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Reflections from our gathering on All Saints' Day
"With Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven"
What a privilege it was to gather together in a deepening silence on November 1, All Saints’ Day. We began by reflecting on the mystical core of our faith, which invites us to open ourselves to our participation in “the communion of saints.” Every week, Christians around the world say that we are “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.” On All Saints’ Day, we say,
For in the multitude of your saints, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away. Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name: Holy, holy, holy Lord… (The “proper preface” for All Saints’ Day, Book of Common Prayer)
When the tangible and visible aspects of our lives are discouraging or worse, it is good to remember that this is only a portion of our larger life in God with each other. Talking about “a remembered love,” Henri Nouwen pointed to this truth:
“When everything is dark, when we are surrounded by despairing voices, when we do not see any exits, then we can find salvation in a remembered love, a love that is not simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past but a living force that sustains us in the present.” Henri Nouwen, Daily Meditation, October 29
We might say the same about “a remembered loved one,” someone whom we have loved and who has loved us, who has moved on to the larger life. We are not confined to “wistful recollections” of this person; rather, we continue in a sustaining, loving relationship with such people as participants in the communion of saints.
But, as Mary Oliver says, “We do not do this easily. We have lived so long in the heaven of touch,” and we maintain all the limitations of our physical, embodied lives. But as Mary Oliver suggests in this portion of “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” we have times when it is as if, slowly and gradually, a larger reality makes its presence known, and we make our appreciative response:
Of course I have always known you are present in the clouds, and the black oak I especially adore, and the wings of birds. But you are present too in the body, listening to the body, teaching it to live, instead of all that touching, with disembodied joy. We do not do this easily. We have lived so long in the heaven of touch, and we maintain our mutability, our physicality, even as we begin to apprehend the other world. Slowly we make our appreciative response. Slowly appreciation swells to astonishment. And we enter the dialogue of our lives that is beyond all under- standing or conclusion. It is mystery. It is love of God. It is obedience. from Thirst by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2006
Those last words, “It is obedience,” could be misleading. However, a deeper consideration of the word, obedience, awakens us to the reality that this is all about “giving our attention to,” or “giving ourselves to” a larger, unseen reality:
“Obedience” from the Latin obedire, which literally means "listen to," but is used to mean "pay attention to." "Obedience" in Hebrew is: shama (שָׁמַע). It means “to hear,” “to listen,” “to give attention,” “to understand,” “to submit to,” ...
With those things in mind, we then engaged in a contemplative practice together that seemed especially appropriate for All Saints’ Day. We took a few moments to ponder someone in our lives whom we have loved, and who has loved us, but who has now entered into the larger life. And as we prepared to enter into a time of deepening silence together, we asked, “Now that this beloved person is in heaven, what does this person want you to know?” With pen and paper, each of us was given time to write down what we believe our beloved friend, family member, mentor, teacher, guide, or spouse now wants us to know. We put pen to paper, as if our beloved was writing a letter to us.
After a period of time, we regathered and prepared to enter into a time for Lectio Divina. And suspecting that one of the things we often hear from heaven is how deeply, thoroughly, and unconditionally we are loved, we used for our Lectio Divina session a portion of the opening verses of Chapter 43 in the Book of Isaiah:
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, your Savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear, for I am with you.
We concluded our Lectio with a longer period of contemplation, or “resting in God.” And after short verbal prayer, we gave ourselves to another short poem by Mary Oliver, one that signals the extraordinary beauty, mystery, and wonder of everyday life:
“The world I live in,” by Mary Oliver I have refused to live locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs. The world I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe? You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.
Finally, a lovely quotation from John Ruskin that I love, words that point to unseen realities that are about us always, realities that are available to our spiritual faculties but that elude our usual ways of perceiving the world:
“If some people see angels where others only see empty space, let them paint the angels; only let not anybody else think they can paint an angel too, on any calculated principles of the angelic.”
(John Ruskin, English writer, philosopher, art critic and polymath (1819-1900) in Modern Painters: Volume 4. Of Mountain Beauty)
What a lovely invitation, and warning! As usual, it was a blessed hour together.