Everything in the universe is inter-connected and inter-dependent. Everything impacts upon everything else. The Medieval Church understood this only too well in the grand panorama of a three-tiered universe comprised of the Church Militant here in time and space, the Church Expectant – those having passed through death into a state of preparation for eventual entry into the third tier of the Church Triumphant – the Saints (with a capital S) who in the imagery of the Book of Revelation worship before the throne of the Lamb of God, night and day. This vision is a glorious medieval metaphor, a product of the enchanted mind. In this vision, prayer functions as communication flowing up and down along a two-lane highway connecting the tiers of the threefold universe. As in life, so in death, prayer forged a sense of relationship.
In an age shaped by the digital communication revolution, although we might imagine things differently, the central idea of prayer as a two-lane super-communication highway, connecting the living and dead takes on a new and vivid appropriateness.
Good theology always mirrors sound psychology. In the olden days of my youth, I remember how we celebrated All Saints – the Saints with a capital S – and All Souls – those whom we still love yet see no longer – as two separate events. Today, the utility of time and more rationed patterns of Church attendance have led us to merge Saints and Souls together as one celebration of the resurrection.
Good Theology always mirrors sound psychology. The division between saints and souls hints at the emotional complexity of our human experience of death. Although Christian funerals are celebrations of the resurrection with hopeful language, and white vestments, they are also rituals for the expression of personal and communal grief. Thus in the commemoration of the saints, we rejoice in the celebration of hope in eternal life while the commemoration of souls reminds us that our experience of death involves painful feelings of loss for those for whom our hearts still ache.
For many today, myself included, the medieval imaginary gives way to a quantum imaginary. As then, so now, our knowledge still fails us and it’s to the imagination that each generation must turn in the face of death as the ultimate mystery of life.
For none of us can know ahead of time what everlasting life is like. Contemporary metaphors of web and network, communication flow, particle and wave with the hypothesis of parallel dimensions alongside time and space now provide culturally compatible metaphors for interconnection and communication between the living and the dead.
I was recently reading about how physicists came to believe in the existence of dark matter. Belief is a kind of hypothesis and astrophysicists have since observed faintly detectable gravitational waves rippling across the seeming emptiness of space. Although it can’t easily be seen, physicists posited dark matter’s existence as the only explanation that accounts for the way light matter, i.e. the universe that’s visible to us, actually behaves. It’s interesting to speculate that the prior hypothesis of belief pointed them to look in the right place for the evidence.
The point I want to make here is that we comprehend dark matter indirectly through its effects. Likewise, no one can prove everlasting life in the communion of saints to you. It’s a hypothesis of faith. Like the hypothesis of dark matter, I believe in the communion of saints hypothesis because of its effects, its influence on my making sense of the bewildering and often nonsensible experiences of living.
The communion of saints conceives of the union of the living and departed within the love of God opens me to experience a wider purpose and deeper meaning in my life.
It shows me that life may be changed by the biological event of death but not ended with death.
This belief provides me with a compass setting, a direction of travel in life, and the support of an enduring set of values to guide the journey. Without these, so much of my life would otherwise seem limited to a trivial, yet overwhelming self-preoccupation.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of the communion of saints thus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Hebrews 12:1
Belief in the communion of saints is a practical choice. It either makes sense to you, or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t then maybe this is only a matter of finding the right metaphor or image through which it can speak to you. Whether working through an enchanted medieval mindset or a contemporary quantum imaginary it’s imagination that provides us with what we need. Remember, that without physicists imagining dark matter as an explanatory hypothesis for what they already knew, they would not have begun to look for its detection.
The question is not: do you find the theology of the communion of saints credible? The question is: do the actions that flow from believing in the communion of saints support you in living your life more fruitfully?
The language of the letter to the Hebrews is helpful here – for living fruitfully requires an ability to throw off every encumbrance, and here I single out cynicism that compromises our capacity to live hope-filled lives. The great exemplars of Christian living, those whom the Church honors as Saints provide us with sources of encouragement, strengthening our resolve in the face of adversity. Belief in an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead opens us beyond the limits of our material self-preoccupation – clearing a pathway through the mire of easy entanglements that perpetually seek to ensnare us into settling for something less than the grandeur of our soul calling. Encouraged by a sense of continued relationship with those whose love in life has nurtured and shaped us – we run with endurance the race that is set before us.
It’s for all these reasons that on All Saints-All Souls Sunday, in Churches up and down the land we will baptize new human beings into the membership of the Christian people of God, wildly cheered on by the company of so great a crowd of witnesses.