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Paul Elmer More on the Communion of Saints

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Paul Elmer More (1864—1937), one of the great twentieth-century American men of letters, is little read today, and that is unfortunate.  Part of the problem is timing:  More, a classicist, essayist, social critic – and mentor of C. S. Lewis – came along just when interest in traditional religion, patristics, and classics went out of fashion in American universities.  His works, however, contain a wealth of insight uniquely relevant to the cultural crises and religious dilemmas of our times.

This will be the first of several planned posts about More.  Here he is analyzing the items of faith of the Apostles Creed with his own unique blend of Anglo-Catholic traditionalism and modern scepticism, and comes to the Communion of Saints.

From Paul Elmer More, The Catholic Faith (Princeton, 1931), pp. 96-100.

Article 11: The Communion of Saints. — Here we are stopped by a doubt as to the actual meaning of the original words such as meets us nowhere else in the creed. It is contended by certain scholars, that the Greek phrase and its Latin equivalent (sanctorum communionem) had no reference to “saints” or to persons at all, but implied “a participation in the holy things” (sancta, neuter).  However that may be — and the contention is probably correct — it happened at an early date that the phrase came somehow to be referred to persons (sancti, masculine); and thus the clause stands in the English translation. So taken, the article must be understood simply to define and amplify the preceding confession of belief in the Church [note: i.e., Article 10 of the Creed, ‘the Holy Catholic Church’]. Yet it is an extension so rich in possible consequences as to merit separate consideration.

The certain nemesis of individualism, the price perhaps of being individuals, is loneliness, — the sullen power ever on watch if it may creep in at the gate of the soul, to darken with its shadows the hours of revelry, to tantalize the sweet expectations of love, to embitter the anguish of sorrow, — the mocker whose thin laughter can be heard without even when the bolts are drawn against its entrance. There is no escape from it though we go down to the pits of folly, no distraction that will drive it away, no pride of ambition that will satiate it, no human wisdom that will utterly extract its sting, and the threat of death is its eternal reality. The most terrible word of our western philosophy is the sentence with which Plotinus closes his account of the mystic ecstasy: “The flight of the alone to the Alone”; and it is but a chilly comfort that comes with the same idea from the theosophy of the East:

He, in that solitude before
The world was, looked the wide void o’er
And nothing saw, and said, Lo I
Alone! — and still we echo the lone cry.

Thereat He feared, and still we fear
In solitude when naught is near:
And, Lo, He said, myself alone!
What cause of dread when second is not known?
(Source: Century of Indian Epigrams, lxvi. From the Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad, I, iv, 1 and 2.)

If there be any real mitigation of that loneliness, which otherwise seems only to be brought into deeper consciousness by the upward strivings of religion, we must look for it in the Church. Here, if anywhere, in the community of worship through prayer and praise, the spirits of men are united in “the fellowship of the Holy Ghost.” This is the thought that underlies the symbol of the Church as the body of Christ, running through the epistles of St. Paul like a beautiful refrain: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,” and “For we being many are one bread and one body.”

But the Church includes a wider fellowship than this. Besides the visible body of living believers it embraces the body of those who have passed into the invisible world, so that by this communion with the saints the very sundering partitions of time are broken down as well as the separations of place, and almost we can say that death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. It is a thought of unspeakable consolation, if only we could realize it in experience as we profess it in words.

Something of what is meant by this article of faith can be guessed from the arts, for in these too we have communion with the great dead as well as with the living. We read the poets whose soul has gone into their works, an Aeschylus or Virgil or Dante or Milton, we hear the melodies or see the pictures of the ancient masters, and forthwith we are rapt out of ourselves, out through the locked doors of the present, into the large atmosphere of those who once lived in the mystery of beauty and turned life itself into a tale of wonder.

Or we study the sages, the veritable seers to whom the gross forms of matter were commuted into a vision of Ideas or lost in “the intellectual love of God.” We know that there, in that society, is our true home, and we say, sit anima mea cum philosophis [note: May my soul be with the philosophers]. Such is the communion of art and philosophy, the high and glorious adventure of education; yet withal it is but a sign and foretaste of that which may be given by religion. For in philosophy and the arts we are made free indeed of the world in which the masters lived, and partakers of that which they added to the world by their creative genius; we live with their works, but, so far as they are merely artists and philosophers, not with them;  they are dead and their task is done. It is not so with the communion of saints. No doubt we have here too the benefit of their achievements as such; their holiness is a lesson and an ensample [note: synonym for example] to us, as it were a poem, a picture, and a book of wisdom on which we can draw for courage and enlightenment. But if the article of the creed is properly understood, it means more than this. It signifies that the saints are active spirits, members of the Church like ourselves, though withdrawn from sight and nearer to the source of light than we, to whom a man may come in prayer and friendship. That is a mystery of religion, none the less precious for the abuses of exaggeration it has suffered in certain practices of the actual Church.

Nor is it limited to the mighty champions of the faith, the canonized or uncanonized heroes of holiness. In another sense the lesser dead as well as the greater are included among the saints, those of our own circle who have gone before, and who speak to us, not in the dull mechanical fashion of the spiritualists so-called, but in a silence that can stir our being to its depths. There are those who will tell you how sometimes at the hearing of the mass or at the regular morning and evening service of prayer, and more especially when the congregation is united in saying the creed, they become strangely aware of the presence of one “loved long since and lost awhile,” and with that spirit seem to be carried close to the throne of mercy. And the memory of that communion is to them inexpressibly sweet. You may say that they are carried away by aesthetic emotions, momentarily rapt out of themselves by the illusions of fancy. It may be so; but I believe they are not utterly deceived. All this is conveyed by profession of faith in the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.

Written by John Uebersax

December 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm

The Communion of Saints

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A search for a clear exposition of this distinctive and sublime Christian teaching revealed Wyllys Rede’s book, The Communion of Saints (Longmans, 1893). This charming devotional work has three special virtues:

First, it is plainly a labor of love.  Rede discloses that he lost both parents in infancy and felt a later spiritual connection with them; this interest, and the study and reflection pursuant to it, formed the earnest foundation of the book.

Second, a generous, diverse and interesting selection of quotes from earlier literature is supplied.

Third, the material was first delivered as a series of lectures; this often has, as here, the effect of enhancing the content, reasoning, and organization of a work.

Rede consistently appeals to the instincts and intuitions of the readers, diplomatically sidestepping and deflecting certain historical contentions that have sometimes surrounded the topic.

Though an Episcopalian cleric, Rede takes a non-denominational perspective.

An interesting detail from the author’s life is that, at age 3, he sat on the knee of President Lincoln and was entertained with stories immediately preceding to the latter’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address.

The chapters are as follows:

1. What is the Communion of Saints?

2. Is there a Life after Death?

3.Where are the Souls of Departed Saints?

4. Do the Saints departed Live a Conscious Life?

5. What is the Relationship of Departed Saints to us?

6. What is our Relationship to Departed Saints?

7. What is the Relationship of all Saints to God?

As seen, the book is structured in the form of questions which, the author candidly observes, are those which people naturally wonder about.  Below we excerpt the principle questions of each chapter, and the author’s conclusions concerning them.

1. What is the Communion of Saints?

What is the Communion of Saints?

The word “communion” is not difficult to define. It means a common share or fellowship. When used in a religious sense, it means a mystical partnership in some supernatural grace or life. [p. 4]

By the communion of saints we mean the spiritual relationship which knits together all God’s saints in the mystical Body of Christ. [p. 4]

To whom can we properly apply the title of “saints”?

I claim the name of saint for every soul [living or dead] that has been baptized into Christ and tries to live up to its baptismal vows. I claim it for every life that can with any degree of truth be called a consecrated life. I claim it for every one (however frail, however full of faults) who yet looks longingly before where Christ has gone and tries to follow Him. [p. 11]

2. Is there a Life after Death?

[His answer is yes. This chapter mainly sets the stage for subsequent discussion. Iit can be skipped or lightly read without limiting understanding or appreciation of later chapters.]

3. Where are the Souls of Departed Saints?

Rede affirms the traditional teaching that souls must await the Last Judgment at the end of the world before reaching a final reward with God in heaven.  This period(?) between death and the Last Judgement is termed the intermediate state.  For the virtuous, it is envisaged as a kind of Paradise, more a ‘school for souls’ than a place of punishment.   Supporting this view, Rede cites the words of Jesus on the cross to the penitent thief: Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43) Rede draws particular attention to the words today, which implies something immanent, not delayed until after the Last Judgment; and with me, which suggests a continuing connection or relationship of the soul to Jesus in this paradisiacal state.

The possibility that souls of the unjust go to another place, and undergo a purgatorial purification, is also considered.

Do they [departed souls] go at once to their final abode?

Every human soul must wait until its body has been raised from the grave, and God’s general judgment passed before it can enter on its final state. [p. 49]

Is there an intermediate state in which the spirit lives and waits the coming of God’s own good time ?

Our Church, our Creed, and our Bible tell us that there is. The Church in all ages, especially her earliest, has believed in such a state of life. [p. 51]

Where is their [just souls’] abode, and what their life between the hour of death and the judgment-day?

The Holy Scriptures teach us distinctly, though somewhat indirectly, of the existence and character of the intermediate state. [p. 52]

By Paradise He [Jesus] must have meant some intermediate state preparatory to the heavenly life into which He was later on to ascend. [p. 53]

The conclusions to be drawn from this parable [the rich man and Lazarus]; seem to me to be partly these: that the life of the soul goes on after death in some place or state provided by God for disembodied souls; that this has two divisions or states of life widely separated from each other, at least in the tenor of their existence. In one of them the spirits of the saints (represented by Lazarus) enjoy rest, refreshment, and companionship. In the other, those who have squandered their lives and hardened their hearts to the extent of final impenitence, await with apprehension the just and final judgment of their God. [pp. 59 – 60].

They have entered a new cosmical sphere of life, which differs totally from this material sphere of time and space. [p. 64]

“an inward realm where life lays bare its root, whereas in this world it shows only the branches of the tree.” [quoting Hans Lassen Martensen; p. 65]

“a kingdom of calm thought and self-fathoming, a kingdom of remembrance in the full sense of the word.” [quoting Hans Lassen Martensen; p. 65]

They are spending “a school-time of contemplation,” as in this world they endured “a discipline of service.” [quoting Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman; p. 65].

This word [Paradise] our Lord used, and ever since it has been a consecrated word, and has been understood to mean the outer court of heaven, the gardens of delight which stretch about the dwelling-place of God, the pleasant land in which all faithful souls shall dwell until they enter in through the everlasting doors into the palace of the Great King. Its beauty must be transcendent, its delights infinite. It must be worthy of that city of God which it surrounds, worthy to be the royal road that leads up to gates of pearl and into streets of gold. [pp. 62-3]

4. Do the Saints departed Live a Conscious Life?

Is the life of the soul in the Intermediate State a conscious life?

In His [Jesus’] promise to the penitent thief upon the cross He distinctly asserts the continuance of consciousness.… It must imply that the soul is not shorn of its powers in Paradise. [p. 74]

Having, as I trust, established the fact of consciousness in the future life, we want to know what are its activities. With what is it occupied? How is it limited?

At death soul and body separate, and the soul begins to live alone. It no longer receives its impressions through sensations of the body…. The mind acts, but no longer through bodily media. The result is a great quickening of the mental and spiritual faculties. [p. 76]

The intellectual and spiritual life is unhindered now, and a magnificent horizon opens before it in which it is free to range. [p. 76]

What are the occupations of the life beyond the grave? With what are souls busy in the unseen world?

I answer, they are undergoing a process of soul-growth and ripening, a progressive sanctification, a purification from the defilements of this world. [p. 77]

Does the soul in Paradise remember the past?

Without the contrast which memory would draw between the “evil things ” which he had suffered in his earthly life and the “good things ” which he now enjoyed, he would be deprived of a large part of his reward. [p. 82]

The pure and precious loves of this life are not forgotten in the life to come. God is love, and He will not quench any love that has a right to live. [pp. 82-3]

And if there come thoughts of penitence and visions of past sins, as come they must, with them will come a fuller knowledge of the loving mercy of their Lord to soothe the self-accusing pangs of memory. [p. 83]

Shall God, who gave man knowledge, hide it from him at the very time when He is perfecting him for an entrance into the very fulness of knowledge? I know not. What will be the limits of that knowledge we may not dare to define; but that in its gradual growth it will far surpass the knowledge possible in this world we may rest assured. [pp. 84-5]

5. What is the Relationship of Departed Saints to us?

How much do they know of our present life and needs? Are all the events of the world’s history and of our individual experience known to them?

Knowledge of all that goes on here might be rather a hindrance than a help [p. 105]

While they do not know by their own powers of perception what passes here, such knowledge may be conveyed to them through other avenues. Their numbers are increasing day by day, and each soul that goes hence carries with it into the other world some news from this. The angels, as they go to and fro upon their ministries from God to men, let fall by the way so much as God permits them to tell of what is going on here. Finally, our Lord Himself imparts to the souls which dwell in His nearer presence something, as much as it is best for them to know, of what is happening to those whom they have loved and left behind. Thus, while we have no proof that they know of themselves all that is passing here, we are at liberty to think that their loving Lord lets them have such knowledge of us as they need. [pp. 107-8]

While we do not suppose that the saints in Paradise are directly cognizant of what is said or done by us, we are led to think that our Lord reveals to them so much of it as is best for them to know. [p. 120]

Do the saints in Paradise pray?

The souls in Paradise are with Christ, in a closer fellowship than was possible on earth. Their speech with Him must, therefore, be freer than it was before. It must be frequent, frank, and unrestrained. [p. 110]

Do they pray for us?

The  souls in Paradise are still the same souls. They have not lost their identity. Their traits of character and their affections are the same as before, only exalted and purified. All that was good in them remains unchanged, except for the better. They love us still, they think of us, they long for the time when we shall join them in their holy home. Therefore they must pray for us. They must often and earnestly ask God to work His will in us and bring us safe home to them. They must plead with Him to protect us from harm and pardon all our sins. They do not need to be spurred on by a full knowledge of all that is happening to us. Out of their own experience they can guess our needs well enough. Their warm true love for us, and their realization of the joy that awaits us, must drive them on resistlessly. They know, as they never did before, the tremendous issues of human life. They see our dangers clearer than we do. And so they pray for us. [pp. 110-111]

And are their prayers effectual for our good?

Their loud unceasing cry goes up to God for us. Will God not hear that cry? Will He turn away His face and make as though He heard it not ? Does He not love to hear it ? [pp. 111-12]

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” What, then, must be the power of the ceaseless prayers of a Paradise full of holy souls ? The mind of man cannot measure the blessings God shall give in answer to the prayers of Paradise. [p. 112}

The saints departed pray for us, but can we ask them for their prayers? Can we in any sense pray to them ?

[Rede cautions against attributing] to the saints powers and prerogatives which encroach upon the [unique] mediatorial office of Christ. [p. 118]

The earlier and purer doctrine of the post-Nicene age, namely, that of prayer for prayer, the Ora pro nobis [pray for us; addressed to deceased saints] of the old service-books, has never been condemned in any part of the Church Catholic. [p. 119]

How good it is to think of the mighty chorus of prayer which is ever going up from the saints in Paradise… I love to think of it, and try to catch some far-off echo of its harmonies. [pp. 123-4]

6. What is our Relationship to Departed Saints?

May we pray for those who are gone, or are they beyond the need and the reach of our prayers?

The same love which binds together the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, when God has permitted it to bind human hearts, must be as eternal in the one relationship as in the other. [p. 129]

In this life one of the strongest bonds that holds together human-kind is the mutual ministry of prayer. Nothing unites us closer to a friend than to pray for him. Nothing stirs us more deeply than to know that some one is praying for us. [p. 132]

If, then, our hearts and minds are full of those who have gone out from our midst, and our desires seem to be centred and summed up in them, are we not praying for them anyhow? … Such is the natural yearning and reasoning of the human heart. Must it be repressed? Is there anything to forbid us to carry out these natural inclinations which are so strong? [p. 133]

I think no honest mind can doubt that His silence gives consent. We seem to hear Him say, “I would have told you, if it were not so.” (John 14:2). The Second Book of Maccabees tells us that some two centuries before our Lord became incarnate in the flesh it was customary to pray for the dead.  The records of ancient Hebrew life and the testimony of the best Jewish scholars assure us that prayers for the dead were common when He was fulfilling His earthly ministry.  In every synagogue they were offered as a matter of course, and are to-day. They formed a part of the Temple worship, where sacrifices were offered for those who had departed this life in a state of imperfect holiness. [p. 134]

All the liturgies of the Primitive Church contain prayers for the dead. [p. 137]

What is accomplished by such prayers, and for whom may we offer them?

One of the popular difficulties of our times is to understand how such prayers can benefit those whose earthly life is at an end. If you believe that their probation-time is past and that they are at rest in Paradise, why do you pray for them? So the world asks us. We reply, Yes, we know that they are at rest, we suppose that their time of probation is fulfilled, that they have entered on their reward. But they are not made perfect yet. They still need blessings from the hand of God. They need to be purified and drawn closer to Him day by day, and there will come a time when they with us must stand before their Judge. There is, therefore, much which we may ask of God for them. [p. 141-2]

7. What is the Relationship of all Saints to God?

It consists chiefly, on the one side, in the communication of a divine supernatural life from God to men; on the other, in the offering of an individual and united worship by men to God. [p. 153]

Written by John Uebersax

March 2, 2012 at 10:34 pm