From time to time on Internet Monk a commenter will express discomfort with the Orthodox and Catholic tradition of acknowledging the communion of saints. Someone will object to “praying to Mary” or “worshipping saints.” Let me offer a parable in response.
Imagine a young woman who meets and falls in love with a man – Let’s call him Josh. They meet away from each other’s homes, perhaps at work or at college. When they get engaged, Josh invites her home to get to know his family.
She’s nervous, of course. Josh is a wonderful guy – far better than she deserves, she thinks. She’s amazed that he picked her out of all the girls in the world. Her chief concern everywhere they go is to show Josh how much she loves him and is faithful to him alone.
They pull up to his family’s house. A surprising number of people are silhouetted against the windows, and the front and back yards are full of clusters of conversationalists. As they get out of the car, she can hear people young and old talking about other times, other places; about science, and philosophy, and humor. She feels slightly intimidated and grabs hold of Josh’s hand. He smiles at her and brings her in to meet his mother and siblings.
The story is pretty familiar and predictable up to this point. Many of us have been through something like this. But here is where she has a choice – option A and option B.
Option A goes like this: She gets swept into a noisy crowd of people who all want to meet her; Josh is left behind. They hug her, ask her questions, laugh, get her a drink – they make her feel at home. She soon knows that not only has she found a husband, she’s been adopted into a clan. Some of them, to be honest, seem a bit strange, but she reminds herself that she must seem strange to them. After an hour or so, she catches Josh’s eye across the room and gives him a wave and a thumbs-up. He’s delighted. Eventually he will drive her home, and they can be alone to talk, but right now the music’s starting up and she’s being pulled into a dance.
Option B, on the other hand, looks this way: Josh brings his fiancée up to his mother, who is sitting on the sofa surrounded by smiling relatives. But instead of responding to his mother’s greeting, the girl turns back to Josh and holds his hand more tightly. She does the same thing as aunts and uncles and cousins come to welcome her; she won’t meet their eyes or talk to them. Though she doesn’t go so far as to stick her fingers in her ears and chant, her posture suggests that she would if she could. Soon she pulls Josh away to an isolated corner, leaving bewildered and slightly offended people behind her.
“What’s the matter with you?” Josh asks. “Why won’t you talk to my family? They’re important to me, and they were excited about welcoming you.”
“No way!” she declares. “I love you and only you. I’m not going to dilute our relationship or get distracted from you by spending any time with those other people. If our friends saw me talking to your cousins, they might think I was being unfaithful.”
The allegory is obvious. The young woman is any Christian, Josh is Jesus, his mother is Mary, and his family represents the communion of saints, alive and dead. I’ve told the story this way to show how ungracious, at the very least, it is to Jesus and his family to ignore everyone but him. The girl is not going to marry everyone else in the clan, of course, but she will be a part of them forever. I’m sympathetic to the girl’s impulse to be exclusively committed to her fiancé, but she needs to ask herself, how does it glorify him to be scornful of everyone else who loves him?
Many people who are uncomfortable with acknowledging the saints raise the point that saints are dead. It’s one thing, they say, to visit, pray with, eat with or complain to living people – they are happy to do all those things with their fellow (living) Christians. But conversation with dead people leaves them feeling squeamish. What are the mechanics of talking to dead people, anyway? Are we praying to them as if they were gods? Are we invoking their ectoplasm through a séance? Or are we just talking to the ceiling like forgetful old people in nursing homes murmuring to lost loved ones? As a result of this confusion, many people react to the communion of saints like the young woman in the example above and determinedly ignore them.
I have no clue what the mechanics of “talking to the dead” are. In fact, I don’t think you can talk to the dead. You can talk to the resurrected, though – the Gospels prove that. Samuel Wesley, a Protestant of the 19th century, wrote in “The Church’s One Foundation” of the “mystic sweet communion” we have “with those whose rest is won.” It’s not a new idea that those who loved and served the Body of Christ while they were here on earth still do so now (whatever “now” means once one has left the temporal world behind). The saints in glory are my in-laws, my new family, as are the Christians who are still in this world. I won’t worship them, and I will only “pray” to them in the seventeenth-century usage of the word meaning to request attention of them.
I should acknowledge that there is one more option that our imaginary young woman has. She could make such close friends of Josh’s mother or other relatives that she does end up neglecting him. That would result in a dysfunctional relationship, which is an ugly thing, literally or allegorically. There are wives who have done so with their husbands and Christians who have done so with their Savior.
But let’s not overcompensate and snub Jesus’ family out of fear of idolatry. God sets the lonely in families, and our family of “happy ones and holy” is greater than we can imagine. So let’s take our fingers out of our ears and make eye contact; let’s plunge into the party. Rejoice, kick your shoes off, and join in the dance.