Tag Archives: Remnant

“Some Pastoral Thoughts on Revision of the Office”

By MARTIN THORNTON
Prism (April 1961): 3-7.
Transcribed by Matthew Dallman

The ideal of revision set forth in the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer is a synthesis of orthodox tradition and particular pastoral needs, and this ideal is closely linked with the ancient, if but recently rediscovered axiom that liturgy must evolve from the experience of the worshipping community, which is itself living tradition. The most important of all factors, therefore, tacitly but not explicitly recognized by Anglican revisers, is to discover not what this liturgical or that parish priest would like to do, but what the faithful are in fact doing. This actual pastoral practice must then be subjected to the tests of scholarship and pastoral needs theologically expressed. Now what an increasing number of the faithful are doing is this: they are beginning to understand the value of the daily Office both as an expression of their membership of the corporate Body and as a support to their personal prayers. Some are joining in the public recitation of the Office in their parish churches whenever possible, but because of the contingencies of modern life, they are much more often reciting it privately. They find the present Offices far too complex, far too long and thus out of proportion in their total Christian lives, so they begin with the Versicle “O Lord Open . . . ,” end with the third collect, and omit the lessons, which, since the laity are under no canonical obligation to say the daily Office at all, they have every right to do. How, then, does this practice stand up to the tests of tradition and true pastoral theology? I submit the view that it stands up far better than the 1662 scheme plus the current Lectionary. But of all aspects of Common Prayer, it is the daily Office which most needs the stamp of uniformity and authority.

Let us first consider the objections to the present position which this state of affairs presupposes. The overall fact against which the faithful are subconsciously rebelling is the old inability of official Anglicanism to make up its mind what the daily Office is supposed to be for. All with agree that, in the total Christian life, we must confess our sins, say our prayers, make our petitions and thanksgiving, read, study and meditate on the Scriptures, and offer our corporate praise to God Almighty as members of Christ. But you cannot do all that at once, you cannot get it all into one “service,” and even if you could—by some supreme feat of spiritual gymnastics—it would only accentuate the error that Christianity is something that happens at set times in church instead of being an integrated life based on a foundation of prayer, of which the Office is an essential part.

But if Anglicanism cannot decide what the Office is, tradition is quite firm upon the point: it is the daily, objective, corporate offering of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ, it is a partaking in the eternal praise of the Church Triumphant by the Church Militant, and its unchanging, and I should say unchangeable, basis is the Psalter. In pastoral terms the Office thus becomes the practical expression of our unity in Christ of which the Eucharist is the ontological basis. Pastoral history and pastoral tradition teaches that this unity within the Church Militant must find expression, thus the departmentalism of the medieval, and modern Roman Church, is offset by the universality of the Rosary. For it is the Rosary, authorized by a long series of Popes, which alone forges a unity between prelate, priest and peasant; which attempts to heal the divisions between monks, friars, clerics and laity all doing different things out of a conglomeration of missals, breviaries, primers, mass-books and diurnals. But the Anglican expression of pastoral unity is not the Rosary but the Book of Common Prayer; we believe in a totally united Church without a clerical caste saying different prayers from the laity; we believe the bond of unity to be the fundamental pattern of the Catholic Church which does not need to be artificially glued together by popular devotions, however valuable they may be as such.

If it is admitted that, because of canonical requirements, the daily Office is really a priestly thing and does not concern the layman at all, then we have overthrown one of the most creative of all Reformation principles, and all is lost: we cannot even fall back on the Rosary. But if, by bold and sensible revision, we encouraged more and more laity to use the daily Office, I believe we would regain that vital spiritual solidity through which it pleases God to work his miracles. Here would be a living unity against which divergences of ceremonial, vesture and church decoration would sink into insignificance. But, as we have plainly seen, “revision” is barely necessary, all we need is rather authorization and re-arrangement, which boils down to no more than an official acceptance of pastoral facts as they are.

Under authorization it need only be said, plainly, that the Office begins where we all begin it and ends with the third collect, and it would be an advantage either to eliminate the alternative canticles or to give clear direction as to when each is to be used: in the Offices, of all things, loyal Churchmen do not want to be bothered with personal choice. We need, in fact, exactly to reverse the catholic policy of 1928.

Under re-arrangement I suggest that Scripture reading be taken out of the Office altogether and put in its proper place with the Christian life, which is when you have half-an-hour to spare, not when you have to catch a bus. If, in spite of the fact that this is what the Church is doing, this proposal is considered too revolutionary for formal authorization, I still maintain that it stands up to the tests of ascetical theology and common sense. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the laity were generally illiterate and books rare and expensive, there was a good deal to be said for reading the Bible to them. But the modern laity are growing up, they can read for themselves, and with advanced education, plus the critical Biblical upheaval of the last century, they are no longer content merely to read. The modern need is for serious study and meditation which is quite incompatible with listening to six or eight isolated episodes from both Testaments in three minutes. If something like the current Lectionary is needed at all, some official scheme akin to those offered by the Bible Reading Fellowship would be much more compatible with modern needs. From the lay point of view, the consecutive lectionary has been long since redundant; and because of it the Office itself has been neglected. For the priest it is an infuriating burden. Were it decided that any priest or laic should be canonically obliged to follow an official daily scheme of Biblical study, then let them recite the Office worthily and pursue their canonical studies at some more suitable time. Nothing would be lost and a good deal gained.

Allow me to attempt to forestall three obvious objections to this scheme which are bound to arise. First, certain of my Evangelical brethren will tell me that the consecutive daily reading of the Scriptures is the whole purpose of Morning and Evening Prayer, which are not “Offices” in the sense I assume; that the psalms and canticles are little more than a frame to contain the lessons. I reply that if that is the case are not the psalms and canticles rather a nuisance? would it not be better simply to read, expound and meditate of the Scriptures?—which is exactly what I have suggested. But in all charity I am inclined to the view that, in the type of parish I have in mind, loyal daily attendance for this purpose seems a little remote. I hope I am wrong.

Secondly, I will be told that I am thinking only of a faithful, and possibly eccentric, minority—of the Remnant—and that I have no thought at all for the “ordinary congregation” or for “evangelism.” To this I reply that I am not thinking of the Office of the Remnant but of the Office of the Church, and if the expanding Remnant is the only body at present loyal to the Prayer Book scheme, then that is both regrettable yet encouraging. And I can only repeat that the one channel of creative evangelism is the Church being true to itself. So far as the “ordinary congregation” is concerned, these proposals need in no way to conflict with present practice. They need in no way interfere with “Sunday Evensong” except in so far as they regard the Office as what the Prayer Book plainly says it is: two-fold, morning and evening, daily throughout the year. The fatal error here, blatantly made in the 1928 revision, is to think of a “Sunday service” which can be modified for weekdays, instead of thinking of a daily Office which might be elaborated for Sundays. It is thinking in terms of an isolated congregation instead of an ever-living Church. On Sundays the Office could be said or sung, after which the Scriptures could be read, preached, expounded and prayed about, all of which seems a much more logical sequence.

If, to the cause of “evangelism,” a parish needed mission services, then let us by all means have them, but not at the expense of prostituting the Office of the Church. By no possible stretch of imagination can the Office be converted into such a service, and I fail to see any great value in anyone saying one Office out of every fourteen. If the present daily pattern fails by trying to do four different things at once, little can be gained on Sunday evenings by trying to do seven things at once.

The third objection is that the Office, by its very nature, ought to be said in common, and not recited privately. That is surely the ideal, but to stretch a point here on the grounds of pastoral need is trivial compared with the alternative of throwing over the whole idea of the common Office of the one Church. And, indeed, there may even be advantages. Admitting the ideal, there is much to be said for the Church’s Office as the only truly worthwhile form of “family prayer,” and when we are so constantly exhorted to “relate religion with life,” or to “carry the Church into the world,” recitation on trains, buses and in the tea break, could be more subtly pervasive than we imagine. What we lost in the choir we would gain on the underground.

To return to the fundamental point that nobody can just “revise” an Office with regard to the pastoral facts, without noting what is actually happening; the fundamental point that is, that liturgy must evolve; one single, simple step is all that is immediately required. Let authority plainly state that all that is now said daily is to continue to be said daily, but that the lessons may be read at any convenient time. The canonical position of the priesthood would be much the same, except that the Scriptures could be read more intelligently and the daily Office of praise offered more worthily. The laity would be encouraged to use the Office to the glory of God and to their own spiritual advantage, but without feeling that they were not doing the thing quite properly. For this is their present position which accentuates that priest-lay gulf which is the bane of other communions, and which traditional Anglicanism has ever been at pains to avoid.

What does ‘Remnant’ mean?

When we look at businesses or organizations as a whole, there tends to be a core group within the whole who constitute the “heart.” Not necessarily the ones who put in the longest hours or do the most taxing work, yet something irreplaceable and necessary rides on the shoulders of these core people: their vision, their behavior, their commitment. And through their work, the whole organization, all the way out to its margins, benefits and shares in, even can take on the character of, that core.

The Chicago Blackhawks of 2015 are a pertinent example. There is a spectrum that constitutes everything meant by “the Blackhawks.” Certainly much rides upon the shoulders of the players themselves, whom we can easily see as “the core.” Yet important also are the trainers, team management, all of the ticket-holders and fans, all the way to the kids who wear Patrick Kane jerseys at their neighborhood ice rink. All are part of the same “team” yet with different roles to play according to their gifts and vocation. Seen in this way, the “team” in the narrow sense becomes something of a wider “family.”

This manner of thinking can be applied to the Church, and particularly the Parish, with intriguing ramifications. The theological term used by the Church is “Remnant.” We find this in Saint Paul: “At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5-6). In the Authorized Version (popularly but inaccurately called the “KJV”), the term also occurs in The Revelation to John (12:17): “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

To what does “woman” refer? Marian scholar Hilda Graef writes, “The early patristic tradition unanimously regards this woman as a symbol of the Church” (Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Chap. 1). Later patristic, medieval and modern tradition grew to see the “woman” as a composite symbol of both the Church and Blessed Mary. Writes Graef: “Mary is not merely the individual mother of Jesus, she is also the ‘daughter of Sion,’ the representative of the People of God.” This means that Mary is representative of the Remnant as seen in Elisha, Amos, Micah, First Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, Ezra, and Deutero-Isaiah. Furthermore, Remnant is directly implied by the stories of Noah (Gen 7:23), Abraham (Gen 18:12-32), Jacob (Gen 32:9), and Joseph (Gen 45:7). In each of these instances we see the common theme in two parts: 1. a person or small group of people chosen by God as His instrument and 2. upon whom the salvation of the whole world depends.

These are in fact complementary emphases. For without the core people who are chosen (elected) by God, who continue in the example of Blessed Mary and reform into ever-greater likeness of Jesus, what are the Saints but curious, even bizarre, people? Likewise, absent the participation of the wider community according to their gifts and talents, what claim can the Church possibly make to being “Catholic,” a term which means “universal” and “according to the whole”? And without the whole, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7) is empty sentiment.

Now, just as the Blackhawks players must, in fact, play, the Remnant must do their work in relationship to the whole. This work is the perpetuation of Christ comprehensively and completely. A classic description of the Church is that it is the extension of the Incarnation of Christ. This in fact is a Remnant way of describing the Church: people who are to be the extension of Him. The preaching, teaching, healing, leading—all of what Jesus did—we can sum up as His Prayer, which was always in perfect adoration of the Father Almighty. By perpetuating His prayer, we perpetuate Him, by His grace—and actual people are called by God to do this. These people we call the “faithful Remnant” and together with their community, “the Remnant Parish”—all exercising their gifts and talents given by God for the common good.

It is a severe distortion to imagine that only the Remnant is going to heaven, a mistake some are tempted to make. Our Lord did not command his Apostles to baptize the nations so that, upon baptism, they would perish in eternal damnation. Rather, His command was for the salvation of the whole world. The faithful Remnant Parish is not pessimistically withdrawn from the world; Remnant is the opposite of retreat. Remnant means engagement, as Jesus himself was the Suffering Servant giving himself to all of humanity.

Our terms are that we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” from our Baptismal Covenant. Likewise, the faithful Remnant and Remnant Parish pray as a family on behalf of those members of society who do not sense any calling whatsoever to attend church, and even are actively antagonistic towards Christianity. Such a parish prays in part because others cannot or will not—Remnant prayer is “substitutionary prayer,” so to speak. This is particularly evident liturgically during the Prayers of the People: “Let us pray for the Church and for the whole world,” “For all people in their daily life and work” (Forms IV and VI). The Remnant Parish is distinct because called by God, yet is intimately and sacramentally connected with, and responding to, the concerns, challenges, problems and evils of the world through the compassion of Christ.

What emerges in relief are five, possibly startling, points for further pastoral, devout experimentation:

  • The Remnant are “the bearers of the community’s future existence” (Fr Leslie Hoppe, OFM, The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 827). Canonical and local Saints teach us about who we the Church will become.
  • In the Remnant is an infectious holiness demonstrated through purity in worship, loyalty in faith, and complete abandonment to God and His Providence. Remnant prayer is the prayerful center of the Parish and is its central activity.
  • The Remnant serves the whole of the Parish. As Fr Thornton wrote, “It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; in fact the complete Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to the environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savors the whole” (The Heart of the Parish, IV). The primary condition is that a parish “believes, practices, and teaches the full Catholic faith and supports and promotes authentic Catholic culture,” in the words of Fr Fraser. True catholicity implies locality.
  • The norm of parochial Prayer is the threefold Regula performed daily by the members of the faithful Remnant, elected by God to pray vicariously on behalf of all, and joined by the whole community as they are able, which typically means in the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Remnant prayer truly pervades all.
  • Part and parcel of Remnant reality in the parish is Catholic imagination. To wit: “It is not, however, merely the human part of the created order that receives redemption and makes its true self-offering to God by joining ‘with the angels and archangels’ in the heavenly worship. The whole material realm in involved, for man is ‘nature’s priest.’ . . . Not only man, but the universe, will be transfigured and glorified, and in this transfiguration the great mystery of the Resurrection of the Body will be brought about” (20th-century Anglican divine Eric Mascall, in Christ, the Christian, and the Church, XIII and IX). Parochial activity overflows into all of life and involves the whole material realm.

What, in sum, does Remnant mean? Remnant doctrine emphasizes that God does His saving work through His Body. He works through the diverse gifts and graces He has given particular members to exercise for the benefit of all (see 1 Cor 12). As a whole, we are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Remnant doctrine synthesizes fundamental Church’s theology (e.g., Incarnation, Baptism and all the Sacraments, the Church, Election/Vocation, People of God, Theosis) and emphasizes both corporate and individual aspects of our shared call to follow the example of Blessed Mary and all the Saints in obedient life dedicated to Jesus, extending and perpetuating the Catholic faith within Christ’s Church with infectious holiness and through vicarious, trinitarian prayer (Regula). Remnant doctrine teaches that the one Body of Christ shares in each other’s God-given gifts and graces, and is so doing we share in the prayer life of those particular souls, lay and ordained, who are elected by God to the full life of Christian prayer on this earth.

In short, Remnant means being Blessed Mary’s children. The Mother and Bearer of God—Theotokos—Saint Mary is also, we must proclaim, the Mother of the Remnant. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Saint Mark, icon by the hand of Monica Thornton

Homily: Jesus Christ, suffering servant

Delivered at Saint Paul’s, Riverside on 5 July 2015.

“And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching” (Mk 6:6).

Brothers and sisters, spend time this week reflecting on this description of Jesus. This is St Mark describing Jesus doing ministry in his own country. Jesus—already being followed by great crowds, crowds that throng about him. Jesus—already performing great and mighty works— miracles of healing, of taming the waters, of exorcising demons, of raising a girl from the dead, such as we have been hearing. Jesus—with his elected twelve disciples, who have been hearing and reflecting upon these mysterious parables spoken by Jesus to larger crowds but explained by Jesus to them as means for more intimate spiritual direction.

Spend time this week reflecting that in his own community, surrounded by both disciples and relatives, who possess “first-century eyes,” as we have been discussing, Jesus could do no mighty work, save a few healings, with this particular group of people, for the most part.

Yet this is Jesus, the God-Man. Can we doubt that Jesus was as emboldened as Ezekiel the prophet—to “be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions”? Doubtless these prefigure Jesus’s passion, wearing a crown of thorns amid a rebellious, antagonistic crowd out for blood. And can we doubt that, like St Paul, Jesus lived with profound visions of the truth, even mystical visions of reality, of paradise, of heaven itself, yet was never “too elated” by them to be able to teach others?

For whatever visions Paul was given through a glass darkly, such were perfect visions in the senses and mind of Christ. Jesus, we must always remember, is the perfect pray-er. From his Nativity through his childhood and into his public ministry as an adult, through it all in every moment, the “whole life of Christ was one of unbroken adoration”—a “perpetual adoration.”[1] We forget this because of how constant his prayer was. Yet his unceasing prayer—his adoration of the Father—is as important to our salvation, and the redemption of the world, as his Passion, for the Passion is but another way we see the prayer of Jesus, his Incarnation made manifest.

Jesus is our high priest. Jesus is our Messiah of the Remnant Church. And here, St Mark’s emphasizes also that Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Scholars confirm that our Gospel passage is one of many moments in the Gospels that recapitulate the “suffering servant” motif found particularly in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. As one scholar writes: “The characteristics of God’s chosen servant are that he is quiet and restrained; no loud proclamations herald his activity,” that is, “no conquering hero of popular Judaism.”[2]

The suffering servant, in his humility, teaches us how to live. The suffering servant, in the pain received from our transgressions, bears our grief and sorrow, is bruised for our iniquities—and yet through all, his stripes, his wounds, heal us. The suffering servant, through the example of his own life, gives to our lives spiritual direction.

These are all qualities perfected in the life of Jesus Christ. They are evoked in our Gospel from St Mark. Jesus’s ministry is not remote and insular but with the people in the community. Jesus does not get into indiscriminate arguments on Facebook about the true God, but is largely restrained—he does not lash back at his community for the offense they take at his words, but with a wounded yet brave face “marvels because of their unbelief.” He is not callous or thick-headed to the reactions around him, but has the utmost sensitivity to them. How does he react? He reacts by accepting the truth of reality at that given moment—“a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,”—and by doing the quiet and restrained work that he can—laying his hands upon a few sick people and healing them. And then by going about his daily business, “among the villages teaching.”

This moment for Jesus, with this rebellious people whose hearts most assuredly were hardened, did not present a hill that Jesus chose to die upon. He picked his battles and this was not one of them. Not only politics, but in a notable sense ministry itself, is the art of the possible.

Yet it is an art of the possible that relies upon the hard rock of orthodoxy. Ministry is the art of the possible that knows that God is present—here and in all places. Ministry is the art of the possible that does not shy away from speaking the truth, yet is realistic about outcome. Because ministry tills the ground—and sometimes the ground is rocky, arid, and inhospitable! And, always, we are frail, imperfect, likely to sin. God knows this, God expects this, God forgives this. God loves us for our frailty. God loves us for our imperfections. God loves us despite our sin.

Let us, in our ministry rooted in our baptismal covenant and enacted in our prayer which is our lives, be bold, humble, and realistic. Let us be bold like Ezekiel—recognize the Holy Spirit lives in our bodies, and be not afraid of the words he guides us to speak. Let us be humble like Paul—we are given an abundance of revelations about the truth of ultimate reality, yet the world remains fallen, original sin remains real, and our bodies often sick, frail and tired. And let us be realistic like Jesus—those who do not have ears to hear, won’t. Yet, we must always believe, those who do have ears to hear, will.

It is the duty of the Church to perpetuate the Incarnation. May our lives be the bold, humble and realistic hands of Christ. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God described to us and to the whole Church, all might, majesty, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish, chapter 6.
[2] Dr Guillaume, as quoted ibid.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Homily: O ye Saints of the Holy Catholic Church

Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of All Saints, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

Almighty God,” our Collect begins, “you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

It has been said, not altogether inaccurately, that if you want to know what Anglicans believe in terms of doctrine, look at their Collects. At each Mass, the appointed Collect receives pride of place at the culmination of the Entrance Rite, which is what brings us back together, after a week of ministry according to our gifts and circumstance. The Collects are arranged in a very intentional way to correlate with the turning of the liturgical year. And in terms of their doctrinal content, the Collects express doctrine not in a straight, you might say, dry academic way. Doctrine rather is expressed in the Collects in a way that integrates with Prayer.

For those of you who have spent any time devotionally reading the works of Saint Anselm, who has a fundamental role in English, and hence Anglican, spirituality, you might notice a similarity between the style of Anselm and the style of our Collects. It is not, here is some doctrine and dogma, and over here is some high devotional words. No, in Anselm, in our Collects, and I would say in authentic Anglican life, there is an integral balance, in the Benedictine sense, of intellect and action, head and feeling, study and wilderness, dogma and love.

So what of this Collect, appointed for this, the Solemnity of All Saints? Can we look to this Collect for insight into what Anglicans believe about this feast? I believe we can. And I would go further than that — for what we have in this Collect is not only an authentically Anglican view of All Saints, but one deeply Catholic because it expresses Remnant theology. So let’s have a look.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. So, we talk in this parish about Catholic vision, and every once in a while, as a counter example of what is not Catholic, every once in a while we talk a little bit about something called Calvinism. Perhaps you have heard of it? Well in this “adoration” part of the Collect, where God’s nature or acts are praised in pure adoration of who He is, there is this word “elect” that is of course something of a buzz word in the Catholic-Calvinist debate. Often it means predestination. Some people are predestined, according to historical Calvinism, as God’s “elect” to be saved; and others predestined to be damned. It is a nasty bit of theology, and the Catholic faith holds this to be heretical. Yet why, then, is the word “elect” part of our Collect? If our Collects express our doctrine, and this Collect says “elect”, are we Calvinist in our doctrine?

Not at all. The word “elect” is there because it has everything to do with the Saints. It has everything to do with those who we already call Saints, those treasure-troves of holiness; and with those yet to be Saints, those departed who have proceeded to the next stage of their lives, the intermediate state of Paradise, to further complete their journey of theosis, of being reforming into likeness of Jesus. And it has everything to do with Saints yet born, and yet to die. Because being a Saint is a vocation. Saints are called by God. As Martin Thornton wrote (in The Function of Theology), God makes Himself present — often confronting the person with the resurrected Christ — which issues in personal dialogue or “colloquy”, which is what is meant generally by “mental prayer”, an interchange between minds: the mind of the saint and the mind of Christ. This is how the “voice of God” is “heard” by the spiritual ears of the dedicated mind. This is an existential way of understanding what it means to be “elect.” It means being called by God.

You have knit together your elect. All of this is of God’s initiative, or “prevenient Grace.” Certainly an archetype of all this is Abraham, called by God. This was a calling that tested his resolve, tested his faith, even to the point of sacrificing Isaac his son. Abraham indeed was confronted in the same ways Saints are confronted — completely, demanding the whole person, not just the mind, the emotions, or the body, but all of it, for prayer is loving God in a total way.

You have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. This means, simply, the Church. It expresses our baptismal promise in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.” That is not two statements, but one expressed two ways. For the holy Catholic Church IS the communion of saints. Those saints of the past, of the present, and of the future. Saints in this sense includes the Angels, and pride of place goes to Our Lady, Blessed Mary Holy Mother of God, Lady of all Angels and Saints. And the Church of Saints, in all its glorious diversity of expression, of gifts, of time and place — all of it is expression of God, an expression of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living. Again, the ability to follow comes from God’s action, prevenient grace. And we are to follow the Saints. We are to learn about them. They are alive. “Communion of Saints” is also a statement about their present condition. They join us at the altar, they watch over us, and make themselves available to us. It is a very good form of devotional meditation to imagine what their lives were like. We often have only scanty details of history about them. This can also be a gift, for it allows us to more easily to see our lives in theirs, and their lives in ours.

The saints, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.” He continues, “The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.” That is another way of saying that the lives of saints — both for their heroism and their failures — mediate what Scripture authoritatively points toward: the activity of God, his divine providence.

Saints also point to the proper interpretation of the Beatitudes. Those who are blessed — are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted for righteousness sake. This list of terms might sound imposing — and in truth, the responsibilities of the Christian life are imposing from one perspective — but as Thornton wrote (in English Spirituality) this list can be described as the following qualities: “poor in spirit” means humility, sensitive to spiritual things; “mourn” means being sympathetic and penitent, “meek” means understanding the joy of life, “hunger and thirst for righteousness” means “craving progress toward union with God”, “merciful” means compassionate, “pure in heart” means constant in religious participation (Office, Mass, Devotion), “peacemaker” means prudent in searching for harmony among men; and “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” means fortitude amid the battle against sin.

Forgive me for breezing through these, for each of them is enough food for a homily itself. But I am just touching on them now to point out that the life of the Saint, which is the life the Christian faith calls people toward, involves qualities and characteristics that are not alien to our everyday experience. All we can do, all Saints every did, all God asks, is to respond to God as his activity is made available to our senses and our mind — according to the gifts and talents we are given by God. Not some other gifts and talents, but those we have, used not for selfish interest but rather for the greater glory of God.

That we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you. Listen to these words! Ineffable joys — joy beyond our ability to imagine or conceive. Prepared by God — because he wants us, yearns for us, fundamentally desires us. Prepared for those who truly love you. This is what Remnant really means. The faithful Remnant are those called by God, who respond to God’s calling, and by his help learn to truly Love him in all moments and activities of their being, beginning in this life and continuing to the next. The Saints, and sainthood whether known officially or unknown, is what we mean by “faithful Remnant.” The Beatitudes are not just qualities of holiness. They are qualities of Jesus himself, qualities in their perfect form, yet available to us by the grace of God wherever we happen to be in our journey. The Beatitudes are a description of the Remnant — those called to fully live out the ministry initiated by Jesus himself — to live out and perpetuate Jesus whether in a monastic community or in a secular community such as Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

And it is a life built on sacramentality or Catholic imagination, the Sacraments themselves, built on absorbing Scriptural insight, built on joy, built on obedience, built on community. And, fundamentally, built on love.

O all ye Saints of the holy Catholic Church — O ye holy Men and Women — pray for us.

Homily: “The Many Meanings of ‘Pray for Us'”

Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of the Assumption of Blessed Mary, Mother of God, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

The text for this sermon is not itself found in our readings today. But it might be said to point toward the heart of serious, committed Christian religion. The text is simply, “Pray for us,” and it is certainly appropriate to explore the meanings of those three words when we are commemorating, and meditating upon, Our Lady, Blessed Mary, on the Solemnity of her Assumption into heaven, who in the words of our Collect, has been “taken” to God.

The words “pray for us” are often if not even usually part of a Marian prayer or anthem — one thinks of “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” from the Hail Mary, or “pray for us to the Father” from the anthem, “O Queen of Heaven, be Joyful” as well as “Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ” that is often said at the conclusion of a Marian prayer. It is part of the Litany of the Saints that we pray every Easter Vigil.

It might too be remembered that on any saint’s day, such as last month on the 22nd of July which was Saint Mary Magdalene’s day, the simplest way of effectively remembering that saint, if we have no other time or opportunity to do anything else, is to say, such as in this case, Saint Mary Magdalene, pray for us.

And so, when we say, “pray for us”, we should simply ask, what are we saying? To know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity, after all. So, to begin, whom do we address with these words, “pray for us”? We mentioned Our Lady, Blessed Mary, as well as Magdalene or other Saints. What these Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, you might say, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses. God is calling them. Their vocation, which only comes from God, is not unfocused but rather discernible and active in their life, sort of like a divine GPS.

Of course the best example of holiness, recognized from the beginning of the Church, is Mary. St Luke wants us to know that “Her soul magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are the marks of holiness I think still apply today. Also notice that St Luke, as well as the planners of our lectionary, would have us consider Mary to be prophetic. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Prophets, through the grace of God, understand the present in immediate and often abrasive terms. And not merely their present tense as they lived, but again through grace, their words point toward the eternal present, which is reality as looked on by the Blessed Trinity. It cannot be a stretch at all to say that Mary looked upon, was struck by, ultimate reality, for what else can the Annunciation imply? Each episode we have of Mary shows us that she was living with this revelation, pondering it. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple.

So when we ask a person who is tangibly living with the revelation to pray for us, it seems to me that we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” here begins in a petition but is expressed as an intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it — lend us a hand.” This is obviously a way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God, through them, and, who knows, maybe this will lead to relief.

The second dimension of “pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead. “We are not able to do it as well as you can.” Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something full-time, committed, disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared.

There should be nothing strange about the notion that some people have a vocation to “Pray-er” in a particular way. Much like some people are called to play professional football for the Chicago Bears, and the rest of us clearly are not — fans of that team share in the gifts given to these players, and the players share in the gifts given to the fans. The “Chicago Bears” is more than the players on the field — the “Chicago Bears” is the players, trainers, administrators, owners, and on and on, including the fans. The “Chicago Bears” is an event. In the same way, the Church is an event. It is the Body of Christ, the Remnant of Jesus — Remnant meaning what he left behind of himself to continue his ministry — and the purpose and mission of the Church is best understood in this way: the living, organic Remnant of Jesus himself, doing what Jesus did in his own earthly ministry: preaching, teaching, embracing, healing, feeding, listening, leading.

Although it can be helpful to understand the distinctions between these activities, what must never be forgotten is that all of them are forms of prayer. In the words of Martin Thornton, prayer is the total experience of a religious person. The Church, then, is the Remnant of Jesus, and its activity is prayer, which is understood to begin in the total experience and activity of Christ.

All of which points, I think, to the fullest understanding of the text of this sermon. “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. So often, our complaints with other people begin when a person does not acknowledge us, our feelings, our experience, our being. Regular, daily acknowledgment of relationship is the key to its health. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

Mary, after all, is the Mother of the Church. We might say she is the Mother of the Remnant — that which Jesus lived and then left behind as an active culture of divine life, experience, and activity. This culture is kept fecund primarily through Prayer in the total sense: to work is to pray, wrote St Benedict, which is profound when we see our work as continuing what Jesus consummated.

Now, no one but Mary has her particular vocation: the Mother of Jesus, of God incarnate, and the prayerful life that results from that relationship. And not all of us — in fact, few of us — are called to be full-time pray-ers — whether in monastic order or in secular, ascetic order in a parish. Not all of us are called to suit up for battle on Soldier Field against the hated Packers! By all accounts, the vocation of full-time pray-er is fantastically arduous work, difficult, and regularly unpleasant.

Yet let it be understood: all of us have God-given gifts and we are to work to understand them and then to exercise them by the grace and guidance of God. Any gift from God is going to involve work of some sort — heavy lifting of the soul — but by all accounts there is at the same time in all true vocations tremendous joy, beauty, and contentment, as well. God calls us. And when we say “Pray for us,” we acknowledge that to be true.

And so we join holy Church and say: Pray for us, O holy Mother of God — that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.