Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Sunday -- 11/1/09

Every now and then I visit the Wade Center at Wheaton College. I like to sit and read and sometimes work on a sermon in the museum there. The museum

showcases memorabilia and rotating wall displays which highlight selections from our collection of books, letters, manuscripts, and artifacts” related to seven British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

There are some big items: an actual wardrobe from C. S. Lewis’ childhood home (complete with fur coats and a sign warning that the Wade Center will not be responsible for any one who might try to enter), a desk from his office at Magdalen College of Oxford University, and the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. In display cases, one can see a pair of glasses once owned by Dorothy Sayers; a pipe and tea mug that belonged to Lewis along with a mug that he likely used for other beverages; and the honorary MA diploma awarded by Oxford to Charles Williams along with the mortar board he wore upon receiving that diploma.

I confess that for me it feels like a pilgrimage destination, a shrine full of holy relics. Except for Barfield who I have not read, each of these authors has inspired and nourished me spiritually. Each has expanded my imagination, which is another way of saying each has enhanced my capacity for faith, love, and wonder. When I am there I feel their presence and my faith is encouraged.

As you know, I am particularly fond of Charles Williams. Though he is not an officially recognized saint, his effect on those who knew him gets at what all the saints are about.

The poet, W. H. Auden, who attributed his conversion to Christianity to Williams, wrote,

for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity. I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man . . . I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.

"Transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving" is another way of saying sanctified or made holy. The saints we celebrate on Saints days and today, on All Saints, are those Christians who stand out as exhibiting exemplary holiness. Which is to say that by God’s grace they are particularly transparent to God’s goodness. Saints are fragrant with the aroma of heaven. That transparent goodness and fragrant aroma changes those with whom they have contact.

And even more is changed. Upon learning that his friend had died, C. S. Lewis wrote that when he tried to combine the idea of death with the idea of Charles Williams he found that "it was the idea of death that was changed."

The saints anticipate – embody even – a glimpse of the splendor of resurrection glory. A glory that is stronger than death.

Because the glory of God is stronger than death, those who have been received into the fullness of that glory are never completely removed from us. Though they have "ascended the hill of the LORD" and "stand in his holy place" having received their blessing and reward from the King of glory, they continue to encourage those of us still making the ascent up the hill of sanctification. We are knit together in a great fellowship with them with threads stronger than death.

Among other things, this is what is meant when we affirm in the Apostles' Creed that we believe in “the communion of saints”. Those who God has "tested and found worthy of himself", those who he has refined like gold, still shine forth in our midst. The saints "run like sparks through the stubble" of this world igniting our imagination and our expectation of another world where all will be made new and the stench of sin, disease and death will be no more. They enhance our capacity for faith and love. Through them the Holy Spirit can transform us and inspire in us the desire to be persons who are incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.

And so we rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us that we might, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.


RuthG said...

Matt, I wrote my senior thesis on Williams. I didn't understand everything that was going on in his novel Descent into Hell, but I knew it was full of an unusual and very tender wisdom. Thanks for this reminder. Maybe I'll reread his works in the coming months!

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks for reading, Ruth. I have yet to read Descent into Hell. I've read some of his other novels and most of his nonfiction. My appreciation of Williams is based mostly on the latter. He bears rereading.