Sermon for All Saints’ Day – High Mass Wednesday 1 November 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Paul Thomas, St James’s Sussex Gardens
My joy! Christ is risen! With these words, one of the most luminous saints of Russia greeted the many spiritual children who came to him for counsel in the Sarovian forests. Seraphim of Sarov has an enduring appeal in the West where he has, for good reason, been likened to the saint of Assisi with whom he shares so much. Both Francis & Seraphim are possessed of a depth and force of attractiveness; both lived lives of radical simplicity and radical availability; both were men of a gentle, joyful temperament (as evidenced by Seraphim’s insistence on calling all who came to him ‘My Joy!’ – how the life of the Church would be spiritually renewed at once if we but only looked on the other as the source of our joy…); and both loved God’s animal creation. In his holy solitude Seraphim is said to have befriended a giant Russian bear (well, we, the people of Paddington, also have a soft spot for bears…). If you were looking for evidence of how Christ could be present and active in cultures and ages distant from first-century Palestine, the lives of this saint, and all saints, is your answer.
This Russian holy man moved – as the beatitudinal lives of the saints almost always do – from community into solitude and back again into community, for the love of truth drives the saint from the world to God, and the truth of love urges the saint back into the world, there to live with unqualified self-giving. For St Seraphim, this radical availability was expressed in his attentiveness to all-comers, sharing with men and women of every class and background the spiritual wisdom of his words, and the steady radiance of his presence.
And it is in this memory of ‘radiance’ that Seraphim most powerfully unveils to us the vocation to sanctity which is God’s summons to all his children, for Seraphim was transfigured. Shot-through with the uncreated energies of God, Seraphim experienced in his mortal body the fullness of the Holy Ghost’s abiding. ‘Acquire the Holy Spirit’, Seraphim told his spiritual child Nicholai Motovilov, ‘and thousands around you shall be saved’. It was Motovilov who recorded in his diary the experience of Seraphim’s radiant acquisition of the Holy Spirit:
I asked Fr Seraphim, ‘How shall I know that I am in the Holy Spirit?’ He, putting his hands on my shoulder said, ‘Look, Lover of God, you and I are both now in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Why do you not look at me, poor Seraphim, in the eyes?’ ‘I cannot’, I answered, ‘because lightning flashes from them. I cannot look at you because you are brighter than the sun’. He answered, ‘You also are in the same gracious light, otherwise you would not be able to see me, nor I you, in this light’. At that moment his face, as it were, came out of the flashing light and the radiance remained all around him.
In the brilliance of this experience is the Church’s teaching about the Spirit’s life in the lives of the saints, for he comes to make them (and us) lustrous, lambent, glory-filled. He comes to crown us with the beauty and incandescence of our true and full identity in Christ. We may think that the life of sanctity is a life to be lived only by those possessed of rare spiritual gifts, but that which is revealed in the life of Seraphim and all the saints – their complete transparency to God and so their fullest participation in God – is only but the unveiling to us of humankind restored. The lives of the saints lift the veil of our eclipsed and enclosed humanity to reveal mankind’s original beauty.
But what is equally illuminating from Motovilov’s account is that he too experienced the transfigurative joy of the Holy Spirit’s coming when keeping Seraphim’s company. At the very moment when he is participating most fully in Christ, Seraphim is most fully attentive to Motovilov, who in turn shares in the joy of the saint’s full participation. No one in the history of the Church has ever experienced fullest participation in Christ when his or her face has been turned away from another. Blessedness – the life of deepest participation in God – can only be achieved when the Christian has turned his or her face toward another. Sanctification (that saintly state which is the theme & joy of our Feast, and the hope of our calling) can never be an individualistic or narrowly interior pursuit, but must always a relational, can only ever be mutual. Seeing in others the promise of Christ, seeing in others the potential for fullest participation in him is the essence of sanctification, for if any of us turns away and not toward another, how can we see in the other the divine image, how can we bring it to light, and how can we possibly understand why Christ came, how can we love the love of God?
This is the centenary year of the Bolshevik Revolution, and we are confronted with the agonizing truth of a dark century of suffering (of crucifixion) for the Church in Russia, a suffering which has gone largely unrecognized in the West. Only now, some 25 years after the fall of Soviet Communism, is the extent of the Christian persecution in Russia becoming clear. In this one statistic alone is summed up all that sorrow and the scale of it: historical estimates for the numbers of Christians killed under the persecutions of Nero and later Diocletian are 3,000. (From that number the Church gained a noble army of martyrs, whose blood watered our faith, whose lives inspired our veneration, and whose names are imprinted on our Christian memory & identity – relics of the holy martyr St Pancras of Rome, for example, were carried by Pope Gregory’s oh-so reluctant apostle Augustine on his evangelizing mission to England, and so the cult of Pancras was planted here). Estimates, however, for brothers and sisters of ours in Christ martyred under the Bolsheviks are 300,000. Only now are we coming to know their names as the Russian Church begins to reckon these holy women and men – and the greater number of them are women – among the Church Triumphant. In the first one thousand years of its existence, the Russian Church canonized about 400 holy men and women. However, since the year 2000, some 2,000 new martyrs and confessors have been added to the calendar. These new saints are doing something extraordinary in the land of Seraphim – those who suffered persecution for righteousness’ sake are now central to the mission of the Church to sanctify again Russia’s land and life.
The potential danger of many of our traditional saints is that they can too easily be seen as belonging to a highly mythologized and idealized past, as if sanctity and sainthood was only an historical phenomenon. But what has been happening in Russia since the year 2000 (and what Pope St John Paul II was also doing throughout his long pontificate) is that the complexion and identity of the Church Triumphant has been rapidly changing. Many of the saints that look out at us now from the holy images are very much more our contemporaries; they have faces we recognize, and are from places we recognize, and have suffered in the time through which we have loved. In the case of the new martyrs and confessors of Russia their grandchildren are numbered among the Faithful, their signatures and photographs are found on Secret Police files, and the cost they paid for keeping faith is painfully real and present to those who come after. Russia’s new martyrs and confessors by their suffering have watered the roots of the Church in that land and laid the foundation for its awakening.
It is inspiring to me, and I hope to you on this Feast day of All Hallows, that the Church Triumphant is central to the mission of the Church Militant as she reaches out to the world that has yet to be incorporated and enfolded into the life of Christ’s Mystical Body, a world which has yet to know the sweetness of that ‘fellowship divine’ which is the Communion of Saints. How very different our situation in the England would be if at the forefront of the Church’s revival was the hard evidence of sanctity found in the lives of the saints. Sadly, and too often, the Church of England looks only to the saints to find good but distant examples of holy living. The saints offer so very much more than exemplarism; they are active agents in the mission of the Church is we understand their lives as calling out to the world in witness and summons to follow Christ in life and death. They are active agents of the Church’s mission is we hold a full & catholic doctrine of the saints and know them to be continuously active in prayer for the Church. (It is peculiar that the Church of England has, since the Reformation, officially at least, denied the saints that one thing that in life and death they excelled at – prayer!).
‘The lighted candle itself sheds light’ Seraphim said, ‘but it also lights other candles that are not yet themselves lit’. The witness of those who are utterly open and transparent to God in Christ sheds a converting light upon the world which will save thousands around them.