by Andrea Tisher
I’m not accustomed to feast days. Haven’t grown up with them. And don’t have any sense of when they occur in the calendar. But I am used to thinking about the ‘cloud of witnesses’ – I have grown accustomed to giving thanks for the ordinary saints whose lives have intersected with mine in various ways.
The grandparents who I loved and learned from until their deaths. Thankfully, I had many years with both my grandmas, but all four of them – even the grandpa I never met – had tremendous impact on my life. And I was mindful that they were in that ‘cloud of witnesses’…
The aunt who lived with us on and off for the final decades of her life and loved me in ways I had no idea I could be loved. Taught and corrected me, laughed with me and challenged me, encouraged and loved me like a parent, but different than either of my parents, too.
And then the authors I began to encounter in my young adulthood. Madeleine L’Engle, whose journals led me to placed I’d have never gone to on my own. (Including a journey through the liturgical cycle back when I had no idea what that was!) C.S. Lewis. Hildegard von Bingen. Julian of Norwich. I began to encounter these folks and to see that they had been on this journey too. That I walked with them in some mysterious way. And then as I began to delve more deeply into the deep wealth of spiritual theology, my world of saints grew to include many more including hymnwriters Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and most of all, Anne Steele.
These people who gave their lives to follow Jesus have become heroes and role models for me. But, other than All Saints Day, I don’t usually see a connection between the liturgical calendar and this great cloud of witnesses. I wonder if that’s okay? Or am I missing another layer of the practice of the calendar?
How about you? Who are your heroes and role models? With whom do you hope to be when we go marching into the new heaven and new earth?
Hey Andrea! Interesting that you notice a lack of connection between the cloud of witnesses and the calendar! To me, Ordinary Time is a time when we should celebrate our interconnectedness with the saints most of all! Traditionally, Ordinary Time is filled with the “lesser festivals” of the saints. As Protestants, we don’t venerate the saints, we CAN celebrate the fact that ordinary people have done extraordinary things (and still are doing them!) through the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God.
If you’re interested, I have a whole list of lesser festivals that I learned about at a recent seminar! :)
I’m definitely interested!
Have you tried actually DOING any of them at your church? I’m so curious about ways in which we can broaden and deepen our understanding of the communion of saints, but I fear major resistance either if we use “standardized” saints (read: ‘too catholic’) or, if we make them too personal (read: I don’t care/know about that particular person)… any experience, thoughts, ideas about how to navigate are welcome!
Ian? Stacey? Any help here? (I realize that with timezones, Stacey ought to be in bed and Ian may just be rising… so don’t read any impatience!) :)
I haven’t tried celebrating any of the lesser festivals at my church yet, because we’ve been doing so much just to embrace the liturgical seasons fully! I’ll send you an email with the list of lesser festivals, and you’re right, it will be a balancing act to find the sweet spot of relevant and edifying festivals.
Tora I’d be interested in this too!
I had a foray into the urban ministry world in the American south. Ever since then a number of courageous civil rights leaders will ever be in my number when the saints go marching in. My own love of church history and theology has given me a host of others who I admire and love and feel inspired by, but not so much ‘in season.’
Several years ago I was using an online Lectionary for daily bible reading (not a practice I do currently). I think that would be my only experience of walking with the saints through the church year. Sarah often uses Common Prayer: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals which often celebrates those who have gone before, but she grew up catholic so is automatically better at such things as me.
I’m Sarah’s cousin. I grew up Catholic too. (BTW, James, it would really be more respectful to capitalize). While we have all certainly made mistakes over the years, thank God the Holy Spirit has not stopped working in the churches throughout the world. I think we can learn a lot from each other today, and as we do, we will begin to approach the unity that Christ desires for His church. For example, a lot of Catholic pastors can learn a lot about preaching and explaining the Scriptures from the Protestant tradition. So, with this openness in mind, don’t jump all over me when I ask: why reinvent the wheel?? There are lots of Catholic books and resources available, from Maria Von Trapp’s writings about living the Liturgical year in family life, to things written today by young Catholics who are eager to learn how to live the Church’s rich traditions in their own young families. And I mean good stuff. I personally have always hated the type of biography of a saint that pretty much says they always loved God, went to confession daily, became a nun, and were martyred. Never struggled in their faith, loved suffering. Ugh! But there are lots of good resources out there that show the complexity and heroism in the lives of Christians who have gone before us. Even though these may have been compiled by Catholics, you need not focus on differences in beliefs about the Sacraments or sanctification, or other areas that are ‘too Catholic’. And of course this could be just a starting point for you in finding ways to celebrate that fit your own church. But there is good stuff out there, so you’re not struggling in a vacuum!
By the way, I do find it encouraging, in terms of Christian unity, to hear you having this conversation, James.
I apologize for my failure to capitalize “Catholic.” No disrespect intended.
Obviously a Mennonite like me hasn’t grown up with any but the most basic (and important?) of Christian festivals but my study of theology and history has expanded my view of the ‘cloud of witnesses’. And while I’ve never explicitly celebrated a saint’s festival in a church service context, I’ve often used prayers from the ‘cloud’ to augment a service; ie. “… and with the words of our brother John Chrysostom, we pray…”. This would be an easy way to start. Or introduce a hymn like ‘All Creatures’ by saying a few words about St. Francis.
There’s a great little book called “Communion of Saints: Prayers of the Famous” edited by Horton Davies that I use often. From Gregory of Naziansus to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this book has a wide sample that’s arranged topically and has a short section on the liturgical year. If you want to go all Canadian (though eastern), check out “New Light Letters and Songs” edited by George Rawlyk. Contains stuff by Henry Alline (“the Canadian Whitefield”) and many more. You probably don’t want to buy it as it’s probably of limited use (and some of it is derivative of Wesley) but there are gems.
In terms of heroes and role models – those listed above, Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Menno Simons (obviously!), A.W. Tozer, …
I grew up in churches that didn’t even pay attention to the ‘cloud of witnesses’. Attention or kudos given to anyone other than Jesus was deemed close to idolatry. But now I’ve come to agree with Chittister’s stance (expanded, but not significantly, in chapter 32): we all have heroes, and if we don’t see others holding up faith-heroes as role-models, then we’ll adopt the ones thrust at us by our media – heroes of sport, of wealth, of glamour. Plus of course, Jesus’ mission was in many ways unique, so there’s only so much of his life we can imitate directly. Our call is to be followers, and we (and, critically, our children) need other followers as role-models. [
Sadly the only Protestant equivalent I can think of is Foxe’s book of martyrs, which is hardly good congregational fare, and it’s too full of anti-Catholic polemic for my liking, and hopefully yours too. I know when I and some friends tried bringing church history to life for a local sunday school, ALL the good resources were Catholic.
And that’s fine, but as Andrea points out, many of those figures are remote and unknown. It’d be nice to sprinkle in a few figures known to some of our congregants, to ease them into the ‘sanctoral cycle’ of feasts. While not wanting to re-invent the wheel entirely, and while treasuring the resources provided by our Catholic brothers and sisters in our shared heritage, we may have to make our own resources for celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or the countless other saints known as holy examples and inspiring role models to thousands of Protestants.
And when we develop those resources, I feel that something more in-depth than a collection of prayers will be helpful. Something we can focus on for a whole Sunday, perhaps. Something we can re-use year after year. Can we find a unique way to celebrate each particular figure, in a way that’ll make them familiar and well-loved to a new generation, in the same way a young Joan Chittister came to know and love the saints of her neighbourhood, her community, her tradition?