The Democracy of the Dead: Reflections on All Saints Day

I know Saint Paul personally.  Or that’s the way it felt roughly fifteen years ago when, for two whole semesters of my theological education, most of my academic reading centred entirely around the Apostle.  That year, whenever I had occasion to preach, I’d invariably base my sermons on excerpts from his epistles.  In preparation for my homilies I’d go through the passages verse-by-verse, studying all the nuances and turns of phrase, often using multiple English translations. And, as I became increasingly versed in his writings, I became increasingly familiar with the man himself— his character and his personality. Even what I thought to be his physical likeness began to coalesce in my imagination.

 
Needless to say, for me Saint Paul was no longer a two-dimensional figure on a stained-glass window; no longer a flat, lifeless image rendered in egg-tempera on an icon board.  Instead, he was a living, breathing man with whom I could, in a manner of speaking, converse and, ultimately, get to know.

 
I remember conveying this experience to a classmate of mine, sharing with him this growing sense that the Apostle Paul truly was my mentor and friend.  He, in turn, shared a story about one of his favourite professors— a Catholic priest and academic who had devoted the better part of his career and the whole of his considerable intellect to the study of a more recent Saint; namely, Saint Thomas Aquinas.  No doubt, this professor had read the Summa Theologica in great detail, studying it in the original Latin, along with the various writings of the saint— his sermons and his correspondence.  When he lectured (so I’m told) he spoke with passion on his subject matter, inspiring within his students something of the same love the for the saint that he himself possessed.
One morning, before wrapping up a lecture, he even told his students that he himself was personally acquainted with Aquinas— an announcement which his students greeted with bored and indifferent stares.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said quietly but more emphatically, his face growing uncharacteristically grave. “I know Thomas Aquinas.  I have spoken to him.  He as spoken to me.”

 
Take this as you will. For now, the only point I wish to make is this: This professor’s ongoing dialogue with Saint Thomas Aquinas along with my ever-growing sense of truly knowing the Apostle Paul gets to the heart of what All Saints Day is all about. For it is on All Saints Day when we remember that the fellowship of believers does not consist merely of the Christians who are presently alive (what the Prayerbook calls “the church militant here on earth”) but the vast, uncountable army of men and women who have followed the way of Christ before us— some canonized saints others, simple, nameless souls whose stories will (on this side of the resurrection, at least) remain entirely obscure. Indeed, I will take this idea yet further. Not only are the saints who have gone before still members of the Body of Christ but they are living members of that body— men and women who speak to us still. I’m not (necessarily) saying that they can speak to us as the Catholic Professor claimed Saint Thomas Aquinas spoke to him— in “real time,” as it were, a living voice whispering in the depths of his soul. But they do speak to us through a variety of, perhaps, more prosaic means: through the stories of their lives told, retold and sometimes embellished. They speak to us in their writings— whether massive theological tomes or brief, intimate epistles to their most trusted companions. They speak to us through their prayers— the prayers which form our liturgy— ancient prayers uttered generation after generation by the lips of pious (and not-so-pious) souls.
The implications of this are grand. For one thing, it means that what we as the church do here and now— in our own time and in our present context— cannot be done without proper consultation with our brothers in sisters in Christ who have gone before us— those who are with us still but whom we see no longer. This is done, in part, by honouring our own tradition— the many layers of tradition which the saints have, from generation to generation before us, established and enriched. For, as G.K. Chesterton once argued, to honour tradition is to give the dead a vote.

 
“Tradition… may be defined as the extension of the franchise,” he states in his book Orthodoxy. “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”

 
It is on All Saints Day that we are reminded of this truth; namely, that the church universal does not consist merely of us; that is, “the small and arrogant oligarchy” of disciples, still making our way through this earthly life. Rather, it consists also of the vast “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us— the celestial chorus of apostles, prophets and martyrs whose spirits stand before the very throne of God. Their voices have not been silenced by death. Rather, they live on in their stories, in their writings, in our liturgy and in our traditions. As we make our way through life, we as individual Christians— we, as “the church militant here on earth”— must be mindful of this.

 

By Terence Chandra

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