The Co-inherence of the Saints
A sermon preached at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church for the Feast of All Saints; 11/5/17, Year A; Matthew 5:1-12.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord…” “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints…
Today we observe All Saints’ Day, the day the Church celebrates the mystery of our interdependence—what our creeds call “the Communion of Saints,” or in the words of today’s Collect, the “mystical body” in which we are all “knit together.” And the saints, of course, are simultaneously all of us walking the way of Jesus, and also, particularly, those great exemplars—St. Francis and Clare, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross—who show us our full possibility and potential. And so we are at one and the same time the saints of God, and we are becoming God’s saints.
Our Gospel for today’s feast is Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, etc.” And the word “blessed” we still apply to saints today, the great exemplary ones—like “the Blessed Virgin Mary.” And as I’ve said here before, we get a much better sense of what Jesus was up to with this word if we look at the Aramaic that underlies the New Testament Greek. The word for “blessed” that Jesus would have used in his own language is the Aramaic tubwayhun, which literally means “ripe” or “ready for the picking”—a word from the agrarian culture Jesus grew up in. And when that word is used in reference to people, it can mean mature, integrated, whole, complete.
So right there is a basic Christian teaching—that there’s a trajectory in Christian life towards becoming ripened human fruit, and also the possibility for us to be unripe, immature. And so our growth into our own “blessed” possibility is our natural ripening process (if we give ourselves to it)—which means that sainthood and sanctity aren’t something that take us out of our humanness; they’re instead the natural unfolding of a life fully, authentically, humbly lived.
So take your bulletin with you this week and meditate on the beatitudes as the conditions for human ripening: blessed, ripe, mature, are those who mourn—those who stay sensitive and close to the suffering of the world; ripe, full in sweetness and flavor, are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart. Spend some time pondering this conditions, and where you might most need a bit more ripening in your own life.
Significantly, our tradition tells us that this ripening process doesn’t happen in isolation, as individuals, but always in communion, in community, in interdependence. One of the more interesting thinkers in our Anglican tradition from the 20th century—who really got this sense of interdependence—was a man named Charles Williams. For those of you who don’t know him, he was a member of the Inklings, the literary circle that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and he wrote everything from theology—his book The Descent of the Dove chronicles the history of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church—to “metaphysical thrillers” like War in Heaven and Descent into Hell.
The golden thread running through everything he wrote is a doctrine he called “Co-inherence”—that we “inhere together”—and along with it a corollary practice that he named “substituted love”—and we’ll come back around to that. As for co-inherence, Williams saw it as another way of talking about everything from the Communion of Saints to the Trinity to the Incarnation. Co-inherence teaches that we are all interwoven, that we co-inhere in one another—what Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa would call “Ubuntu”—I am because you are; we become ourselves through one another.
Williams said this is at the heart of all Christian doctrine: the Incarnation is the mystery of the Divine and the human co-inhering. The Trinity is the co-inherence, the interabiding, that exists within the very life of God. And the Eucharist, when we receive it, is the co-inherence of Christ in us, us in Christ, us in one another, and of course God in matter.
Williams taught that our whole life unfolds in this Great Co-inherence, beginning in the womb of our mother, with whom we intimately interabide, and continuing in baptism, when we’re incorporated into a Body—the Church—that is, God willing, trying to consciously live out this co-inherence. And that is the work of the Church—to live out the reality of this Union. We live this out through acts of what Williams called “substituted love”—when we put our love in the place of another—and this is how he understood St. Paul’s teaching that we are to “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). When you say, Hey, let me carry that for you.
The truth is, it’s simply the nature of things that we bear one another’s burdens, whether we like it or not. Future generations will bear the burden of climate change. Today we bear inherited burdens from a history of slavery and racism. But for Williams, a saint, a Christian, is someone who consciously bears and works to relieve the burdens of another, knowing that someone else is already carrying a burden for you. And he believed that within the Communion of Saints we bear these burdens together across time and space and distance. Maybe you, in your life now, are carrying and healing a burden for your grandmother. Or maybe for someone who has yet to be born.
This is the mystery of the Communion of Saints and of substituted love. And Jesus, of course, is our Great Substitution in Love—our tradition says that, somehow, across time, he carries our burdens, and that we, bound up in his Mystical Body, are called to do the same for one another—“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” In this light, I want to share with you a story from Mother Virginia Brown; she was one of the first several women ordained in the Episcopal Church and a founding member of the Rivendell Community. Virginia writes:
My father, a history professor, had been very ill with Parkinson’s, and toward the end he was quite confused. Yet when I visited him in the hospital, he was intent on communicating something to me, something important. He said he was working on a gift for us, and it was almost finished. He willed me to understand, I thought, that it was the gift of his life. And he told me, “I can look in a certain direction, and see children being fed.” What I understood by that was that he knew he was doing some spiritual work for others by his patient suffering, and I believe he knew I understood. (It wasn’t something I tried to tell anyone else about—not till later.)
[…The day after he died], my friend Cathy, who had also loved my father very much, was driving along the road to Nashville. It was spring, and the median was filled with poppies so gorgeous that she couldn’t take her eyes off them. Suddenly, she told me, she saw my father, there among the poppies. He was sitting down, surrounded by children, and was feeding each of them in turn with a spoon. In his arms he held a baby she recognized: it was Becky, her daughter whom she had adopted in Haiti, having found her nearly dead of starvation, a six-month old baby weighing five pounds, too weak to move. Becky did live and grow up, and is now an adoptive mother herself—of six children. But Cathy saw her as that emaciated baby—but now, she was being fed, and was smiling and content. Then my father looked directly at Cathy, smiled, and said, “Here, everything is remembered, everything forgotten, and everything known in joy.”
Across the chasm of time and death, somehow, my father’s self-offering, his weakness and suffering, had helped comfort and sustain a Haitian baby on the point of death. Who would have imagined such a thing? Yet when she told me about it I remembered how he had talked about seeing children being fed, out of the corner of his eye—as though he had been obliquely aware of it, though he couldn’t express it directly.
Now we could easily write stories like this off as hopeful, wishful thinking. As the hallucinations of a dying man and the grief-induced fantasies of a bereaved woman. But Charles Williams would say this is exactly how the Communion of Saints works—that we are constantly bearing one another’s burdens, in ways visible and invisible, known and unknown, across time and space and distance. That we do not know the ways we are interconnected, and that rarely, this side of the grave, can we see in fullness what we are working out in this life. And the only difference, we might say, between us and a saint in all of this, is that a saint consents to bear these burdens willingly, consciously, and joyfully.
I find great comfort in this kind of teaching, because it reminds us that we’re never alone in our suffering or dying, and that our burdens are always shared, even when we may not see or know it. Evelyn Underhill, another 20th century Anglican mystic who had a big impact on Williams, put it this way: “When we are confounded by sudden visions of a holiness and self-abandonment beyond our span [when we think, “I can never be like those saints!”], our share in the Communion of Saints assures us that other souls will suffer and adore for us, and make up for our deficiencies by their more abundant life. For since the life of the saints is the life of charity [of love], they cannot keep anything for themselves alone. The Life by which they live is shared, communicated from one to another, as the sap of the Vine is given through the greater branches to the less.”
When you can’t pray, someone else can pray for you. When you can’t carry a burden alone, someone can share it with you. And that work is the work of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints—realizing on earth the Union we already share in heaven. And so may we all grow as branches on the one Vine, bringing forth the ripened fruit of our humanity, and, held together in the Great Co-inherence of the Saints, may we bear one another’s burdens consciously, willingly, and joyfully.
I give the last word here to Charles Williams, a benediction of sorts:
Blessed be He that He has made us members one of another and all members of Him… Blessed be He that He has quickened among [us] the unity, exchange and substitution of love which is the pattern of Himself… Blessed be He that He continually makes all things new.
And blessed be He in His saints. Amen.