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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.

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Written by John Uebersax

December 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm