I’ve been rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God which does my soul good every time I read it. Her last chapter is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle she had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. After much haranguing Roberta’s intercession on her aunt’s behalf worked. Her Auntie Ree was ready to die. As the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room, Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing, not so much because of no more needles, but because Auntie Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.
All Hallow’s Eve/Halloween is in a few days and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be full with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.
Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I think that I got my wish because she responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could move one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few weeks to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”
As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremedum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.
The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things” – “eternal things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.
They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loved ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.
Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.
Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “the peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!
This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. This is not a human point of view. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come home. The apostle Paul says it this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day I will remember and offer peace.