The Communion of Saints
An invitation to conversation by Janine Goodwin
By some coincidence of scheduling, I was the person who wrote about All Saints last year. That piece can be found here. This year, I want to do something different. The questions are an invitation to respond in the comments and have a conversation in and about the communion of saints.
I believe in the communion of saints.
What do you believe about the communion of saints?
I haven’t got a systematic theology of the communion of saints, but I may have caught a glimpse or two: here are a few stories and a few beliefs.
These are my stories:
My favorite childhood hymn in the Presbyterian church, and the one from which I learned to count 4/4 time at the age of five or six, was “The Church’s One Foundation.” My favorite verse was the last:
Yet she on earth hath union with God, the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.
I knew even then that I wanted that “mystic sweet communion,” that connection with all my ancestors in the faith.
When I memorized the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as an earnest Lutheran eighth-grader, the phrase made me nervous, yet I found it attractive. It sounded very Catholic, and my family was quite anti-Catholic, yet I loved the idea
During my freshman year in college, I had a long argument with a friend from a fundamentalist church because she said a Catholic friend of ours wasn’t a “real Christian” and I believed she was. I later heard some, though by no means many, Catholics say that non-Catholics weren’t “real Christians.” By then, I had come to believe that figuring out who was “real” and who wasn’t was God’s problem, not ours, and anyone who indulged in it was missing the point and wasting time that could be better used out finding out how to do God’s work in the world together.
As a new Episcopalian in my twenties, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s words about finding one’s own saints; hers included St. Albert Einstein.
During my four years as a Catholic, I learned that among the many views of the communion of saints, the one I lived and believed went something like this: God is love, love is eternal, and death and time are unimportant in relation to love, so we can pray for the saints of the past and accept their prayers for us.
I met a doctor once who embodied this idea beautifully: we went to the same church and I was her patient. I asked her to pray for me. She smiled and said joyously, “Oh, I’ve already been praying for you for decades! When I started to practice, I started praying every day for all my patients, past, present, and future!”
This is what I believe:
I believe that the communion of saints is the community of all faithful people, past, present, and future.
I believe that it is not up to us to decide who is not part of that community of faith.
We may honor certain people who have let God shine through them with special clarity (and who have done so in a place and time where the institutional churches are able to accept and praise them), but those are not the only saints. Some are little-known, some unknown. Holy people exist in every faith and outside any faith; one of the holiest people I’ve ever known described himself as an atheist.
I believe that God works beyond our differences and limits and knows how to include where we, working out of our fear and pain, can only exclude.
I believe that community is not about staying silent because we fear offending others, but about speaking clearly, honestly, and as kindly as we can and having the courage to listen without needing to change each others’ minds.
I believe that even when reconciliation may look impossible, when it may not be accomplished in a lifetime in a family or a congregation or when differences between churches last for centuries, even then reconciliation will eventually happen, despite every block we put in its way.
I believe that St. Thomas More, the people he sent to death, and the people who killed him will all, as he hoped they would, be merry together in heaven.
I believe that if we prayed daily for everyone we are called to care for, past, present, and future, we would be a more vital and joyous part of the communion of saints.
What do you believe? What are your stories?