Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Encore: All Saints - all wrong!

Much as I would have loved to attend a glorious festal Eucharist today, I seem to be coming down with a cold, so I settled for a 'said' midday service. As luck would have it, the celebrant was the same priest I mentioned in last week's post about how eschatology and ecclesiology were sadly absent from his All Souls' Day sermon in 2010. (I must add, on the rare chance that he or anyone he knows is reading this, that I've yet to hear a sermon of his with which I agreed, but regard him highly otherwise.) Once again, I wasn't surprised at his misconceptions about this wonderful feast, and know they date back centuries in popular devotion, but the overall effect was dismal.

The content of his sermon boiled down to: (1) we remember all the saints today (so far, so good), (2) people always thought they needed the saints' intercession, (3) this is wrong because we have Jesus and He is the mediator. It's rather pathetic that someone who spent years training for the priesthood has no concept of intercessory prayer, apparently thinks prayer is limited to intercession, or thinks that embracing the communion of saints (I'll re-state from last time - ecclesiology places us 'all in this together') means thinking there are mediators other than Jesus. That there are those who ask the intercession of the saints (it's in the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, I've noticed) does not mean we cannot approach God and have to go through a middleman (an example used in this sermon.)

My 'regulars,' assuming there are any, are aware that, though my spirituality tends more towards the patristic, I've studied the Middle Ages at some length. Though treating the saints as sources of special favours is hardly confined to that period, it was the hey-day. Such books as "The Golden Legend" have phenomenal, fantastic tales of saints working miracles during their life-times - even to the point of raising the dead, or making a ploughman's hand stick to the plough when he doubted a point of doctrine. (I have often wondered if, a few centuries later, the faithful having seen that Cromwell's toppling the tabernacle did not lead to being turned to stone have an influence on that, though miracles through a saint's intercession are still considered in canonisation procedures, rarely are saints of the modern period referred to as having been channels for miracles in life.) Yet, even in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas cautioned against undue emphasis on miracles (not only in relation to intercession, but overall), because this can make it appear that God is not always present and active in creation. In our own day, it is far more likely to be fundamentalists (who certainly would not invoke saints other than themselves) than Catholics who base evangelisation on miracles.

There is not, and, to my knowledge, never has been doctrine that even implied that prayers of petition had to be offered 'through intermediaries.' Indeed, I've heard versions of that idea - but they are approaches individuals found useful, not religious teachings. I've met people who saw humility in 'to Jesus through Mary,' and, though I disagree with any idea that one mustn't approach the King of Kings on one's own, I can understand where this can be a valuable idea for some. Certainly, in a feudal society, such as that of the Middle Ages, the idea of intermediaries has many implications.

I see all of the Church (those on earth or in the next life) as united in praise. I'm not minimising the love in intercession - and don't see why some find it offensive to think that, where "I" can pray for "you" in need, prayers from those in the next phase of existence imply idolatry. Yet the idea of prayer as purely intercession is quite off the mark. My own life centres on orthopraxy, and is almost entirely liturgical - uniting, with the entire Church (including the communion of saints), in praise and thanksgiving. Intercessions ask blessings on others - and our petitions can make us more aware of the Creator as the source of all, and make what that for which we are grateful more recognisable as a gift.

I've mentioned the value I see in folk religion, much as I do not have the sort of trust and simplicity that I admire in those capable of such lovely prayers. My mother (as is true of many people) hardly felt she could not 'approach God directly'! (Indeed, her shouting for Him to come down so she could knock his head off, which she put in the strongest terms when my father died, had no element of fear!) In her simplicity, she spoke to different saints as one might to varied friends or relatives. Think about this - don't we all have different friends, all of whom we love, where we might share one concern with a particular friend, but not with another? She spoke to the saints exactly as one might to a brother or sister - and I see that as an awareness of the divine, not as an avoidance of God.

Worship has continued for thousands of years. Those who have gone before, especially those we remember in particular for virtue, always were valued as witnesses - to the faith, to how divine grace can compensate for our weakness. Let us join, once again, in a Maranatha - from all seven billion of us on earth, and all who went before. Creation is endless.