All Saints' Day: The Thin Place
All Saints' Day: 1st November, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
We have the Irish to thank for All Saints' Day! Or so the scholars suggest. This Celtic tradition may well have spread from Ireland to England and then on to Europe. Certainly by the early ninth century it had reached Rome, and in 844 Pope Gregory the Fourth wrote to Emperor Louis "the Pious" urging him to encourage the observance of All Saints Day on November 1st across the entire Holy Roman Empire.
Today we continue in this ancient tradition by honouring the great women and men who have gone before us and shaped our faith. In his Foreword to a revised edition of the classic Butler's Lives of the Saints, Cardinal Basil Hume writes:
We live in a sophisticated, if not cynical, age in which the former 'certainties' of faith, which brought comfort to so many, are now widely questioned. But surely a living faith can have no absolute certainties? ... Faith, by very definition, grows through a constant, indeed daily, process, whereby doubts, old and new, must ever be conquered afresh. This growth in faith can be helped by stories and legends of the saints ... [these] heroic men and women ... have bequeathed to us an inspiration that transcends ordinary history.
Another Celtic tradition is that of the "thin place". These are places where heaven and earth somehow draw near and even momentarily kiss one another. I think St Peter's is a thin place. Sometimes at Mass, or sitting alone in these pews to pray, the presence of the numinous draws very close. The Saints themselves were and are a thin place. In them we somehow draw nearer to God, even see God. Thomas Merton puts it like this (in Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p.155):
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It's impossible. The only thing is that we don't see it.
The Saints did see it, their lives attest to that, and through them we too may catch a glimpse of it. Today's Lesson, from chapter seven of the Book of Revelation, is John's glimpse through a thin place on the Island of Patmos, into the mysteries of heaven:
I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
The fifteenth-century Dutch artist, Jan van Eyck, depicts these very verses from Revelation beautifully in the Ghent Cathedral altarpiece "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", of which we are blessed with a copy in the Handfield Chapel, and which I have reproduced in the service sheet today.
The Lamb of God is enthroned on the Eucharistic altar, surrounded by angels (two of whom are very enthusiastic thurifers!) and the landscape is filled with John's "great multitude that no one could count": Old Testament Prophets, figures from classical Antiquity, Apostles, women and men, martyrs and confessors, religious and laity, many robed in white with palm branches in their hands; a veritable vision of heaven.
We do indeed live in a sophisticated, if not a cynical age. But these visions of the numinous that we celebrate today are far from primitive. Indeed, I would argue, our modern complex lives are in fact naive and shallow without these mystical and sacramental realities.
Our modern world has been busy constructing walls for centuries to thicken and eradicate these saintly thin places; attempting to keep things materially straightforward and manageable. Robert Frost's delightfully subversive poem "Mending Wall" comes to mind:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
As he goes about the annual ritual with his neighbour of mending the dry-stone wall between their two properties, Frost reflects:
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head: "Why do they make good neighbours? ...
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out ...
So, today, on this All Saints Day, perhaps we should vow to push off a bolder or two from the wall that would keep at bay those messy saintly thin places. St Peter, St Mary, St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi, St Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Mary Mackillop ... pray for us.