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Desirability Gap?

21st Sunday after Trinity BCP

05 November 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

'Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand on the throne of God'

Probably like me you are not sure on which day to pray for some departed loved ones. Family members and friends on All Souls, but those who have been an inspiration on your Christian pilgrimage get 2 outings (like a holy monk friend whom I believe was/is a saint - Fr. Joseph Warrilow of Quarr Abbey) as we cannot help but remember them on All Saints Day itself. Or to use another name: All Hallows - all the saints or holy ones of God…the canonized ones, the Catholic saints, the Christian saints, and holy people of whatever faith who in their lives respond to the light they encounter.

You often hear the comment that conceiving of saints with haloes around their head above an altar in glory, misses the reality of the immanence and presence of saints within our own lives, and daily routine. But I would challenge any attempts to downplay or reject those haloes, and point out rather than being a barrier to understanding, the haloes still survive here and now as well. Think of the aura of sanctity, of a quality of holiness that is attractively and unmistakably present in the lives of some people you know, and furthermore is generally recognisable by others. A halo seems as good an image as any other, as a way of conceiving this hallowedness. It may be that some people think piety, rather than holiness is implied by haloes - but if so, I think that is a pity.

Saints tend to be regarded as super-humans with extraordinary spiritual gifts, but on close inspection we notice that their character faults weren't always conquered, and that they retained their passions, though redirected to the love of God and service of others. One idea of holiness is indeed to speak of it as a converted passion. Any monk or nun will tell you that saints can be difficult to live with. Many were founders of orders, congregations, charitable or educational institutions, and I guess needed relentless persistence, in achieving their aim for the benefit of others. I can speak personally, having worked at St. Christopher's Hospice 25 years ago, of the dogged resolve and focus of Dame Cicely Saunders, who made such great strides for the hospice movement. She was not always easy to work with, but her achievement was remarkable and godly.

Every parish has their saints, and I am sure you'll have an idea of whom you regard as the holy ones of God in this place…and all of us are called. We were very lucky in my last parish in Stamford Hill to have two remarkable souls, possessed with an unshakeable joy and confidence in the loving purposes of God...and this radiated out to all. My experience in ministry has been that sanctity often goes hand in hand with suffering. Antjie Krog, in her book 'Country Of My Skull' about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, reports something similar when Desmond Tutu observed that those who had suffered most cruelly and terribly, were also the most generous, and forgiving to their torturers during the hearings.

Canon Martin Warner hosted a Deanery clergy visit to St. Paul's last month, and will probably not realise just how attractively he described the ministry of the Cathedral, and the life of the Christian community there. I thought what an inspiring account of their Christian witness, and how desirable…and I went on from there to reflect on the difference between credibility and desirability in the life of faith. I went to that Deanery meeting expecting a 'feria' outing…a credible account of their work, but came away thinking so much more. How often, I thought, do I aim for 'credible' when preaching, and in my apologetics (which as you know involves defending faith as a reasonable position amongst mostly non- Christian agnostic friends). But faith is more than belief, and the hunger and search, is for hearts and souls to be possessed and enraptured by the love of God, in the company of Jesus the Lord, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I suspect we have as a church allowed ourselves to be cornered into defending credible positions within a secular and sometimes hostile, or increasingly just plain bewildered and ignorant world. I realise that philosophical discourse has moved on some way since I was a student, but in the late 70s and early 80s the general atmosphere was not even to allow the questions of faith, let alone any meaningful debate. Maybe this background has left us with a timidity, a reluctance to offend, and a tendency to survive with an acceptable minimum of the deposit, of what is after all quite an extraordinary galaxy of faith. Not least as recounted in the letter to the Hebrews…and to which in living memory can be added practitioner martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero of San Salvador, Janani Luwum of Uganda…or the nameless saints who end up martyred as a result of anger towards the policies of the US and Britain in the Middle East…or the shining kindness of a Mother Teresa who did something so beautiful for God. The saints remind us we need to move beyond a credible…to a desirable faith that looks to Jesus as pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Tony Blair still thinks he made a credible case for a war that was never just or desirable from the Christian perspective…and even if there had been no credibility gap, my argument is that credibility alone, is never enough.

I realise that credibility and desirability are of course linked, and would not wish to overplay the point. We of course need to learn a credible faith, but ultimately and only to live…a desirable one. Living a desirable faith will require us to pay attention to our sins, and a constant resolve to bridge any credibility gap between faith and practise…the turning wheel of constant repentance is a given in the Christian life…but more worrying in our mission as Christ's saints in today's world would be to leave a desirability gap.

I end with a short quote from Francis Thompson who makes the point in more poetic language when he said: 'To most people, even good people…God is a belief. To the saints… he is an embrace'

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