Communion of Saints

Colonel Laws is dying.

The same could be said for all of us, of course, but for Mr. Laws it is apparently more imminent than most of the rest of us. Insofar as we can predict this kind of thing.

I have never met Mr. Laws. I know very little about the details of his illness, much less his life. But I pray for him every week. He is one of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our congregation who can no longer make it to Sunday services, but whom we remember as part of our congregation by naming them in the pastoral prayer. The litany of names of the ill or infirm is intoned with dignity but without detail. It is part of the rhythm of our corporate worship. Some names come on and off the list from time to time -- I assume they name persons who are dealing with chronic conditions or cancer or such, and flare-ups or treatment changes prompt them to ask for congregational intercession. Other names, like Colonel Laws, are fixtures on the list.

If Mr. Laws is still alive on Sunday (which I imagine is reasonably likely -- dying is hard work, and often takes longer than you think it will), we will give him and his family added attention in our corporate prayer time. If he dies this week, we will pray for his family and loved ones and announce funeral arrangements. Then we will pray for his family for a couple more weeks. From now until a couple of weeks after his death, he and his family will receive a higher than normal level of prayer attention from our congregation. Then his name will drop from our list.

This makes me a little sad.

We're Reformed Protestants. We don't believe in praying for the dead. And even if we made our prayer one of thanksgiving for the life of the departed and comfort for the family, it would verge uncomfortably close to praying for the dead. Plus there are real logistical problems -- we can't keep remembering our departed in prayer week after week indefinitely, because the list will get unwieldy and turn into a meaningless vain repetition as the living memories of those invoked fade further from our highly transitory congregation's collective memory.

Still, I wish we could observe some period of corporate mourning for someone who has been a part of our collective life, if only for most of us by hearing his name every week. Perhaps by thanking God for the life and new life of the person for a term of, oh, four to six weeks beyond the funeral. And/or offering some particular closure to the praying for this person, by explicitly entrusting his ongoing care to the God he now sees face to face, since to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

And then, it would be also be nice to name our departed brethren in prayer at certain times during the year -- All Saint's Day is an obvious choice. Not because they any longer are in need of our prayer, but because we are in need of their memory. Last year another matriarch of our congregation, for whom we had been praying weekly for years, died. The next time I heard her name aloud in prayer was at the Longest Night service during Advent, when we were bidden to name those we had lost. It just felt so right to hear her name uttered in prayer again, after all that time of hearing it every week.

What I am suggesting sounds a lot like the Catholic Litany of the Saints, which would never fly (for good reason) in Presbyterianism. I understand the theological concerns. But I regret the distance it creates for us from the communion of saints outside our own time and place.

It's easy to imagine how the cultus of the saints got started in the early church. You prayed with and for your fellow believers, and asked them to pray for you. When they died (particularly if they were martyred), your belief in their continued existence and future resurrection implied no reason for that relationship to discontinue just because they were dead. So you start out continuing to pray with and for and to those you knew in life, and practices of veneration and patronage and such grow up around that.

I'm not suggesting that we start up Presbyterian cults of the saints. But I think many Protestants are too quick to condemn the popular piety surrounding saints, and miss the lesson about the communion of saints that underlies such practices. Richard Mouw articulated this discovery theologically in a Christian Century article and blog entry last spring. I think he's spot-on, and am even willing to take matters a step farther in terms of spiritual practice than he is. But that's a matter for another time.

Meanwhile, I am praying for Colonel Laws and his family this week -- not just on Sunday -- as an act of fidelity to this fellowship that has ministered to us both.

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