Sometimes in UU circles, we make a big deal out of what is called our individual “spiritual odysseys” or “religious autobiographies” or even “faith journeys”. That is, because we are each responsible for our own personal theologies, and for the religious roads we choose, the history of where each of us came from to get where we are, religiously speaking, is very important. That’s because we are each on a different journey, each our own ultimate authority when it comes to matters religious. We would agree that we are each one of us our own Pope when it comes to religious matters—something that drives our more orthodox friends and neighbors and relatives bonkers, perhaps; but something with which most of us (probably all of us, actually) are really pretty comfortable. It’s important, then, on this “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (as our UU Principles puts it) to be able to trace the road that got us where we are today, religiously speaking.
So a time honored ritual in UU study circles of various sorts from time immemorial (or at least the past 25 or 30 years) is for participants to share their “religious autobiographies”—that is, how they came to be Unitarian Universalists. At these times, people will speak of how they were Episcopalians, and didn’t like the “smells and bells” and so they became UUs. Or that they were Baptists, and one day decided to let their fire insurance policy against the conflagration of Hell lapse, and eventually found the UU church. Or some people were Catholics—and there were then, perhaps, a dozen reasons for them to become something else.
(Now, of course, if truth be told, there may, perhaps at this very hour, be study circles or classes going on in Episcopalian or Baptist or Roman Catholic churches somewhere from coast to coast, where former Unitarians or Universalists or Unitarian Universalists are sharing why they have chosen to leave our fold and have gone in search of spiritual succor somewhere else. If we’re honest, and humble, we need to admit that the religious front door swings both in and out, in our churches no less than any others, and thus is the way it should be. One size in religion does not fit everyone; even our UU size).
Now, I’ve sometimes felt a little inadequate during these sharing of religious journeys because, you see, I have no Episcopal or Baptist or Lutheran “skeletons” rattling around in my closet. Because, you see, except for a (very brief) period in the early 1970s when I was a Maoist, I have always been in this denomination; I have always been either a Universalist or (after the Great Merger of 1961) a Unitarian Universalist. So far, that has been the full extent of my religious affiliation. (I think that our church in Stoughton here is somewhat unusual in the regard, as well, in that a pretty good number of you share that particular religious demographic with me. Not the Maoist part, of course; but the fact that a number of us were “birthright” Universalists, and we’re still here. Overall, nationally, about 80 or 90 percent of Unitarian Universalists come out of some other religious group.)
But on deeper consideration, my sense of inadequacy fades, and I realize that just because I have been in the UU fold pretty much all my life, that doesn’t mean that my religious faith hasn’t changed during that time. Not at all. Many things about it have changed, and will change as the days go on. I would wager that, all in all, there has probably been as much change in my way of looking at matters religious, as there has been in the religious lives of most people who have moved from denomination to denomination.
Over the years, I’ve changed my mind about many things, religiously speaking. And if we are on religious journeys, all of us, perhaps that’s the way it is supposed to be.
One of the (numerous) things I’ve changed my mind about over the years is the traditional Christian idea of the “communion of the saints”.
This coming Tuesday (November 1) is All Saints Day, which will be followed on Wednesday (November 2) by All Souls Day, which is officially called the “commemoration of all the faithful departed”. Now, it is possible that both of these observances were instituted by the early Church to give their adherents an excuse for celebrating the more ancient pagan festival of samhain, or All Hallows Eve—Halloween.
That’s the way I looked at it for a long time, at least. I used to have no place at all in my own religious schemata for the traditional Christian doctrine of the “communion of the saints”. The very sound of the word “saint” conjured up in my mind medieval notions of miracles and Gothic cathedrals and saints’ bones and relics and the heavy smell of incense hanging in the air.
Indeed, within the Western Christian tradition, sainthood is an institution largely confined to Catholicism, with its long and involved history. Protestantism generally has always looked more than a little askance at the idea of saints and sainthood. There is a basic egalitarianism in Protestantism that had little place for considering some believers holier than the rest of us art. Some, most notably Protestantism’s grand-daddy Martin Luther felt that saints did little more than get in the way between each individual believer and his or her God. “The papists took the invocation of saints from the heathen,” Luther intoned, “who divided God into numberless images and idols, and ordained to each his particular office and worth.”
Trinitarian confreres had no problem with dividing the One, Indivisible Godhead into Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost-- from the get-go. But I guess, for them, that was a different issue.)
Perhaps Luther, his heart hardened by too much theological struggle, could not glimpse the beautiful garden of the Spirit that the Communion of Saints offered, in his time, and in ours.
For sainthood can be so much more to us than merely a relic from the medieval age. It can, I think, be a viable and vital institution for us, men and women in these postmodern times, which can help us strive toward that goal of the blessed community of which we dream.
There are saints all around us, and all around the world. They are found within our church, and within every church, temple, shrine, and mosque—and among those who belong to none of these. They are people who do great things the world will long remember, and they are people who seem to do no more than go to work, earn a living, and pass away unknown to all except their immediate circles.
As much as we need to remember those who were truly great, let us never ignore or forget the great ones among us, who often to us as saints unaware, often in simplest garb, free of all grand or ostentatious bearing: The elderly living full, triumphant lives, in spite of great pain. The destitute who maintain their human dignity in spite of untold hardships. Those who cling to their hope and faith in spite of the torments of mental anguish. So great a cloud of witnesses that accompanies us each day! The procession of saints goes on and on. These are the saints among us; they are the great ones to whom we bear witness every day, if we but open our eyes.
As Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, a good and humble Servant of God (and one of my personal choices for sainthood) once wrote:
“Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness. The Pope canonizes, it’s true, only genuine saints… [But] if we here on earth make a kind of selection, God doesn’t do so in Heaven; coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth.”
What, then, makes someone a “saint”?
One important attribute is their sense of connectedness. So often, it seems that our lives are made up of brief, separate incidents, unrelated to those which came before, and to those which will come after. There seem, constantly, to be so many demands being made upon us. Our only choice often seems to be to spread ourselves (all too thinly) over the whole mass, and hope for the best.
What we desperately lack, oftentimes, is that all-abiding sense of continuity: a sense that we are moving toward our goals; moving toward the wider Horizon of Being; a sense that our little paths are joined, somehow, to the great sweep of history and life.
The saints we choose to speak to us in our souls can remind us that life can have some sense of meaning and purpose. But to achieve this sense, we need a goal, a vision, a dream, a cause. We need to live for something greater than ourselves, something more than our career, our family, our little plot of earth. We have to awaken to the call of our own revelation, and behold our own apparitions of the holy, standing before us. We have to find our “bliss”, as Joseph Campbell said. Each of us has to discern for ourselves why we are on this Earth, and how we are going to repay the debt we owe to Life itself.
Then, we have to act. We have to integrate our dream with our being; integrate who we are with who we aspire to become. The saints we choose are paradigms—models—for how this can be done. Their lives can be inspiring examples of just what greatness the individual human being can accomplish when we let go of our little selves and connect with a Spirit greater than we are. They remind us that individual men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit and profound humility are as much a spiritual force to be reckoned with as all the power and principalities and impersonal corporations and mass media and government bureaucracies that the ways of this world can muster.
The lives of saints, living and dead, can be models for us—not to be copied blindly or worshipped obediently and then forgotten—but rather, models the essence of which can be grasped, savored, and made to live anew in our own lives. We can commune with the great spirits of all ages, and armed with this new spirit, we can continue along our journeys here and now, alive with spirits of faith, hope, expectancy, and joy.
As Sister Joan Chichester has said, saints give us “a glimpse of the face of God in the context of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness within ourselves.”
When we behold the magnificent communion of saints— shining, immemorial examples of this glorious full flowering of our humanity which history presents to us—then we can know, at last, that greater truth of life “that caring is sharing; that living is giving; that life is eternal—and that Love [our love for one another, and our love for all creatures of the world] is its crown.”
In their holy simplicity,
The saints of God
Remember what we forget
That having found the sun
The sources of life,
All other light,
Will never be enough.