I cannot remember the last All Saints Sunday I sat in the pew instead of the chancel. But this All Saints Day I wasn’t collared and vested, leading the liturgy in the parish I serve. I was seated in a pew in another parish because I’m taking a sabbatical this autumn. Where does an Anglican priest on sabbatical attend worship on All Saints Day? Sure, there are several good options, but I’ve chosen the local Catholic church near my home. I need the certainty of beautiful and holy liturgy on All Saints Day.
I’m assured the liturgy is in capable hands as soon as the monsignor steps forward to greet his people and introduce the special nature of the service. He’s describing the significance of All Saints for his people, but also for guests who may be new to this tradition. Here is a hospitable and seasoned priest. Thank God for his reverence, his sensitivity, and his welcome.
I’ve attended this parish more than any other church during my sabbatical, but this is the first Sunday I’ve attended when the monsignor (and senior pastor) has led the service. From his welcome and opening acclamation, I sense the special nearness of the Holy Spirit on this feast day. In a nave featuring mosaic Stations of the Cross, classical stained glass windows, and icons of the saints, one can easily encounter the Holy Spirit when ‘For All the Saints’ resounds with a few hundred voices.
As the liturgy moves from music to Scripture, I’m grateful for the devotion of these fellow saints I don’t know who observe this ancient day. If the service ended with Scripture, I could leave spiritually fulfilled. But, of course, I stay for the duration.
The monsignor gives a thoughtful and pastoral reflection on the All Saints texts, harmonizing the Epistle and Gospel readings of the day. He preaches from the floor, no notes, addressing a few of his people in the front pews from time to time, like a father telling stories with his family gathered round. This isn’t Hall-of-Fame homiletics, but it’s strong All Saints preaching. I’m glad the monsignor preached on All Saints.
Swept up in the beauty of the All Saints Liturgy of the Word, I wasn’t prepared for the sudden transition to the Liturgy of the Table. The Roman liturgy doesn’t demarcate the transition from Word to Table in the same place as our Anglican liturgy, so it’s caught me off guard every time I’ve attended this parish during sabbatical. It especially surprised me on All Saints Sunday. I can’t receive the Eucharist in this parish. On this high feast day, I won’t receive the Sacrament. I wasn’t ready for this moment.
Sure, with better planning, I could have attended a parish where I would have been welcome at Table. But my sabbatical has been about intentionally not making plans, so it’s no surprise that some things go differently than I would have planned had I been more intentional about my decisions.
Yet for all the beauty surrounding me in this liturgy, this is the place where my heart sinks. There is no ‘if you are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ invitation to holy communion. I’m not angry, I know the reasons. I’ll always be perplexed by these ‘sad divisions’ even though I know the reasons. Most of all, I ache. I ache for the moment ahead of me–crossing my arms across my chest instead of extending my cupped hands.
Leaning into the ache
I also have a sense that God has led me here in the strangest of ways. Sitting in this awkwardness, wondering how to center in prayer again as the communion procession begins, I allow the ache to move in my soul.
I think of Simone Weil, that devoted, mystical soul who believed her vocation to dwell with exiles of the Kingdom. I began reading Simone Weil’s spiritual biography and letters in a volume entitled Waiting for God at the beginning of my sabbatical. Weil gave herself to a life of uncommon obedience and devotion to the Cross of Christ. She was never baptized because she could not imagine ‘the idea of separating [herself] from the immense and unfortunate multitude of unbelievers.’ She described her vocation as ‘the vocation to remain in a sense anonymous, ever ready to be mixed into the paste of common humanity.’
And yet she felt deeply called to the Cross. ‘If it cannot be given me to deserve one day to share the Cross of Christ,’ Weil writes, ‘at least may I share that of the good thief.’ This is not a common objection to baptism; this is devotion to the way of Christ and his Cross. Weil felt herself so undeserving of baptism, so called to the exiles of the Kingdom, that she refrained from the sacrament of water.
As the pews ahead of me move to the center aisle, my heart turns to the exiles of the Kingdom, the unbelievers who have not encountered Christ, the would-be believers whose would-be faith is in tatters. Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for devoted souls like Simone Weil who lead me to prayer for not-yet saints, separated from your love. Had I not entered into my own mild, momentary ache, I would not have encountered a more severe, more substantial ache in the heart of others.
Just before our pew empties into the center aisle to approach the monsignor, I think of another prelate in another generation, Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Michael Ramsey–that eminent pastoral bishop who loved Orthodoxy, yet pleaded that the ancient traditions understand the Anglican identity. To paraphrase Ramsey, the Anglican Church carries an ache in her soul. It is the ache for reconciliation among all believers, a longing for unity that she carries deep within her heart.
As my feet shuffle nearer the monsignor, preparing to fold my arms across my chest, I see that I am a bearer of the ache–the ache of All Saints. In this visible procession, I know that I’m also walking in an invisible procession, with Simone Weil, with Archbishop Ramsey, with so many others. And so are the pilgrims ahead and behind me. Only the Holy Spirit can heal the places where we are sadly divided.
I am–truly–grateful for the kind and gracious blessing I received from the monsignor yesterday. Yet I long for more. And that is the longing, that is the ache that I will carry when in December I vest in my alb again, ascend to the chancel once more and announce the invitation for all saints: ‘All who are baptized in the the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are welcome to receive communion at this Table.’
Photo: Public Domain