendar of saints of the Church of England since 1980. That is a moment of institutional grace.
I do not believe our differences and conflicts can be erased or denied. I cannot believe that they are not important. Yet there is something beyond them, something none of us, except perhaps a few of the more mature and perceptive saints, can see without distortion or express without confusion.
Thanks be to the God who can see us, know us, embrace our individuality, and love us all, despite all divisions, and will yet bring us together joyfully in Heaven to our everlasting salvation. Amen.