The communion of saints

With the Feast of All Saints just on the horizon, Alana Levandoski reflects on saints, deep connections, and the choosing of music for worship…

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his morning, quite without thinking, I prayed the words from my Celebrating Common Prayer book, “that in the undying love of Christ, we may have union with all who have died in the faith of Christ”.  Upon reflection, I realized that this statement packs a heavy punch.

Many times during the eucharist, I have experienced a keen sense that I am joining in communion with all of the saints. Not just my church family or the church presently at large in the world (which is profound in and of itself), but also the ones who suffered and celebrated before us in other cultures, other places, other times. I have also received the sacraments with the future at heart, too.

With that as a starting point, let us think about who we feast with! We have saint superstars, like the disciples, Mother Mary and Augustine, Merton, Lady Julian, Martin Luther King, William Willberforce and so on. And let’s go further back. Isaiah. Elijah. Moses. And nameless one after nameless one, who braved prophecy in the face of a scoffing society, who wrote or orally claimed much of what their contemporaries considered to be blasphemy, but somehow still managed to shape Christendom and the presuppositions we explore today. On an equally profound level, I get to feast with my grandmother, a woman I miss so deeply some days, it stops my breath.

What do we really comprehend about the communion of the saints? What does All Hallows Eve mean? Why do we feast?  Again, who are we feasting with?

I believe we are radically unaware of the power that exists in the sacraments.

What does it mean when we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection and life everlasting?

Let us look to the transfiguration of Jesus.

Recently I had the inspiring and humbling pleasure of interviewing Belden Lane, author of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. During our conversation, he pointed out the geographical symbolism of what takes place on Tabor during the fascinating transfiguration of Jesus. “Sinai and Tabor are geographically so different,” Lane says, “Sinai is a moonscape, no vegetation to speak of… maybe a few cedar trees, but not even weeds brave this landscape. And yet with Tabor, being such a green-forested, much smaller hill, Jesus, at that experience of transfiguration, brings the two Sinai figures with him. We are tempted to contrast the God of the Old and the New Testament, that the New Testament shows simply the beautiful, feminine acceptance and love of God, like the lush mount Tabor, but in this transfiguration story, Sinai is there too. Moses and Elijah’s experience joined in.  So, there is a fierceness that you find in the love of Jesus and in that transfiguration experience.”

While that statement alone is so incredibly profound,  I am currently very interested in a particular aspect of that observation: That Jesus and Moses and Elijah are there together on the mountain, transcending time, space and the laws of nature we think are unbreakable. As though they are in an overlapping time and space between time and space. Or perhaps they were gathering in Kairos time, real time, as Madeleine L’Engle would suggest.

Coming out of such a pragmatic age, we still weigh so much out in the realm of what we deem probable. Which is such a tricky thing for those of us who claim to believe in the Incarnation and the resurrection. We either ignore this transfiguration story altogether because we don’t know what to make of it (in sunday school, this story certainly wasn’t overemphasized), or we turn it solely into symbol, because otherwise, it is not possible.

Perhaps many of us are still so afraid of being labeled as simple, seven day creationists (I know I am deathly afraid!), that we have forgotten how to embrace the possibilities that exist beyond our comprehension. It is not so much that interpreting the creation account in such a way is improbable, but more to the point, that it is all too probable.  I’d like to think that the story behind the story, if God had anything to do with it, would knock my socks clean off. Likewise, in believing other improbabilities, we seem to lack texture and dimension. This includes the communion of the saints.

Something else Belden Lane mentioned, which I will explore further in a piece I’m working on about telling stories, is that he talks to the saints and asks them to pray for him. “I talk to everybody that I write about,” says Dr Lane. (Speaking of the preparation for his upcoming book Ravished by Beauty): “I talked a lot to Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and many English and American puritans and I asked them to pray for me. I have a real sense of the communion of the saints, when I write. I ask them to forgive me if I misrepresent them, I ask them to pray that God will help me to represent them rightly, and when I take issue with them, that they might see themselves in what I say. That God willing, I stand on their shoulders, and will in some small way, be able to carry forth a little bit of the truth they served and that they will feel respected through what I write about.”

So many of us were taught to see our forefathers and the biblical figures as untouchables. As “others”, removed from ourselves. And I think the real danger in seeing historical saints in such a manner is that, in doing so, we get to shirk the responsibility we have in living out the kingdom today, as saints. N.T. Wright calls our time in history the fifth act of a five act play. We have parables and prophecies and stones yet to be unturned and they are ours to discover. Perhaps if we saw ourselves as players in the play, instead of spectators of a long history, we might gain an ability to see our own role as saints. And perhaps we might again find dimension in the saints who went before us! For not only do we see former saints as untouchables, but we tend also to see them quite one dimensionally, as though they’ve always lived in a text book.

Augustine, our great African forefather, was very much alive in imperfection and in thought! Bonhoeffer no doubt tasted his own blood. The desert abbas and ammas really felt the noonday heat. My grandmother endured the war, the loss of young brothers, young husband, young son, and faced more than one cancer before she passed; and yet somehow I possess a pioneer wisdom because of her. She wasn’t ashamed of her age. Today, it seems the people approaching old age are so afraid not to be cool, or seen as youthful, that they fail to receive the mentoring assignment given to them. And as a result, there is an epidemic of foolishness being passed on. In much of Africa, sadly we see statistics of an entire generation being swept away by the Aids epidemic and the grandparents taking on the complete responsibility of wisdom-sharing and caring for their grandchildren. Here in our own culture, you would think the same thing had happened, only the mid-life population is alive and well, and much of the cream of our culture, the elderly, are tucked away in homes.

How many old saints sit, day in and day out, right here in our city, with a television in front of them and no one coming to visit?

As I prepare the music for the All Saints Eve service this Sunday, I want to thank my grandma for being consistent. I want to thank my mom for telling me so many stories from my heritage and for encouraging me to play music and write. And when I take communion, I want to keep in mind that Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Merton will be there. That Martin Luther and Lady Julian of Norwich will be there. That John the Baptist and Madeleine L’Engle will be there. That all the saints are in communion through the work of Jesus, from Moses to Mother Mabel.

And maybe its important to keep in mind that someone might someday raise my name, or your name up to God as one of the saints in their own life. How sobering and yet, how extraordinary!

Alana Levandoski

One Response to The communion of saints

  1. Keira says:

    Fantastic – thank you for writing this. I will be thinking about it all week!

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