Photo Credit: Jacob Bentzinger
By: Matthew Bowman
“For to thy faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away…” (Preface of the Dead, The English Missal).
The Christian tradition I grew up in did not have a well-formed theology of the saints. At best, “saints” was an honorific title attached to the names of certain authors of the New Testament. According to my staunchly Protestant grandmother, the saints were a dangerous idea and a reason to be suspicious of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, who in her words, “prayed to Mary and the saints.” She firmly dismissed this doctrine as non-scriptural.
Since becoming an Anglican as a young adult, I’ve heard diverse opinions about the saints, their role as examplars to be followed in seeking to be disciples of Christ, about whether or not it is appropriate to ask them to pray for us on our behalf, and what exactly we are to do with the various places saints show up in our prayers and liturgies. My present understanding of the saints may or may not accord with the theological understandings of fellow pilgrims. This doctrinal diversity is one of the things I most love about being an Anglican.
There are two aspects to the Communion of Saints: communion in holy things (the sacraments) among holy people (the saints). In the sacraments, all the faithful are bound together across all time and space in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be a saint in that word’s most basic form. In baptism, we are grafted into Christ’s Body, and in the Eucharist we are joined in relationship with God, with fellow pilgrims here on earth, and with the whole company of the saints in light, and are strengthened by the Holy Spirit to communicate the hope of Jesus to the world. Each time we gather around the Table, the veil between the here and hereafter is pulled back, if only for a moment, and our voices are joined across time and space to the unending song that echoes throughout all ages: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord most high.
As I write this article, we are in the midst of Allhallowstide – the days after All Saints and All Soul’s when we remember with particular intention all the faithful departed and those in our own lives whom we have loved but see no longer. Remembering has felt especially heavy this year. We are all still recovering from the ravages of COVID-19. The bodies of at least three fellow human beings remain discarded in a garbage dump north of the City of Winnipeg. Anti-queer and anti-trans violence, antisemitism, islamophobia, and xenophobia are increasing at a faster pace than I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. Horrific conflicts rage in Ukraine and the Holy Land with news from both seeming to grow darker each day.
It is on days that feel particularly dark and dreary that I find myself most drawn to the life stories of saints who have finished their earthly pilgrimage. I search desperately for any hint of light in their stories that might encourage me to see the light of Christ at work in my own, and beg them to pray for me, for God to give me strength and courage to meet whatever the day brings. I understand their prayers as being no different than asking a fellow pilgrim (themself, too, a saint!) to pray for me and see no dissonance in this being possible while also affirming that Christ is our only mediator and advocate with God the Father. While I am able to pray to God on my own behalf, the Christian life is one always lived in community with others, and I am reliant on the “powerful and effective” (James 5:16) prayers of others to grow in my life in Christ.
During my pre-ordination training, my mentor Major the Rev. Canon Rob Fead was horrifically killed in a motorcycle accident. Amid having profound and life-changing conversations about priestly vocation and faithfulness to one’s calling, he was suddenly gone. All the conversations I’d expected to have over the span of years were snuffed out in an instant. As successive years have passed, I’ve cherished the many ways his life demonstrated Christ at work in the world, and his embodiment of a “simple” priesthood rooted in a steadfast life of prayer with an ever-present sense of humour that was never afraid to enjoy a good laugh. There have also been many days where I have asked Rob to pray for me and when I have thought “I wish Rob were here for this.” Was he perfect? No. But the light of Christ shone brightly even amidst, and because of, his human shortcomings – this pattern is repeated again and again in the stories of the saints. If there are any saints in heaven, I am sure that Rob Fead is one of them.
Do I have conclusive proof that asking Rob to pray for me has tangibly made a difference in my life? No. However, my life is infinitely better for having known him and my ministry enriched by the wisdom of his example, any “holy bothering” he’s able to accomplish with God on my behalf can only be beneficial.
May God grant to the living, grace; to the departed, rest; to the Church and the world, peace and concord; and to us sinners, eternal life. Amen.
The Reverend Matthew Bowman is Dean of Residence at St John’s College and an honorary assistant at the parish of St. Michael and All Angels.