Saints and Souls
When sleep flees at 2 a.m, what do you do? Post a blog entry!
I’ve just finished two intensive and very happy days celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In one sense they were very different (and the Church meant them to be so), but in another they were very similar.
As you can see on the St Clement’s web site, the altar was heavily laden with almost all the relics of saints we possess at St Clement’s – and that’s a lot. Almost every saint in the universal calendar was there. It could have been over-the-top vulgar (like many an English parish church in the old days displaying every bit of gold and silver plate it had, on the altar at great Festivals) but, in fact, though definitely over the top, it was nevertheless incredibly moving. Here were tiny bits of bone or scraps of clothing from the bodies of some of the greatest heroes of our Faith, and I for one felt “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” by the host of golden reliquaries on the gradines behind the altar and at my feet under the altar. As I censed the altar and the reliquaries I recalled the angel in the book of the Revelation of St John, who was given a censer full of incense rising up before the throne of God “and the incense was the prayers of the saints”.
But the next day, everything was gone, and every trace of gold had been replaced with sombre black. The six candles at the altar were unbleached, which leaves them a golden orange colour. The altar frontal was solid black, broken only be exquisite old embroidered lilies. Down at the front of the congregation was the Catafalque, in which is placed the coffin at funerals, covered in a heavy black pall with a cross of deep green velvet running its length. Round the catafalque were six unbleached candles in tall candlesticks.
In one sense, it was all different from yesterday, and the Mass was sung by three cantors to beautiful Plainsong chants, instead of the joyful, almost boistrous music of the All Saints Mass sung by the full choir.
But it was the same Mass, and on the altar, instead of relics, was a long, long, list of names supplied by St Clement’s congregation. These were their loved ones, parents, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands, children, friends. I keep a list of the deaths of all my friends and acquaintances during the year, and write a list of their names for the All Souls altar every November 2. So that list , and everyone else’s list, lay there throughout the Mass, and I touched it at the prayer for the Departed at the Offertory, and again at the Memento of the Departed during the Canon, and I was overcome by that same feeling of being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. This time, the Souls being remembered were not officially canonized saints, but they may well have been every bit as holy as some who have been canonized, and so, as well as praying for them I prayed that they would intercede for us.
And on Sunday, we shall have a perfectly ordinary Mass for perfectly ordinary people, whom no one would call saints. Yet that is what St Paul called all the Christians of his little churches. And that is where the distinction between Saints and Souls breaks down: only God knows the secrets of our hearts, and how far we have progressed along the road to holiness. So be very aware: you may be in the next pew to someone who, if you could see them as they will be glorified in heaven, you would bow down in reverence before them.
Here endeth the insomnia!