by Donald Schell
I began that conversation writing about the 3000 square foot Dancing Saints icon at St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco. I want to invite readers back into that conversation now because we’ve just completed and posted a high-resolution photo tour of the icon on-line. Browsing the on-line photos and digging into the reasons we chose to celebrate each saint is the next best thing to visiting the icon.
But Derek and my conversation also got me thinking about what draws me personally to the messiness of universalism. In our conversation Derek made an appealingly clear distinction between moral goodness and sanctity. I see how very messy it is to impute holiness to people who don’t believe their goodness (whatever it might ultimately have to do with God or the Spirit) is inspired by the holiness of Christ. The Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal offers my favorite evidence of just how messy it becomes to look for God at work in everyone’s life in his meditation “Thirst” where he provocatively claims that anything anyone could possibly do comes from the love of God.
“The Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people.”
The phrase is from Rite I and the old Prayer Book. My longest regular experience presiding at Rite I liturgy was a good while back, in the congregation I served in Idaho from 1976-1980. Since I moved to non-parochial ministry in 2006, I get asked to preside as a guest, filling in Sunday mornings when colleagues are away. And that’s gotten me to take a fresh look at Rite I.
As a young priest who’d seen how renewed liturgy could shape community, I suppose I regretted that the 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer had made the compromise of including the old language. But I could remind myself how refreshing and alive the 1928 BCP liturgy had seemed to me when I’d first left evangelicalism to begin attending Episcopal services.
Now I’m noticing how the language of the old liturgy is dense with affection – our trusting, loving appeal to God, and our steady evocation of God’s unfailing tender mercy toward us. Recently I was enjoyed leading a Rite I liturgy and exploring the old language freshly when we came to the post-communion prayer:
Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.
I relished the quiet confidence of “the blessed company of all faithful people.” After liturgy I went back to re-read the prayer and reflected on my first encounter with Cranmer’s phrase and how excited I was at where he took it, “…that may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” It was among many things that contributed to my becoming an Episcopalian. I was grateful to discover a church blessing on the meaningfulness of ordinary human life and the breadth of human community.
The evangelical church I grew up in was a place where I felt strongly how people enjoyed and cared for one another in community. But I also heard a lot of preaching about ‘salvation’ energized and fired up with warnings of hell. More than one Sunday School teacher told us that the only reason God didn’t “rapture us” the moment we took Christ into our hearts was to keep us on earth to witness to others and save them from hell. And yes, I was one of those kids who had some terrifying moments of not finding people where I expected they’d be and immediately thinking the rapture had come and I’d been “left behind.”
“The blessed company of all faithful people.”
I felt again how that phrase heartened me. “Faithful” is such an ordinary English word, a word we’d readily use to describe someone’s loyalty to a friend. Seeing that a church could acknowledge God blessing all faithful people and claiming them as Christ’s Body astonished me. I was coming from Sunday School and youth group teaching that insisted that “liberals” who didn’t share our interpretations of Christian doctrine weren’t actually Christian, and that God despised good works done by those who “didn’t know Christ.”
That we might look forward to walking in ordinary “good works” that God had prepared for us was really good news. From my first encounter with the Episcopal Church, I felt exhilarated to hear a quiet version of Gospel that might actually include loving family, learning, music, and theater, or admiring the courage of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and wanting to learn to live such faithful lives as they did in a well-lived Christian life.
“the Body of Christ which is the blessed company of all faithful people.”
I was already feeling the draw of the Episcopal Church when I read C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce. I welcomed how Lewis seemed to blur the border of heaven and hell, essentially giving the residents of hell an eternal opt-in for heaven if they were willing to face it. In college, after I’d started attending an Episcopal Church, I read Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and was elated that in the series’ eschatological Last Battle, Aslan, the lion figure of Christ, welcomes Emeth, a Calormene worshipper of the dark god Tash in a concluding last judgment scene saying, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”
Elsewhere Lewis said, “I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.”
At the time, I didn’t stumble over his Lewis’s condescension to “the inferior teachers they follow.” Now it troubles me enough to prompt a Part II follow-up to this piece.
Through college and seminary, I collected and cherished hints of God’s blurring boundaries and universalism’s embrace of humanity as I found them in Dostoyevsky, Irenaeus, and Julian of Norwich, and in Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.
Someone may object – if universalism claims God’s embrace of all is as certain as more generally acknowledged certainties like death and taxes, how can it be Good News?
This year I’ll be celebrating a 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, and among the practices and experience that have sustained and immeasurably enriched those forty years has been a pretty undifferentiated mix of
– lifelong study of music (piano and singing)
– a dozen years of fiction writing and earning an MFA in writing with a dozen mostly secular classmates,
– forty years of imperfect but ongoing practice of the Jesus Prayer,
– thirty years of Monday through Friday daily Aikido practice with secularists, Buddhists, Jews, a Muslim or two, and perhaps even some Christians,
– thirty-five years experience as a spiritual director including directing a handful of non-Christians,
– thirty-seven years of marriage (after a six year marriage that ended in divorce)
– and forty-one years of parenting that now includes building relationships with in-laws outside of church or Christian practice.
It has been spiritual practice in all those settings that has sustained me as a Christian and as a priest. Many who have traveled and practiced with me have been Christians, but many not, which brings me back to the icon and the joy of dancing with the St. Gregory’s congregation in the presence of this token of God’s holy ones whom Gregory of Nyssa first envisioned for us in his commentary on the psalms –
“Once there was a time when the whole rational creation formed a single dancing chorus looking upward to the one leader of this dance. And the harmony of motion that they learned from his law found its way into their dancing.”
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.