Moving towards All Saints' Day...

Three recently discovered quotes from my time away in prayer and discernment are likely to find their way into this week's All Saints' Day message. I find that most of the liturgical movement between All Saints Day and Christ the King Sunday in November touches me deeply. As my ancient Celtic ancestors knew in their bones, this is luminous time both literally and figuratively. You can see and sense this when walking in the woods in late afternoon: when you inhale the cool clarity of the air, smell the leaves rotting into hummus, taste the apples of autumn and see the stark appearance of the moon you know something is up.

They ancient Celts created their own solar/lunar calendar that was eventually abridged into the Julian calendar of Rome in the 2nd century CE albeit with the distinctive Celtic holidays still woven throughout. This remained in effect throughout the region until the Pope Gregory enforced his "reforms" throughout Europe in 1582. Like many "one size fits all" endeavors, however, something was lost even while standardization was gained. For example, the Celts discerned that autumn (August, September and October) was the close of the year.So before the Gaelic New Year of November 1st, there was at time of wild feasting - Lughnasadh - a season halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox on August 1st. It was a time of rejoicing in the bounty of the earth, partaking of its sensual blessings match-making and athletic games (i.e. the various Highland Games that still take place.) 

As the month drew to a close and the sun began its descent into the dark half of the year, these Gaelic ancestors embraced Samhain - a one day ritual feast marking the threshold between this world and the next - with bonfires, offerings to the Sacred, fear and trembling as well as an embodied remembrance of loved ones who were now departed. They truly "celebrated" this day in a manner that was borrowed and transformed into our All Saints and All Souls Day in the 9th century. At their feasts, place settings were laid for those no longer a part of this realm. The practice of mumming and guising was also set into motion - a roving group party that wandered from house to house in costumes designed to confuse the faeries from doing mischief or damage on this night - a foreshadowing of what became our Halloween. 

Let me be clear: I'm not one for neo-paganism or Celtic revivalism. As Merton once advised: Grow where you are planted. I am a straight, white, middle-class Christian mystic/intellectual guy and I don't pretend to be anything but. And still... I have always been enchanted and drawn to this season. I love everything about it. And so, in anticipation of All Saints' Day this Sunday, I have been reading and praying our sacred texts with a sense of anticipation. 

+ First, regardless of what my theologically adolescent Reformed ancestors once taught and believed, I am all about sacramental wisdom. Henri Nouwen was explicit when he taught that "prayer is leading every sorrow to the source of all healing." Our goal in ministry, he went on to say, is to help others move from seeing only what is opaque to what is transparent. It is helping one another transform and convert our deepest loneliness into solitude. 

Ministry is how we make the world more transparent to the other so that the world speaks of God and people are enlightened by the love of God... Ministry is to help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful - to proclaim to to others what we have experienced in prayer: God's beauty, truth and wisdom is here for you, too... Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only the hunger to be alleviated, thin injustice to be addressed, the violence to be overcome, the wars to be stopped and the loneliness to be removed. All these are, of course, critical issues and Christians must try to solve them; however, when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel only the oppressive weight.

He goes on to observe - and this continues to be my experience, too - that when we spend time with God in quiet solitude, then "the God within us begins to recognize the God in the world." 

God speaks to God, Spirit speaks to Spirit, heart speaks to heart. Contemplation, therefore, is participation in this divine self-recognition. It is the divine Spirit praying in us who makes our world transparent and opens our eyes to the presence of the divine Spirit in all that surrounds us. It is with our heart of hearts that we see the heart of the world and explains the intimate - and essential - relationship between contemplation and ministry.

+ Second, to take time away from being "productive" - to truly rest in the love and presence of the Lord - is profoundly counter-cultural. Two quotes from a recent biography of Nouwen entitled, Genius Born of Anguish, by Michael Higgins and Kevin Burns, explains why:

The caustic and endlessly charming commentator and writer Rex Murphy observed in 2005 that '"a culture that offers intellectual hospitality to the chatterings of Dr. Phil and the romps of Desperate Housewives doesn't have the stamina to pursue the idea of faith and its agency. Ouch! But let's not lay all the blame at the doorstep of a bottom line consumerist and shallow culture. Laurence Freeman, OSB, challenged the institutional church, too:

It is puzzling and frustrating to try and understand how the mainline Churches, despite all their determination and resources, still seem unable to connect with the profound spiritual needs of our time. Most young people are ready for idealistic and sacrificial commitment and hungry for inspiration. And yet, instead of discovering in the Church an inclusive vision and a comprehensive philosophy of life and spirituality, they dismiss what they find as narrowness of mind, intolerant dogmatism, internal feuding, inter-denominational sectarian, medieval sexism and their most damning criticism: the lack of spiritual depth.

As I prayed in the chapel of Vermont's Weston Priory - and walked in the almost winter woods of the Green Mountains - I heard the voices of the saints in my life calling a word of love and encouragement. They are black and white, rich and poor, male and female. They are well educated and street wise. They are Michael and Don - Dolores and Roger - Rick, Vicky and Grace - Jim, Betty, Beth and Linda - Don and Shirley - Casey and let's not forget St. Lou Reed. They are all wounded lovers of the Lord who, in their way, tried to be witnesses to God's love.

 The time has come to CELEBRATE All Saints Day. Own it and treasure it, revel in it and reveal its beauty. Peterson renders one of the readings for this feast day like this:

I saw another Angel rising from where the sun rose, carrying the seal of the Living
God. He thundered to the Four Angels assigned the task of hurting earth and sea, “Don’t hurt the earth! Don’t hurt the sea! Don’t so much as hurt a tree until I’ve sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads!” I heard the count of those who were sealed: 144,000!

I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:

Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!

All who were standing around the Throne—Angels, Elders, Animals—fell on their faces before the Throne and worshiped God, singing:

Yes, o Yes!
The blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
The honor and power and strength,
To our God forever and ever and ever!
Oh, Yes!

But now it is on to choir practice where we get to refine our take on Brahms Requiem for this Sunday:. What a joy!

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