All Saints Day 2014

GhentaltarThe Ghent altarpiece is probably the most famous work of art associated with the liturgy of All Saints’ Day. Usually, only the lower central panel is shown, the so-called Adoration of the Lamb, where the worshipers are gathered into groups signifying the martyrs, confessors, virgins and so on of the liturgy. I suggest that today we spend a few moments looking at the altarpiece as whole because I think it reminds us of something about this feast we too often overlook. It is a celebration of our redeemed humanity. Adam and Eve, shown without the serpent, please note, are part of the story of our redemption as well as our fall. How easily we forget that! The New Adam, Christ our Lord, takes his flesh from a long line of human ancestors, including some rather dodgy figures. I think that tells us that sin and forgiveness are woven into the story of salvation; that to be a saint is to be a forgiven sinner; and until we draw our last breath, we are still members of the communion of saints by virtue of our membership of the Church, still sinners by virtue of being human. The mystery of salvation is open to us all, but we live now in suspension, as it were, between heaven and earth. Only when the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant are one will the liturgy of All Saints be complete.

For earlier posts on the link between All Saints and All Souls, please use the Search box on the right.

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The Allure of Evil

For Catholics in England and Wales, today is not Hallowe’en because the Solemnity of All Saints has been transferred to Sunday. That means I do not feel obliged to repeat any of the things I have already said on the subject, although, if you are interested, the Search Box on the right will lead you to them: just try searching All Saints and Hallowe’en. This is, however, a time of year when what we might call occult practices seem to attract more attention. Some are just plain silly: fake paganism of the most tawdry kind. Others are more serious and some, some are downright evil.

If you have been fortunate enough never to have come into contact with real, diabolical evil, you will probably smile, shake your head in disbelief, and make a few mild jokes about excitable types getting worked up over nothing. Those who have come into contact with evil will probably respond more quietly. Evil is, by its very nature, seductive. It has a false glamour. It never presents itself as what it truly is. Remember how Marlowe’s Faustus wanted to see evil in the guise of a holy friar rather than as it was, in and of itself? That is true of all of us. We do not want to see evil for what it is; we do not want to see sin for what it is.

I said yesterday that being a good sinner meant falling down and getting up again. No matter how far we fall, God’s grace is always beneath us. We can never fall beyond the reach of God’s mercy and forgiveness unless we deliberately and knowingly reject Him. Tonight and tomorrow, lots of people will be unthinkingly celebrating everything from fairytale goblins to the devil himself. A few will be sucked into a world of evil. Praying for those who have deliberately and knowingly chosen evil is dangerous; but we can all safely pray for the protection of those who are, so to say, innocents abroad, that they may escape the allure of evil and be brought, safe and sound, to the great feast of light that is All Saints.

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All Saints Day 2013

I made the mistake of re-reading last year’s post for this day and realised that it says most of what I want to say this year too, so I’ll spare you the repetition. There’s just one thing to add. A twitterstorm yesterday afternoon has heightened my awareness of the need for real holiness among the people of God. I don’t mean the kind of self-conscious ‘sanctity’ that seems chiefly to consist in adopting all the currently fashionable attitudes of liberal left or conservative right, I mean the kind of holiness that costs: the holiness of prayer, sacrifice and service; the kind of holiness that shakes us out of our complacency and changes us for ever; the holiness that reflects the holiness of God himself. It is that kind of holiness we celebrate today, not only among the saints in heaven but also among the saints on earth.

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Hallowing Hallowe’en Again

Anyone who has read my Universe column on the subject will know that I am not an enthusiast for Hallowe’en as it is now celebrated in this country. Happily, however, once we have sung First Vespers of the Solemnity of All Saints at five o’clock this evening, we shall be safely on the other side, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin and death and the prospect of eternal life. All will be light and gladness, and anyone who comes to our door ‘trick or treating’ will be sent away with a blessing and a sentence or two about the wonder of the Resurrection (sure to put them off trying it again next year). We don’t do ghosts and ghouls; we do saints instead; and I think we might all be happier and healthier if more of us did saints, especially on this night of the year.

Why the fascination with horror and the celebration of death and destruction which now accounts for £300 million of spending in the U.K.? Surely, it is something to do with getting in touch with our inner caveman, the pleasurable thrill of being slightly scared by things that go bump in the night, knowing that at any moment we can switch on the light and not be scared any longer. Only, it has gone rather further than that, hasn’t it? We have gone beyond the thrill of the horror story to sheer terror instead. I don’t want to go over ground I have already covered, but in my view many of today’s Hallowe’en artefacts are quite sinister and open the way to the occult. Those who have never had to confront evil will laugh dismissively and say it is ridiculous to get worked up over plastic skeletons or ouija boards, tarot cards and the like. Plastic skeletons are a matter of taste, but the ouija boards and tarot cards are a much more serious matter. Ignorance is not bliss: it is dangerous.

I am all for conviviality and hope many of you will be enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, but I hope it will be a celebration of light and life you share, not a celebration of darkness and destruction. There is so much tragedy in the world, we do not need to fabricate horror. There is so much evil, we do not need to manufacture feelings of shock or revulsion. Those 87 people found dead of thirst in the Sahara are a reminder of the reality of suffering and death. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls affirm the unity of the living and the dead, so tonight let us pray for all those whose experience of moral darkness — in Niger, Syria, the DRC, to name just three — is so much more intense and terrible than anything we can produce with our broomsticks and plastic cobwebs. Let’s hallow Hallowe’en again.

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Religious Literacy

Aaqil Ahmed’s claim that we have become a nation of religious illiterates should come as no surprise. Even among those who claim to be Christian, knowledge and understanding of scripture and doctrine has been in decline for years. As regards knowledge of other religions, that tends to be even more sketchy. We may know the names of some important Hindu or Muslim festivals; we may be vaguely aware of how the Jewish calendar unfolds; but, for the most part, we rely on having a neat little summary of the main facts given to us in a call-out on the web page or in a sidebox of the newspaper column. I think, however, that it is not just religious illiteracy about which we need to be concerned. There is a cultural illiteracy that includes religious illiteracy and is becoming more and more pervasive in the west.

Literary types argue about the existence or otherwise of a western canon, a body of thought and literature that every educated person can be expected to have some acquaintance with. In a plural, multicultural society such a canon becomes less and less identifiable. Add to that our increasing reliance on the internet for our grasp of ideas, and it is easy to see why one cannot take much for granted. We are not alone, for example, in prescribing a course in Christian doctrine for new entrants. We cannot assume that well-educated, well-motivated people will necessarily have the intellectual grounding in faith of previous generations.

Should we worry about this? Personally, I think there are two aspects to consider. There is a cultural impoverishment when we no longer understand the story of our past—when literary references are not understood and the art and artefacts that embody the story are no longer recognized for what they are. There is also an emotional impoverishment when we no longer relate to the story of our past in a personal way. When we cease to be moved by the holiness of places where our forebears worshiped, or have no real sense of the values by which they lived, we are cut adrift. We become existentially lonely. That is, of course, quite the opposite of what Christianity is about: incorporation into Christ and so into fellowship with all the living and the dead. As we journey towards All Saints and All Souls, it is worth thinking about these things. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself’— not even the religious illiterate.

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All Saints 2012

Last year, in my post for this feast, I tried to express the connection between All Saints and All Souls:

The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I realise, however, that for many people both feasts are problematic. As always, I suggest reading through the preface of the Mass in order to gain insight into the theology of the feast in question. Today’s is rich in scriptural allusion, but I’d like to single out one aspect that doesn’t depend on knowledge of scripture so much as a modicum of imagination. The preface ends with the words

And so, we glorify you with the multitude of Saints and Angels, as with one voice of praise we acclaim . . .

They are a reminder that the Saints now enjoying the bliss of heaven are one with the saints (= Church members) on earth and TOGETHER we glorify God. Neither is complete without the other. We can go further and say that we are the connection between All Saints and All Souls, for it is our privilege, as it is our duty, to be the bond of prayer between the two. In short, today invites us to reflect on the meaning of the communion of saints, a phrase we repeat often enough in the Creed without necessarily seeing how it reaches into own ordinary, humdrum lives. If we could but see the glory that surrounds us, how changed our lives would be! We are, so to say, the theology of today’s feast enfleshed. Or at least, we ought to be.

 

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Hallowe’en at the Monastery

Halowe’en at the monastery and not a pumpkin in sight! The fact is that we ‘do’ Hallowe’en in the traditional way, with a glorious first vespers of the feast of All Saints (All Hallows). It is a feast of light and hope; so while those around us are  switching off their lights to enjoy ghouls and goblins and talking of ghosts and vampires, we are focused on something much more marvellous, the beauty and holiness of the Church. There is no room for darkness or fear, but perhaps we need to be reminded of that. The Christian message is always life-giving, life-affirming. If you are partying tonight, have a great party but remember the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who surround us and celebrate them and the glory of heaven to which we look forward in hope. After all, Hallowe’en ushers in All Saints and All Souls, about which I shall be posting tomorrow.

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All Saints

The communion of saints is something I never tire of meditating on. The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I suspect that for most people this rather lofty and liturgical conception of All Saints is much less interesting that the ‘tents and temple’ situation at St Paul’s. I don’t pretend to understand what is going on, but it is deeply troubling that, as many have mentioned, a dispute about capitalism should have become a dispute about the Church. It is in the nature of tent dwellers that they should move on; the temple stands as a reminder of the eternal. St Bede’s most important book, De Templo, was a sustained meditation on Solomon’s temple as an image of the Church with lots of number theory thrown in. Perhaps it would make good reading today for the tent dwellers around St Paul’s because it asserts the unity of the Church, both those who dwell within and those stuck outside in the courts, and the salvation possible to us all in Christ.

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