|The Communion of Saints is so much more than a doctrine...
A sermon by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
The following is a sermon by one of the great spiritual fathers of the 20th century. Metropolitan Anthony (a Russian Orthodox bishop whose ministry began in France but was based mostly in London, England) reposed in the Lord in 2003, but his thoughts about prayer and the life of the Christian continue to be fresh and contemporary precisely because they are grounded in a timeless faith and a complete openness to life as it truly is.
This sermon addresses the way in which our liturgical worship may be kept vital and fresh by connecting it to the Communion of Saints, which we in the Western Church celebrate especially at the Feast of All Saints’. Though written for an Eastern Orthodox congregation, this sermon’s thoughts have a universal significance and application.
In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Perhaps in these days that follow the feast of the Resurrection of Christ more than ever can one perceive clearly, passionately, that all the life of the world is one, and all the life of the Church is held in that mysterious communion of saints and sinners, which is the world in becoming. The Liturgy, the common prayers of the Church cannot be understood, apart from this communion of saints and of sinners.
For us who gather week after week in a church, the prayers which we hear appear so often as ready-made prayers: others have composed them, and we have inherited them; but if we give some thought in the way in which they were born, then they are no longer ready-made prayers. Every prayer which you hear was wrought out of a human soul at moments of ecstasy, of distress, at moments of deep repentance, of immense gratitude. Every prayer beginning with those which we have inherited from the Old Testament, with the newest prayers that have come to us from prisons or concentration camps, are born of living souls in their meeting with God, or in their desperate need for a God Whom they grope for, and cannot find.
At times we find it difficult to be at one with the prayers which are sung, recited, with all this flow of prayers. And indeed, it is not surprising, because in one service, in one liturgical sequence, in the simple prayers which we read in the morning and in the evening, the Church has gathered tens of prayers that correspond to the experience, to the life, to the death, to the joy, to the suffering, to the anguish and the gratitude of the saints throughout history. How can we expect that we will receive in our soul, share completely, one after the other, the experience of centuries, of Saint Basil and Saint John, Saint Mark and Saint Symeon? But we could share them in a life-giving way, if we realize that we, small as we are, in the making as we are, groping as we are for a plenitude which is not yet ours, and which they possess to a greater degree than we, that we stand in a vast crowd of men and women at prayer, and that we overhear the great saints of God praying their prayers.
We could stand like children among adults, we could stand in the awareness that here is Saint Basil bringing forth his prayers, from the depth of his experience of God and of life. And here is Saint John, here is another saint, and another again; and we could simply listen attentively, asking ourselves questions at times, say, ‘How is it that he says these words? From what depth of an experience alien, strange to me, do these words come?’ And then of a sudden say with joy, ‘And here I am at one with him, what he says is what I already know or have dimly perceived; oh, how wonderful, I am at one with men who are so great with God!’
And if we treat this way the morning prayers which we read, or the evening prayers, and the various sequences which take place in church, then we would not feel, as we often do, a sense of distress, that all this passes us by, that we do not find ourselves in these words, in the imagery, in these phrases. How could we, in one soul, perceive all the complexity of the Church's two thousand years of divine and human experience? But how easy it would be to stand listening with an open mind, an open heart, ready to respond to what is already ours, ask questions about other things, exclaim in our souls, ‘How could you say that, Father Basil, or, how could you speak these words, John?’ And then we would gradually grow into a much greater understanding, because the seed of prayer, which already is in our souls, the understanding of the saints which we share with them already if we were true, simple, direct, will grow in us; we would be real to the extent to which we are real already and we would grow into a fuller reality than before.
And then we would discover that this communion of saints of which we think as something so invisible and so distant — saints in heaven and we on earth, — is something infinitely more familiar and simple. Then their prayers are in our midst, their experience being shared, in every word of prayer, in every melody of liturgical singing, they are in our midst, not only invisibly praying for us, but making us partakers of their deep, tragic, glorious experience; of God and of the world, of men as much as of God. And then we could turn and see our neighbour also a part of this very mysterious communion of saints and sinners, because our neighbour also partakes, as we do, perhaps by the fringe of his soul, perhaps with the most superficial layers as yet of his heart, in the same mystery for which we grope. We would feel that we are companions, that we are together, on our way, but more than this — that together we drink from the same source, that together we share with greater ones than ourselves, a wider, deeper life-giving life.
Let us try, in liturgical services, in private prayers, to learn to partake in this simple, true and direct way to the experience and the life of those who have proceeded us and who are greater than we are. And the communion of saints will become reality and the communion of sinners will become something meaningful to us, a real brotherhood of people who are, who recognise themselves as sinners and yet feel that God has come to them also, that they have elder brothers and sisters who are concerned with them, at one with them, sharing with them the most precious gifts of their lives. And we will then be able to grow into a brotherhood, into a sisterhood, to become a body, and one life together with them in God. Amen.