Saints in our midst?
Stephen Adam, 30 October 2016
Daniel 7: 1–3, 15–18; Luke 6: 20–31
Earlier this month a small group of us from St Paul’s spent a long weekend deep in the Dorset countryside at Hilfield, the Franciscan community, on a guided retreat. I can recommend it – a time for spiritual refocusing in what is an earthy, grounded place, but also good company and marvellous walking country. And as I walked, I was freshly struck by the autumn scene: the golden harvest of leaves falling, and the shape and structure of the trees being revealed with a fresh starkness and definition.
Those two images of a golden harvest, and of glimpsing the everyday with a fresh clarity, seem to me worth holding on to today and through November, as we enter what’s called the kingdom season. Those endless Sundays after Trinity are nearing their end, and this short season building up to the culmination of the church year is heavy with remembrance.
On Tuesday is the great feast of All Saints, celebrating the saints through the ages who have shaped our faith, and this is the focus for our service this morning. And then on Wednesday comes All Souls’ Day, as we remember with thanksgiving and affection our family and friends and all who have influenced and inspired us but who no longer worship with us in this earthly life; and we will have our All Souls’ service at 3.30 pm this afternoon. Do come and share this powerful and moving time. Then later in the month we come to Remembrance Sunday, with all its poignancy. And finally the kingdom season builds to its climax with the great festival of Christ the King at the end of November, as we celebrate Christ’s rule and his lordship, and are encouraged to seek his peace.
And so today we are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, the golden harvest of all the saints through the ages. But just who are the saints and how do we recognise a saint? Sometimes our understanding of the word ‘saint’ can be confused.
In the popular imagination a saint is often regarded as someone who is perfect; and there have been many biographies written about saints that stoke up such a view, presenting them uncritically and unrealistically – the saints stuck on stone pedestals or portrayed in innumerable stained glass windows with their halos like holy hats.
But holiness is not about idealised perfection. The saints were human; they made mistakes, they messed up, just like us. Paul, for instance, could be unforgiving and Peter, that rock of the church, is often portrayed in the gospels as cowardly and indecisive. Even the ‘best’ of the saints had obvious faults. So what makes a saint?
If we look at the growth of the early church, often amid persecution, it grew not because of the cleverness of its doctrines or its creeds, but simply because of the distinctive way in which these early Christians lived – and often died as martyrs.
They were disciples whose particular focus and attentiveness on Christ was so sharp, so clear, so transparent, and the inner structure of whose lives was so attractive, that it drew others to God by the way they lived. They were people who were fully alive with something radiant about them.
They were disciples whose particular focus and attentiveness on Christ was so sharp, so clear, so transparent, and the inner structure of whose lives was so attractive, that it drew others to God.
As Michael Mayne puts it:
Saints are those who, looking at Jesus Christ, see in him both the human face of God and the truth about their own destiny, and never again seriously doubt it. They don’t cease to be human: as fallible, vulnerable, sometimes as aggravating as we all are.
But they are those for whom there has been a real disclosure which enables them to see God and themselves and everyone else with new eyes, and they are then committed to the way of love. Or rather, they desire to be, for it’s a long and difficult journey, and all that God asks of us is our desire, not our achievement.
Sometimes as Anglicans we may be a bit twitchy or uneasy about this sense of honouring or venerating the saints, those formally recognised by the church with their special days set aside. Perhaps we have a sense that in showing devotion to the saints we are in some way impugning the unique glory of Christ.
It’s helpful to remember here something that Michael Ramsey once pointed out: that the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition presents the communion of saints not with the saints as individual mediators – perhaps standing between us and God – but rather as members with us and all those who have died in the one family of God, and that it is Christ’s own glory that is reflected in them. Think of the saints as our friends, with whom we pray, and when we honour the saints we are honouring Christ.
What about the saints in our own midst? Often at the start of Paul’s letters he addresses the intended audience as ‘to all the saints’, meaning to all those people baptised in Christ – the holy, ordinary people of God.
We can think of people around us who will never be formally recognised by the church, people who make no great claims for themselves, people who are not celebrities with their 15 minutes of fame in the public eye, but simply faithful people doing their duty as they see it, gladly, willingly and whatever the cost. People perhaps seeking to live profoundly counter-cultural lives like that Franciscan community deep in Dorset, or Sister Katie and her fellow sisters in the Community of St Andrew in France. And what a profoundly counter-cultural manifesto for our time are the beatitudes, which we heard as our gospel reading this morning!
Often we may not even know or recognise the saints in our midst. A couple of examples:
A year or so ago the papers reported the story of an elderly lady who had died ignored and in poverty in Torquay, with no known family or friends. The local authorities were making arrangements for a pauper’s funeral when among her papers they discovered that she had been a brave and highly decorated Special Operations Executive agent parachuted into occupied France in the Second World War – an aspect of her life that she had never trumpeted or boasted about. With this knowledge, they were able to make Ellen Nearne’s funeral reflect something of her bravery and selflessness.
And then, a more explicitly Christian example. Some of you may remember the Revd Richard Carter, a priest at St Martin in the Fields, who gave some keynote addresses to a study day we held here at St Paul’s some years ago. Richard tells the story of a lady he knew only as Sonia who came to St Martin’s faithfully and quietly every Sunday; he called her ‘dearie’ and just had tea with her.
One day Sonia met a horrid, violent end – she was pushed under an underground train and died. It was only when an obituary appeared that Richard learned more about her. ‘If only I had known her story’, Richard lamented. ‘How often do we judge people by their outward appearances, their outward show, knowing nothing at all of what they have really done?’
For it transpired that Sonia had another persona. She had transgendered, and whilst socially embracing the identity of Sonia, professionally he had remained known as David Burgess. In that professional capacity he was a solicitor at the forefront of human rights, acting in many immigration cases on behalf of asylum seekers over more than 20 years, with many of these cases leading to changes in the law as a result of the judicial decisions he obtained for his clients. And he had been active, too, in working with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.
Who are the saints in our midst today? There are more saints around us than we realise – ordinary people, otherwise unacknowledged. They are the heartbeat of a healthy society. And along with that great cloud of witnesses, the saints through the ages, they are among the people for whom we give thanks today on this feast of All Saints, in this loving celebration of the known and unknown saints of every generation.
Today’s great festival is also a nagging reminder to us that each one of us is called to be a saint, that this is the vocation of every Christian. By that I mean the challenge of being focused and attentive, looking away from ourselves to gaze upon Christ and to bear witness – however imperfectly or haltingly with our frail humanity – to his love to the bruised and troubled world around us.
Last week I walked in the steps of some of the great saints of our northern Celtic church. I was on Lindisfarne, the island off the Northumberland coast only reached by a causeway flooded at high tide. Among the famous saints associated with the island are Aidan, the Irish monk and missionary from Iona who founded the monastery there in the seventh century; and Cuthbert, abbot, missionary and bishop.
I’d like to share with you a prayer of St Aidan which, in a beautiful word picture of this island cut off by the tides, captures both the sense of our lives being an earthly pilgrimage and also the twofold saintly focus of contemplating God and being an agent of that transforming love to those around us.
Leave me alone with God
as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters
close in upon the shore
make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.
Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence
to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again
and fold me back to you.