Monday, 31 October 2016

Becoming Saints

Shaping the lives of the Saints - All Saints’ Reflections
Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Guildford Cathedral is flanked on the north and south by a series of statues. At first glance you might think they are a collection of saints; but they’re not. There are holy men and women on the West End, but the statues on the north and south sides are less obvious than that.  In the form of the human body, they seek to express the virtues, cardinal and theological, down the south side and down the north the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The virtues - Courage, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Love - may be regarded as a series of values, ideas to aspire to. Values are very fashionable. Businesses, churches, schools, hospitals all trumpet their values in prospectuses. Teachers, clergy, and others, have to do school assemblies based on the school’s values which often feels like an exercise in promoting the school’s propaganda or performing contortions to make an abstract value seem applicable in the children’s lives and connect to the gospel.

The virtues are not highly fashionable, not least as they seek to form moral character, which is usually is assumed to mean moralistic, self-righteous, pompous behaviour, which is the polar opposite of what they are meant to do. That sounds a little like the perception of saints. They could be seen as being holier-than-thou, unhealthily unworldly, stained glass wimps.

The purpose of virtues is in the forming of habits and ways of acting that lead to what we call a virtuous life. This means that they train us in the making of decisions. From classical times the virtues shaped moral living. So you could say that saints are those frail human beings who have responded to the call to be formed in the virtues, especially those of faith, hope and love. But also the saints, like you and me, have bestowed upon them the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

A rather grainy picture of 'Understanding' by Alan Collins
Guildford Cathedral
It’s the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding that has intrigued me recently as I have walked past. This depiction connects the gifts of the Spirit and the virtues with being shaped and formed in the ways of holiness in a slightly unlikely way. On it, the haloed figure holds an unfurled scroll with the Biblical reference Ephesians 1.18. It’s inviting us to read that verse:

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (AV)

This are significant words for what it means to be a saint: eyes seeing the light; knowing the hope of God’s calling; and knowing the riches of the glory of God’s promise to us in company with each other and those who go before us.

In this passage, which is a prayer being offered, an expansive and expanding vision of holiness is being stretched out before us. After all the prayer goes on to refer to ‘the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power’ (v19). And let’s be clear: holiness is not pie-in-the-sky, vague or wishy-washy.

To read this alongside Luke 6.20-31, as the lectionary asks us to, roots the blessedness of that vision of holiness firmly in lived, embodied, daily realities and offers a deeply stretching way to approach them. It does so in the language of blessings and woes. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and reviled will all find blessing. Jesus beholds them and blessing falls upon them. 

Those who have life ‘sorted’ - the rich, the replete, the laughing ones – and who seem comfortable now will find that they need to rely more on God to know blessing, so that the rich will recognise their poverty, the replete their hungers, the laughing their pains. So you’re blessed now: seek further blessing from God.

This is the way to becoming more human not less, with the most stretching instruction of all, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. Do we even know what we really want others to do and be for us?

In his Rule St Benedict says, ‘Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy, that you may truly be called so’ (My italics). In other words don’t ask for the label of saint without first behaving like one.

Holiness is a life lived in the intensity of the awareness of God’s presence day by day and a life lived and shaped by that reality. The ecology of holiness is supported by the intensity of God-filled moments that we call the sacraments. The Eucharist is the supreme example of this where in word and sign we are pointed to the divine banquet gathered with all the saints. Bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is the food of the saints.

Holiness is humanness in all its fullness and potential. Just as the virtues were named so as to shape habits and actions, so the call to be saints invites a transformed life. The call to holiness is the call to be a saint; one of the holy ones of God. The call to holiness is the call to be real, more real than you can possibly imagine. The call to holiness is the call to be part of a family that extends beyond biology, kinship and DNA.

So I pray for myself and for you: May the eyes of our understanding be enlightened; that we may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. Amen.

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