Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This year, as ever, I noticed many of my colleagues posting on social media some variation of the following warning: This is your annual reminder that All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are two different days. Those of you who’ve been around here a while have heard me make this distinction, so I won’t belabor the point, except to say that this is true–the former celebrates those “capital ‘S’” canonized heroes of the faith, and the latter recalls and bids us pray for all the faithful departed. I’ve done a pretty bad job at modeling the distinction this year. We had a celebration of the Eucharist Monday morning for All Saints’ Day. I generally celebrate a requiem mass on All Souls’ Day, but this year, for my sins, I was a poll worker and, figured nobody would be willing to attend a liturgy which fit into my schedule (which would have had to either end before 5 a.m. or begin after 9 p.m. Tuesday). And, as ever–as a lesser of two evils, perhaps– we sort of mash the two together on the following Sunday, so we have a somewhat tonally jerky liturgy today in which we both celebrate the Saints and pray for the dead. We have the litany of the departed and read the necrology during the Eucharistic prayer, and our lessons (because the revised lectionary we’ve had to use for the last fifteen years is itself rather confused) seem a bit more “All Soulsy” than they are “All Saintsy.”

All that said, I want to diverge a bit from the lessons and the themes of the faithful departed, to speak a bit more personally about a couple of Saints that mean a great deal to me, and I hope in this brief reflection you can find something which might encourage you to study the lives of those Saints who for what ever reason appeal to you as potential prayer-partners, which is their primary way of interacting with us. More about that in a moment.

One of my favorite English idioms is the phrase “busman’s holiday.” The idea is that somebody who drives a bus for a living is likely to take a bus someplace for vacation; so it suggests a vacation where you do something related to your working life. I took a “busman’s holiday” in the summer of 2019, and many of you will remember me talking about it quite a bit, so I won’t bore you with an extensive travelogue. The best bit, as some of you will remember, was celebrating the Eucharist at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England. There were many other highlights, but two have really stuck with me. One was a stay at the Carmel, the convent in Lisieux (in France) which was home to St. Therese. The second was a stay at the Abbey in Eibingen outside Rudesheim-am-Rhine (in Germany) which was founded by St. Hildegard von Bingen.

I want to do something a little different, here, and simply read the official hagiographies (that is a fancy word for the biography of a saint) published in our churches book of Saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts (the most recent edition being approved in 2018), and then I’ll just say one word about something which I think those hagiographies omit.

Therese of Lisieux

Called “the greatest saint in modern times” by Pope Pius X, canonized by Pope Pius XI just twenty-eight years after her death, and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II, Thérèse of Lisieux has become one of the most beloved saints of the Church.

From an early age, Thérèse felt called to the religious life; even as a little girl she played at being a nun. On Christmas Eve 1886, at age fourteen, she experienced a vision of the infant Christ and what she called a “complete conversion.” Thereafter she understood her vocation to be prayer for priests, and she began seeking admittance to the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. When she entered the order at age 17 as a Discalced Carmelite, she assumed the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.

Dedicated to what she called her “little way,” she led a simple, quiet life of prayer—in particular for priests—and small acts of charity. She struggled with illness throughout her life and suffered greatly from tuberculosis before her death in 1897 at age twenty-four. At age twenty-two, just two years before her death, her prioress instructed her to write her memoirs. The Story of a Soul, as it came to be called, commended a life of “great love” rather than “great deeds,” echoing the insight of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a book that had helped her to discover her vocation and develop her spiritual life. She corresponded with Roman Catholic missionaries to China and Indonesia as well as with young priests, pursing what she saw as the mission of the Carmelites, “to form evangelical workers who will save thousands of souls whose mothers we shall be.”

Toward the end of her short life, Thérèse experienced a profound sense of abandonment by God, but even this did not shake her love for God. On the verge of death, Thérèse confessed that she had “lost her faith” and all her certainty, and was now “only capable of loving.” She experienced her sense of separation from God as something to be borne in solidarity with unbelievers. She “no longer saw” God in the light of faith, but nevertheless responded to him with a passionate love. In this experience, her youthful decision that her vocation was “to be love in the heart of the church” lost all hint of sentimentality. Her last words epitomize her “little way”: “My God, I love you.”

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098 in the Rhineland Valley, was a mystic, poet, composer, dramatist, doctor, and scientist. Her parents’ tenth child, she was tithed to the church and raised by the anchoress Jutta in a cottage near the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg.

Drawn by their life of silence and prayer, other women joined them, finding the freedom, rare outside of women’s religious communities, to develop their intellectual gifts. They organized as a convent under the authority of the abbot of Disibodenberg, with Jutta as abbess. When Jutta died, Hildegard, then 38, became abbess. Later she founded independent convents at Bingen (1150) and Eibingen (1165), with the Archbishop of Mainz as her only superior.

From childhood, Hildegard experienced dazzling spiritual visions. When she was 43, a voice commanded her to tell what she saw. Thus began an outpouring of extraordinarily original writings, illustrated by unusual and wondrous illuminations. These works abound with feminine imagery for God and God’s creative activity.

In 1147, Bernard of Clairvaux recommended her first book of visions, Scivias, to Pope Eugenius III, leading to papal authentication at the Synod of Trier. Hildegard quickly became famous, and was eagerly sought for counsel, becoming a correspondent of kings and queens, abbots and abbesses, archbishops and popes.

She carried out four preaching missions in northern Europe, which was an unprecedented activity for a woman. She also practiced medicine, focusing on women’s needs; published treatises on natural science and philosophy; and wrote a liturgical drama, The Play of the Virtues, in which the personified virtues sing their parts and the devil, condemned to live without music, can only speak. For Hildegard, music was essential to worship. Her liturgical compositions, unusual in structure and tonality, were described by her contemporaries as “chant of surpassing sweet melody” and “strange and unheard-of music.”

Hildegard lived in a world accustomed to male governance. Yet within her convents, and to a surprising extent outside of them, she exercised a commanding spiritual authority based on confidence in her visions and considerable political astuteness. When she died in 1179 at the age of 81, she left a rich legacy which speaks eloquently across the ages.

So, we are given here very brief sketches of two very important women in the church’s life. So important that they are two of only four women (alongside St. Teresa of Avilla and St. Catherine of Siena) whom the Roman Catholic church lists as Doctors of the Church.

The hagiographies I just read do a good job of presenting Therese and Hildegard as women of tremendous spiritual depth, but they do leave out what I think is an important aspect of each. Namely that they were strong enough in their faith to speak boldly to powerful people despite the place of women in 12th Century Germany and 19th Century France not making that an easy proposition.

On a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome, after having been told by the diocesan authorities that she was too young to enter the Carmel, a fifteen year old Therese knelt before Pope Leo XIII during an audience and demanded he force her bishop to allow it. She had to be dragged off by the Swiss Guard.

In the year 1153, having discerned that the King of Germany, who was soon to become Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, was not managing the kingdom’s affairs wisely, Hildegard wrote the following letter to the King:

O king, it is imperative for you to have foresight in all your affairs. For in a mystic vision I see you like a little boy or some madman living before Living Eyes. Yet you still have time for ruling over worldly matters. Beware, therefore, that the almighty King does not lay you low because of the blindness of your eyes, which fail to see correctly how to hold the rod of proper governance in your hand. See to it that you do not act in such a way that you lose the grace of God.

As you can imagine this could have gone very badly for Hildegard. She could have been jailed or banished. Instead, Frederick invited her to come to his court at Aachen to serve as an advisor.

With these two heroes of the faith, their trust in God gave them strength and courage which few of us could imagine embodying. This, I think, is what defines a Saint, and it is a quality which we, too, can develop. Perhaps we’ll none of us get there in this life, but we are all works in progress thanks to the Spirit working in us.

All of this brings us, at last, to the point, which is what the Saints do for us. They are Saints, not to put it too crassly, by virtue of the fact that we have a high degree of confidence that they have already received the beatific vision, their souls are already before the throne of God in sure and certain hope that their bodies with ours will follow at the final judgment. Thus they are already engaged in the worship of God in heaven and their prayers for us can be powerful.

Saints, as I said at the outset, are our prayer partners. Just as we might ask our friends whom we know to be powerful pray-ers (some use the term “prayer warriors” which is alright, though some might be turned off by the martial imagery), so too might we ask the Saints to intercede for us. As an aside, if somebody from a more reformed background asks, either genuinely or as a means to try to trap you, “do you Episcopalians pray to the Saints?” you can simply answer, nobody (Episcopalian or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or whatever) prays to the saints; we pray to God with the saints.

We do not in this Communion have as developed a canonization process as, say, the Roman Catholic Church with its devil’s advocate and documentation of miracles and the like. Sometimes we add folks to our calendar who might be important people–the first bishop of the diocese of Northeastern Fostoria or whatever–because our process of adding commemorations to the calendar is painfully democratic for good and ill. My response is often something like, “well that fellow’s important, but I’d hardly call him a saint.” But there is a rule of thumb, here, which I find helpful, as subjective as it is. Do I feel comfortable saying “Saint [insert name here] pray for me”? If so, go for it. If not, humbly move along and hold out the possibility that somebody else might come to a different conclusion.

This is a practice I commend to you, and if you’d like to get a good start, look at the calendar (it starts on page 19 of the prayerbook) each morning and ask “who is today’s saint?” Take a minute to do a little study. Google them. Or, even better, ownload a copy of Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018, which I mentioned earlier. The pdf is free. Read the hagiography, say the prayer appointed for the day, maybe read one of the appointed lessons. And be persuaded as you will that this hero of the faith, too, is praying before the throne of God, and we are joining our prayers with theirs, and this is a very comforting thought.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.