Struggle, surprise and sainthood

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
18 Nov 2007

Time rushes by so fast at this time of year, what with Christmas looming on the horizon, that it would be easy to overlook two strange yet significant days earlier this month (November 2007).

For Christians in the Catholic tradition, especially (but not only, I shall argue), the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls are among the most important in the liturgical calendar, inviting us to reflect on the essential unity of the kind of being and becoming that is made possible for us in God’s unquenchable gift of life – even in the face of pain, oppression, death, torture and terror.

Those references to bodily scars and worldly cruelty – including, sadly, specifically religious cruelty – are necessitated by the early history of All Saints, which was finally recognised as a common feast day to honour those who died, both Christians and other resisters, during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s reign of terror (284-305 CE). The blood of the martyrs is the seed of an alternative community not grounded in domination, the ekklesia – a congregation constituted by God in defiance of all that divides people.

The Feast of All Souls, meanwhile, enables us to locate ourselves in solidarity with all who have died while sustained by the quest for life. In prayer and remembrance, it invites us to experience, in the words of Iona Community founder George McLeod, “the terrifying thinness of the veil that appears to separate time and eternity”. The veil is ruptured again and again as those we have known pass on (yet remain with us), and as the love of God pours into history (yet remains elusive).

The Letter to the Ephesians sets this out as an invitation to share in the design for life offered to us in Christ. This pattern for living in love, forgiveness and continual renewal is one “whose purpose is everywhere at work”, writes St Paul (or a close follower). He demonstrates this practically by arguing that both Gentiles and Jews must be welcome in God’s household. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has famously expressed it: “Christ, when he was lifted up, did not say ‘I draw some people to myself.’ He said ‘I draw all, all, all!’”

All Souls, indeed. For the soul, as St Augustine declared, and as modern theologians have elaborated, is not a disembodied spirit somehow temporarily trapped within the flesh (as ‘the religious’ suppose). It is, rather, as Leonardo Boff puts it, the whole, embodied person oriented towards the possibility of life rather than the thrall of death; personhood destined for communion rather than isolation.

This proper theological understanding is the antithesis of body-spirit dualism, the source of many dangerous superstitions – and of the playfulness we see in today’s Halloween, which I think can be understood as a commercialised echo of the way in which human beings tend to confuse God with the gods, and a parade of ghouls with the genuinely sinister forces that have captured the human spirit throughout history: from Nero and Salem right through to Auschwitz, the gulags, Cambodia’s Year Zero, the killing fields of Rwanda, Srebrenica, Israel-Palestine, Dafur and beyond.

All Saints and All Souls, then, is about the Gospel’s confrontation with all the manifestations of death, division and fear in our world. It calls us instead to a vision of the unity and fulfilment of the whole of life (past, present and future) in the presence of God. Yet being brought up a good Protestant, much of this passed me by for many years. Ancient controversies about “praying for the dead” and “vain ritual” prevent many Christians from seeing the deeper meaning of remembrance, just as modern atheism is caught up with understandings of faith that fall radically short of its invitation to embrace rather than renounce the truly human.

The real potency of All Saints and All Souls came home to me powerfully when I spent some time in Central America, specifically war-torn Nicaragua, in the mid-1980s. This was a time when small Christian communities found themselves caught up in a life-and-death struggle. As squads of government sanctioned killers sought out priests and religious speaking for human rights in places like El Salvador, for example, Daniel’s strange apocalyptic vision of the powers of destruction and the Psalmist’s thirst for justice (“the Lord… crowns the lowly with victory”, 149.4) resonated in their search for dignity and freedom. The biblical texts were not distant at all, but worryingly close.

This was a time of struggle, of sainthood (in the true meaning of the term – lives of shining example, not props for institutional religion) and of surprise: the incalculable spark of life that bursts forth in the face of all that threatens to extinguish it. At rallies, at funerals and in church services people would hear a litany of those who had been killed and lost. Each was remembered by name, sometimes over a period of half an hour or more. It was enough, you would have thought, to have convinced anyone that those with the guns were invincible. “How long, O Lord?”

Yet the impact was exactly the opposite. After every name of someone who had been slaughtered there would be a single cry: “Presenté!” Present. With us. Still part of the unstoppable surge of life that is God’s presence. It was in moments like this that I understood what the Communion of Saints truly was. Not an odd doctrine, but a living sense that even death cannot divide us from those whose lives continue to herald a new world coming.

As Archbishop Oscar Romero said in the homily he preached on 24 March 1980, just before he was shot while holding the elements as he celebrated Mass: “I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” His sense of the Body of Christ, broken in the world, yet still complete, was no vague theory, but something tangibly declared by the way he lived and died.

In chapter six of St Luke’s Gospel we have the manifesto of that way, set out as a series of blessings and warnings. Jesus names his new community as those marked out by the experiences of poverty, desolation, conflict and hopelessness. They are the ones who really understand the gift of life and the conditions of peace, he declares. By contrast, those who are locked away in themselves, in comfort, in wealth and in unconcern for their neighbours appear to have an easy time but are living in a fools paradise, built on misery.

This is the ‘design for life’ which the Gospel sets before us. A new set of relationships, unexpected friends, fresh priorities, renewed vision – among the most unlikely, odd, troubled and battered people imaginable. All souls, certainly, and all saints. But not necessarily those we would choose! Quite the reverse, in fact. A decidedly unpromising rag-bag. People like zealous but rather foolish Simon, my patron saint, whose day was last Sunday – along with Jude, who appropriately enough for me, at least, is the patron saint of lost causes (or “last resort”, as the breviary kindly puts it).

Likewise the weapons put into the hands of God’s people are decidedly unconventional. They ask us, as those who belong to Christ rather than earthly rulers, to trust in the power of love rather than the love of power. “To you who are listening”, declares Jesus, “I say this: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you spitefully” (6. 27-28). What’s more, Luke’s Beatitudes make it clear that this is not wishful thinking about an age that can be safely consigned to the future, but an invitation to receive and shape a new possibility in the midst of a bitterly divided world here and now. God’s surprising recipe for communion, you could call it. The contrast between this and the life our churches is often stark and disturbing.

What, then, can sustain us on the narrow path which virtually guarantees peril? That great cloud of witnesses again. Those to whom we can say, in fear and trembling, but also with great joy, “Presenté!” Present. With us. Still part of the unstoppable surge of life that is God’s presence. As you hear this, many names will come to mind, I am sure, and you will reflect with thanksgiving on the decidedly peculiar company God chooses to keep in order to show us that no-one has the right to claim a crown above others.

Of the many who continue to shape my life, there are three people I am especially remembering among the saints eternal today, two of whom you might have heard of, and one you almost certainly won’t. I was privileged to get to know Alan Ecclestone in what turned out to be the final five years of his life. He was a model of endurance: a man of wise learning, of unwavering commitment to the poor, and rooted in prayer – with hands and heart stretched out in search for a love that cannot be contained by earthen vessels. Tim Gorringe, who is Professor of Theology at the University, has written a short and worthy biography of Alan, called simply Revolutionary Priest. It is a challenging read.

By contrast, no-one has yet written the life of Ann Stricklen. Like Alan, she spent a significant period of her life in Sheffield, but I got to know her in Southwark Diocese in the early ‘90s, as a pioneering community development worker. She was often frustrated by the church but had an unshakeable faith in God’s people, whether they were part of the institution or railing against it. I had the great honour of being a pallbearer at her funeral in 1996, and as we almost let the coffin slip at some critical moment, I was sure I could hear Ann, telling us in no uncertain terms how to get our act together!

Lastly, I recall with enormous gratitude the life of Barbara Eggleston, who I first met in my late teens in the Brighton area. An Anglican, she went on to head up the Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and after her reception into the Catholic Church at Greyfriars in Oxford (an event I was honoured to be invited to, though it is not a move I have ever felt inclined to emulate) she worked for the Conference of Religious and the Dominican Justice and Peace Commission. Barbara tragically died of breast cancer aged only 46 in 2002. For me there is one story that not only sums up her humour and irrepressibility, but also says a huge amount about how the surprising life we encounter in the face of death comes to us.

Barbara had organised a silent Advent vigil against weapons of mass destruction outside Downing Street, in the days when you could do that sort of thing. As the police sought to move us on, we quietly sat on the pavement. A fair number of the sitters were fully attired nuns, some of them not young in years. As an embarrassed officer wrestled with the undoubted technical difficulty of trying to figure out how you pick up a nun without risking indecency, his commanding officer barked out loudly: “Who’s in charge here?” Barbara looked up at him with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and replied without a pause: “The Holy Spirit.” That, she reflected afterwards, would have made an interesting sight on the charge sheet!

All Saints and All Souls is a time for remembrance that in-spires, infuses us with God’s unquenchable love. For “[i]n Christ indeed we have been given a share in the heritage, as was decreed in the design he sets forth, whose purpose is everywhere at work” (Ephesians 1.11).

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog is at: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com

This article was originally given as an address at St Mary Arches Anglican Church, Exeter.

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