Saturday, October 30, 2010

All Saints

In his famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke makes the cryptic observation on the opening page: behind every human being now living, there stand thirty ghosts.  Of course 42 years since the publication of Clarke’s story, the population of the world having doubled a couple of times, the proportion may be a little less, but it’s an intriguing thought.  For every living human being, for every man, woman and child alive today, there is a chain of long forgotten humanity that has lived and died.  I find myself wondering at how much of who I am and how I think and behave is passed on to me from the long line of ancestors whose genes I carry, and the infinitely wider crowd of spiritual ancestors who saw and reflected on and dreamed about and changed the world into which I was born.  For every human being now living, 30 human creatures connect us to the shadows of pre-conscious existence.  It’s an oddly disturbing thought.

Today’s celebration, the Feast of All Saints which technically belongs tomorrow, on the 1st of November, and the following day, All Souls on 2 November, prompt us in different ways to reflect on our connection with those who have lived and died before us.  Unfortunately in recent times the Church observance of All Souls has tended to be overshadowed by the brighter, more triumphalist and generally self-congratulatory celebration of All Saints – as well as the gaudy secular observance of Hallowe’en on 31 October (which is, of course ... today).  But the focus of all three is on those who have preceded us, our personal 30 ghosts.

According to Wikipedia – the source of much valuable if sometimes factually dubious research, the celebrations of Hallowe’en originate in the ancient Irish festival of Samhain, or ‘summer’s end’, the gateway between the ‘lighter, brighter’  half of the year and its descent into the darkness of winter.  Samhain was sometimes referred to as the Celtic New Year, and its theme - the passage into darkness – also led to the belief that at Samhain the membrane separating the visible from the invisible realm became thin and permeable, a luminous veil across which earth and heaven reached into one another.  In other words, at Samhain the unseen world leaked into this one.  And so at Samhain – which according to Wikipedia conveniently got displaced onto the Christian calendar to the eve of the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve – well at Samhain it was necessary to kick up your heels and have a riotous good time getting drunk, lighting bonfires and scaring farm animals in order to confuse any unwelcome visitors from the Other Realm.

A North American friend asked me a while ago how we Aussies could possibly do Christmas at a time of year when the days were not short and dark, when the planet was not locked in the grip of winter and everything in the natural world was not slipping into the self-maintenance of hibernation.  And I reflected that for us, at least, in the Mediterranean climate we enjoy in Perth the heat of summer functions in much the same way as a Northern winter - animals and humans alike seek out patches of shade and minimise their activity, the earth lies fallow and human activity becomes nocturnal.  As the grass browns we re-learn the wisdom of stillness and the virtue of sitting on verandahs drinking gin.  My American friend wasn’t convinced, I think, but I knew I was right.

Perhaps as Australians we also approach the onset of summer with the double-knowledge of people whose 30 personal ghosts lived in the Northern Hemisphere, who understood the threshold of All Hallows Eve as the invitation to let go of all their certainties about the world and God – and to allow themselves to be overtaken by the creeping darkness of unknowing.  The disturbing sense that this year, as the sun dies, it might never awaken.  This year, the sleep of winter might be forever.  And so the cusp between the seasons reminds us of the Christian tradition of silence and unknowing that the mystics call apophasis, the rich tradition of writers like Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross.  It is this tradition that reminds us that the darkness of hibernation has a rich ambiguity that contradicts our accustomed certainty about God and about ourselves – a deep silence that exposes the shallow chatter we so often substitute for prayer – and an invitation to a mature spirituality that is more about letting go than about holding on to our preconceptions.

The call to reflect on our ancestors in the journey of faith and the long struggle to become human is helpful, I think, in a world where human certainty about God is sadly the cause of so much violence and degradation.  Maybe we would be less inclined to wield our religious certainties as weapons if we were all to reflect on the necessary connection between resurrection and crucifixion, the dark night of unknowing that has to be travelled before we get to the making of images and the telling of stories.  Perhaps some fruitful reflection on our spiritual ancestors who have passed before us into the great night of the soul might help us to release our grip on what we think we know, to become less self-confident in speaking for God and better practised at waiting.  In these other Great Three Days of our faith, perhaps the most fruitful spiritual exercise is simply to fall silent and listen to the turning of the earth.

As the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”, and these days, it seems to me, are about more than just a cheery recitation of the virtues of the saints, or even a solemn assuring of one another that we ourselves are called to be saintly.  Rather, I think, we are called to reflect on and to learn how to recognise the connection between the stories of our past and our own uncharted lives.  Honouring the communion of saints implies that lives lived before ours still matter, still have an impact on the world we live in and on our own lives.  It means recognising that there is an ancient wisdom and a hard-won integrity wrung from generations of struggle and from the endless round of heartache and joy.  It means we live not just in this one frail moment of time because we are connected and in conversation with those who have confronted and finally passed beyond our sight into the great mystery of time and existence and God.  In earlier times every church was surrounded by a little graveyard, literally encircled in a tangible reminder that the living and the dead together are called to enact the mystery of praise.  How wonderful is that!

When we begin to hear the stories and see the faded photographs of the generations of our family who went before us, and to hear the pre-echoes of our own existence in long-forgotten lives, we start to learn afresh who we are and what we mean.  And so it is with our spiritual ancestors, the ancestors of our faith.  The memories live inside and all around us, waiting for us to give them flesh and blood in our own lives.  They are a sacred thread connecting us with the story of salvation and the story of our own DNA, the mystery of what it means to be human and the revelation that we are joined to the life of God.

A saint, of course, is one who is set apart as holy, consecrated – in Hebrew the word qedosim [1] or in New Testament Greek hagoi [2]- and it is true that in St Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth and Philippi he speaks of the vocations of all Christians to be, or to become, saints.  Sometimes in the New Testament those referred to as saints are the helpers and enablers of the church – at other times the saints are those in need of help, but always those called to the work of prayer.  Those living and dead.  The context of our celebration in the great three days of reflection on those who have travelled before us into the light of God suggests that our vocation to be saints does not come to us in isolation but in the community of fellow travellers.

About whom, I wonder, are you reflecting as I speak?  The lives interwoven into the fabric of your own, the souls now resting with their Maker that converse with you, with whom the conversation of your life acquires its full meaning.  Those loved, those learned from and taught, those wondered about, those betrayed, those lost?  Your thirty?


[1] Ps 16.3, 34.9

[2] eg: Mtt 27.52, Acts 9.13, 26.10