People used to think I was a ghost. As I took my early morning walk around the Convent in winter, dressed in a dark habit, with a black coat and my hood up, I looked like a cowled figure; guests apparently assumed I was a ghost, one of them mentioning it to the person in charge of the guest house. ‘Oh no,’ came the answer, ‘that’s Sr Rachel going for a walk’. The next Christmas, I asked my parents for one of those luminous jackets that you can wear in the dark, on the grounds that few ghosts go around with one of those on!
I’m an agnostic as far as believing in ghosts is concerned. I’ve never seen one, but have heard second hand stories of people who have. This time of year has increasingly become a time for celebrating all things ghostly and spooky; but Hallowe’en is actually shortened from the eve of All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day. The focus of the celebration is on the Saints of the Christian Church, on those who have gone before us; it is also our patronal festival, celebrated by the Community for a week, and in times past by Commemoration Day, or Public Day as the older records call it.
Mother Lavinia wished the Community she founded to be named after all the Saints, not just one main figure, joining us to that great community of the Church, which reaches beyond heaven and earth, and catches us all into the arms of God. Hebrews 12 talks of us being surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, conjuring up an image of each of us running the race of faith, urged on by huge crowds of those who have already completed their race, encouraging, cheering, supporting; those well known, and those unknown; those we know who have died, and those who died many years ago. Part of the huge Community of Faith, of which we now are but a part. A community of faith which it is very easy to forget or neglect, except on occasional Saints days.
Yet it is so easy to look at the Saints as those separate from us; those well-known Saints, who did great deeds, who are to be honoured, but ‘I could not be one of them’. Because they were holy, right? They had some great Spiritual gift, which enabled them to become Saints, right? Stories of healings and levitations, whether true or not, are probably unhelpful, as they make Saints appear much more apart from us. Yet somewhere I remember hearing or reading that Saints were – are – much more aware of their sins than we are, more aware of their need of God. For is that not really what a Saint is?
Someone who is aware of their need of God, someone who is able increasingly to let go of that which prevents them receiving from God? Someone whose sense of sin is not a negative, ‘how horrible I am’ spiral, but whose sense of sin brings them nearer to God, as they turn and receive God’s forgiveness and love? Someone who has let go of that sense of pride which thinks that somehow I must do part of it myself, who is humble enough to receive all from God? Someone who has let go (or let go enough) of false images of an angry, condemning god, who waits to send us all to hell, who has let go of that, in the knowing of our God of Love? Who clings to that, whether or not they are consciously aware of that love, as they may well not have been at times.
Being a Saint is not a guarantee of super holy feelings, of being enveloped in a cloud of God’s love; not that God’s love isn’t there, but it may bring a dark night of the soul. (Bearing in mind, of course, that I am not a Saint, therefore have no real idea of what I am talking about).
But isn’t it possible that a Saint is merely someone who is closer to God than the rest of us; someone who has become closer to what we are surely all aiming at; someone who has not completed their race in this life (who can?), but someone who has ‘lain aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, running with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus’ (continuing the image from Hebrews 12), who is now encouraging us to run faster, together, to God, who is at one and the same time running with us, enabling us to let go of the weights, and encouraging us to look ever more closely to Jesus.
Because ultimately a Saint is not someone who is perfect, or ultra-holy, or super spiritual, but someone who looks to Jesus as they live their lives; which, surely, is what we are all called to do? and maybe, at some point, we will discover that God’s definition of a Saint is different from ours, and we will be counted in that company, cheering on those who come after us. But it is so much easier to see sainthood as something we cannot aspire to, rather than something we should all be, something that we all are.
For this time of year is not really about celebrating a class of Christian who are so far above us that we can honour them, but not let them impact our daily lives; a class of Christian who only really existed in the past, and are so far removed from us that we can side-line them. It is about celebrating the Communion of Saints in heaven and on earth, which includes all those well-known Saints and holy figures that we honour and admire, but knows them as real human beings; it is about celebrating the Communion of Saints, which includes all those unsung and unknown Christians whom God knows and honours; it is about celebrating the Communion of Saints, which includes you and me and that person in the pew opposite who really irritates you.
For none of us may be Saints, but all of us are loved by God, and all we really need to do is let ourselves be loved – to truly let ourselves be loved – by our God; and, of course, to allow that love to permeate our selves, so that we can, more and more, love God and our neighbour back. Even the really irritating ones.