All Saints 2015.
We are all still reeling from the news of the terrible tragedy in Aberdeen last week, when a 16 year old was stabbed to death by a fellow pupil in front of classmates and teachers. A child psychotherapist, Dr Belinda Harris, was interviewed the next morning on the radio. She said that she could quite understand the immediate reaction of deciding to close the school for a few days following this terrible experience, but that she had concerns about the wisdom of doing so. She worried about how it would leave individual children at home to try and deal with what had happened – and that what they really needed was to come together as a school community and share the collective grief – that counsellors coming in to help would need to think about a group based approach, because although of course children and staff would need support and help as individuals, there would also be the need to address the collective shock and grief of the community of the school – a need to work with them together, rather than fragmenting the community at such a time.
And of course what happened in reality was that children made the decision for themselves – they gathered together at the closed school gate – bringing flowers, but also talking and weeping together, sharing the memory, remembering the boy who died, trying to make some sense of what had happened – to come to terms with the reality, however hard that was. And the headteacher was able then to come out to meet with them all and talk with them and be alongside them – all of them sharing the shock and grief as a close and loving community.
And in the weeks and months and years to come, this story – tragic as it is – will necessarily become part of the shared experience of that school, together with an honouring of the boy who died.
All communities need to share the stories of their past – good and bad – happy and sad – by which to make sense of their present, and on which to build their futures. We know that this is true for individuals – we see the rising popularity of family history research – the very name of the television programme “who do you think you are?” gives a clue to how our own identity is necessarily linked to what we know of our ancestry – the stories of our own family’s past. And we hear of those who, however happily brought up by adoptive parents, still feel a real need to know the facts of their origins.
And just as this is true of individuals, it is true too of communities – a need to share stories of collective experience. In some cultures, the shared stores are inextricably linked with the land and the natural world in which the community has grown up. Bruce Chatwin’s book “The Songlines” describes how in the Aboriginal culture, there are ancient, invisible tracks all over Australia, made of songs which tell of creation. The Aboriginal religious duty is to ritually travel the land, singing the songs of their Ancestors – “singing the world into being again” with the stories of their past.
The North American Indian belief too links the land itself with the shared experience of the people, and with the honoured memory of their ancestors: in 1885, Chief Seattle expressed this very eloquently when replying to the American President’s request to buy their land from them…
“Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people…
“If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.”
So the shared remembered experience of the ancestors – the people of the past – serves to inform the present and give hope for the future.
And today -as we watch the horrifying actions of ISIS – the brutal killing of so many who oppose their ideology, we may wonder why they would spend time and effort on the destruction of ancient stones and temples that have survived for centuries and which they are now reducing to rubble. But this, they know, is a deadly weapon too – because, of course, it is more than stones that are being destroyed – it is the story and remembrance of a people that is being obliterated with the stones.
Today is All Saints Day – and the Saints are the living stones of our faith – theirs are the stories we celebrate and remember – those who have gone before us in faith, and who inform our present and give us hope for our future. Many are known by name, and their stories have been passed down through the generations – others are unnamed and their stories are unrecorded, but they are remembered collectively by us as a faith community – remembered as a “cloud of witnesses” to the faith we proclaim.
At the beginning of the 11th century, Symeon, the Abbot of a monastery in Constantinople described the Saints as providing a golden chain linking past, present and future faith, rather like the songlines of the Aborigines.
“The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before and filled like them with light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith and works and love. So in the one God they form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken.”
The Church has always believed it is important to remember and celebrate the Saints. Our Festival of All Saints has its origin in the Feast of All Martyrs which formed a part of the liturgical cycle from the fifth century onwards – but which was then celebrated during the Easter season – giving it a real connection with the victory of Christ over death. All Souls too was celebrated in Easter week until the middle of the ninth century when both feasts were moved to the beginning of November. And so the Paschal connection has been rather lost, as the two feasts, together with Remembrance Sunday, have turned into a season of remembering the past, with perhaps less obvious emphasis on future hope.
So how important is it to remember the Saints today? Do we, the Church, as a faith community still need to remember and honour those whose stories are often obscured and challenged by time and by our new understanding of history and theology? Do we need the memory of the stories of the Saints for our community to flourish? In this age of celebrity it is the people of the present who are celebrated – those whose success and popularity is there before our eyes. Do we really need to be constantly looking back?……….
There have been challenges in the past of course….
During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament ran low on the silver used to make coins. So Cromwell sent his men to a local cathedral to search for some.
They reported back to him that the only silver they could find was in the statues of the Saints standing in the corners.
Cromwell sent back word, “Good; let’s melt down the saints and put them back into circulation.”
Pam Hathorn suggests that we are again at a time for meltdown. I leave you with her suggestion:
In times past
Saints were worth their weight in gold.
Their deeds were applauded,
Their faith was esteemed,
Their deaths honoured…..
In our times
Sinners luxuriate under the weight of other people’s gold.
The deeds of self-centred entrepreneurs are applauded,
The many-faceted faiths of conmen and charlatans are esteemed,
The deaths of unworthy celebrities are honoured…..
Now is the time
Saints putting themselves back into circulation;
Exchanged for gold from the refiner’s fire.