For All the Saints

I have to admit that I could take or leave Halloween.  It’s not really a holiday that I have a strong connection with any more, since I lost the ability to eat large amounts of candy without suffering not so good consequences.  It’s fun seeing the kids enjoy it, but really, it would not make my list of favorite holidays.  What I really enjoy is what comes right after Halloween:  All Saints and All Souls Days.

Unfortunately, for most people, Halloween has lost its connection with All Saints Day, which always comes on November 1 and is observed in many churches on the first Sunday thereafter.  Halloween, in fact, is technically called All Hallows Eve — “hallow” being an Old English world with a connection to the word “holy” (as in the Lord’s Prayer, which traditionally includes the line “hallowed be thy name”).  All Saints are hallowed — that is, holy.  So without an All Saints Day, there never would have been a Halloween.  All Souls Day, on November 2, is a day that traditionally is set aside to remember all who have died — whether we attach the thought of “saint” to them or not.

While we generally reserve the word “saint” for a spiritual superhero, the word is used in the New Testament to refer to anyone who is a follower of Jesus.  I would expand that even further, to say that a saint is someone who has occupied a sacred space in our lives.  And most of us could probably come up with a list of such people who have touched our lives over the years.

One of the privileges of being a priest is that one gets to know a number of people, and often in surprisingly intimate ways.  Part of that intimacy is that I am often privileged to be present at the time someone dies or very shortly thereafter.  On the one hand, it’s not a part of the role I look forward to.  I have attended the dying and deaths of more people I came to know and love than I would care to count, and some of them left this life far too soon.  At the same time, to be present at such moments in people’s lives is indescribably sacred.  And I mean that — I can’t really describe what it is like.  There is an almost palpable sense of sacred presence as a loved one becomes absent.  I don’t know that family or friends necessarily experience it in this way, but as a priest one is sort of present as a kind of witness to the sacred, and I feel it powerfully in such times.

Having experienced such moments many times, I must admit that I really have no use for the distinction between All Saints and All Souls Days.  For it is abundantly clear to me that everyone is a saint in some sense, because everyone has been important in somebody’s life along the way (perhaps there are people who have not, but that seems to me exceedingly rare if ever).  Everyone has occupied a sacred space in somebody’s life, and thus deserves to be remembered on All Saints.

Which brings me back to the declaration with which I began, that I really enjoy All Saints/All Souls.  Perhaps enjoy is not quite the word.  I’m not really sure what the right word is, I guess.   But every year at All Saints, I find myself remembering the faces of all those saints who have crossed my life’s path, and particularly those who have gone on to the next life.  They have all left their fingerprints on my life in some way, shape or form.  Some of them knew that they did, others did not.  It is a bittersweet occasion, in some respects, but also an opportunity for profound thanksgiving.  Because when all is said and done, we are really here for each other, to shape each other, to show God to one another, to occupy sacred spaces in each others’ lives.  And that is a profound gift, privilege and responsibility.

So, thank you, all you saints past, present and yet to come.  You have made all the difference.

Religion is Relationship, Not Regulations

Life is so much easier when you have rules to follow.  As a parent, I appreciate the value of rules.  It’s much easier to deal with my six year-old son when there are clear rules in place about what he is expected to do and how he is expected to behave.  His child’s world is pretty black-and-white much of the time, and the rules that govern this life keep things on track most of the time.

However, as I am also the parent of a teenager, I have made a surprising discovery about my daughter:  as she gets older and moves ever-closer to adulthood, rules are tending more and more to take a back seat to relationship.  Gone are the days when I (or her mother) can simply recite a rule in response to a situation and have that go unchallenged.  The black-and-white world of our daughter’s childhood has given way to the various shades of gray of the adult (or almost adult) world.  And rules don’t always make the path clearer:  often, they just raise more questions.  I am discovering that instead of falling back on rules in our relationship, I am increasingly having to engage our daughter in conversation – really serious conversation, sometimes – in order to understand where she is coming from and for her to understand where I am coming from.  To put it another way, our relationship is becoming all about, well, relationship, and that is wonderful in many ways.  But it is also a bit messy, sometimes lacks clarity and not infrequently leaves both of us puzzled.

This movement, it seems to me, is one that inevitably happens as parents and children grow up together.  And it occurs to me that it is this same movement that happens – or needs to happen – as we grow up in our spirituality.  If we look at the teaching of Jesus presented in the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus is not all about the rules.  In fact, he ticks off people who are all about the rules quite often.  Jesus’ priority is not on rules and regulations, but rather on relationship:  the relationship we have to ourselves, to our fellow human beings and to God.  Jesus is happy to fall back on well-regulated tradition when it serves relationship (so, for example, he participates regularly in traditional Jewish worship), but he is equally happy to jettison or re-interpret the rules when they do not serve that relationship (made clear, for example, in his approach to the rules about sabbath-keeping).  In fact, the underlying critique of the religion of Jesus’ time is that people have made it all about rule-keeping, all about laws and regulations, and forgotten the importance of relationship with the God who purportedly values these laws and regulations.

St. Paul, whose writings actually predate the Gospels in their final form, is even more clear about this movement from law to relationship.   In fact, Paul is very clear that reliance on law, on rules and regulations, cannot help us.  One gets the impression that Paul would like to say that the whole of the Jewish Law is a mistake, a failure, but because he believed that it was divine, he could not allow himself to come to that conclusion.  And so, he finds a different role for the law:  it cannot help us, but it can help us see how much we need help.  The help, as far as Paul is concerned, comes from a relationship with God grounded in Christ (Paul’s clearest, most systematic presentation of his thoughts along these lines is found in his Letter to the Romans).

As the Christian community moved forward from the New Testament era, however, it seems it was not so easy to live with God simply in the grace of relationship.  Human beings seem to like rules and regulations, and eventually there was an abundance of them within the Christian community, in the form of copious numbers of doctrinal definitions and canon laws.  And over the centuries, Christians are often found falling into the same trap that Jesus observed in many of the people of his time:  replacing genuine relationship with religious regulation.

And who can blame us, really?  After all, relationships are messy and complicated, defined mostly in tones of gray, rather than sharply defined in black-and-white.  What is easier?  To believe that in following some rules (like the Ten Commandments or the Code of Canon Law) we shall receive salvation?  Or, to be told that in order to find salvation, one must take the time to develop a life of prayer that calls upon you to increasingly confront the truth about yourself, to abandon most of your conceptions about God, and discover the spirit of God dwelling within the silence that lies on the other side of your chattering mind?  It is so much easier to just get your ticket to heaven punched according to the rules than wade into the murky waters of contemplative prayer.

Yet, I have become convinced that this is exactly what we are called to do.  Salvation is, after all, not about getting to heaven, not about being admitted to an afterlife that is an idyllic version of planet Earth.  It is, rather, about experiencing wholeness at the deepest level of our beings, a wholeness that transcends our ordinary experience of life.  The word “salvation” carries in its etymology the notions of health and healing.  And reducing our spiritual life to following a set of rules and regulations cannot accomplish that.  The Christian spiritual tradition is rather clear that spiritual health and healing comes only when we make ourselves vulnerable to God, only when we make the decision to be present to God and allow God to be present to us.   In other words, health and healing are to be found in a relationship with God.

Certainly, churches play a role in helping that to happen.  Our worship makes the grace of relationship that is always available to us more concrete.  There is infinite value in having a community to support us as we make our life’s pilgrimage.   Congregations are filled with people at many different places on this path, and so there is an abundance not only of support but of wisdom and experience, as well.  Communities of faith challenge us in ways that help us to grow if we do not run away from them.  And communities do need some rules in order to function effectively.  But our relationship with God when we are in our 40s and 50s should not resemble the relationship we had when we were six or seven, just as my way of being a parent to a six year old cannot be the same as it is with a teenager.  We must grow in our relationship with God.  That is the way to find the healing and wholeness that, deep down, we are really seeking.

When Discipline Fails Us….

Regular readers of this blog will realize that in the past little while, there has been precious little to regularly read (though, perhaps, much to re-read).  I have been fully aware, of course, that I have failed to blog regularly, not keeping my commitment to do so on a weekly basis.  I found myself telling myself that I was completely justified in this lack of blogging:  I was simply too busy.

Then, I had the horrible realization recently that I had heard this excuse somewhere before.  Let’s see.  Where was that?  Oh, yes.  That’s it.  I had used this excuse before when I realized that I had fallen out of another habit:  the habit of prayer.  I told myself that this was quite understandable:  I was simply too busy.

Interestingly, I never find that I am too busy to eat.  Nor to sleep. Nor to breathe.  Now, blogging regularly hardly belongs in the same category as these basics of living.  But prayer certainly does belong there.  Or, at least, it should.  For a regular practice of prayer is just as important in the living of a sane and centered life as is eating, sleeping and breathing.  And when I fall out of the habit of prayer for a time (and, yes, believe me, priests do fall out of that habit from time to time) I eventually notice it, just as I eventually notice if I have gone too long without eating.  Rather than feeling a gnawing in my stomach, I feel a gnawing in my soul.

What I am dealing with here is a failure of discipline.  And I don’t mean to use that word “discipline” in a negative sense of obligation or punishment, but in a positive sense of a rhythm that keeps life balanced.  Regular blogging, and a regularized spiritual life, require just this kind of discipline.

Fortunately, God (and, I hope, my blog readers) is big on second chances.  In a sense, the whole Judean-Christian story can be read as a story of second chances.  Countless numbers of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures are given second chances, from Abraham to Moses to Jacob to David, just to name a few.  Likewise, Jesus’ ministry as it is depicted in the Gospels is constantly giving people second chances:  all those sinners are told that it is possible to find life again.  The story of the Resurrection is, in a sense, a story of a second chance, denying death the final word concerning our humanity.  And so, gentle reader, I know that when I find that I have fallen out of the habit of prayer, lost my spiritual discipline, I can begin again, and know that God does not chastise but rejoices in that.  Likewise I hope that you will rejoice (well, that might be a bit strong) that I have once again found my blogging discipline.  Of course, one blog does not a discipline prove.  So, tune in next week………