Eucharist Sermon - 31 October 2021

All Saints' Day
Wisdom 3:1–9, Revelation 21:1–6a, John 11:32–44
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity
‘The Saints’

Earlier this week I took some of my master’s students to visit the saints. We had a class on early Christian society and they had been reading texts which reflected on marriage and family life, on celibacy and virginity, and on the lives of those who lived as hermits or as monks and nuns in religious communities. In other words, they had been finding out what early Christian writers thought about how Christians should live in the world. The texts ranged from sermons and works on marriage, to interminable treatises setting out the superiority of the celibate life, to accounts of the lives of individual figures such as Saint Antony and Saint Macrina. Needless to say, in these works the saints are those who renounced the world, gave up all their possessions, embraced celibacy, devoted themselves to prayer and study of the Scriptures, and who were known to have worked miracles.

When I met my students at Tom gate it seemed a bit silly to take them straight to my office to begin talking about these texts. Instead, we went on a field trip – or pilgrimage, if you like. Why read about the saints when you have them before you? First, we went to the shrine of St Frideswide in the Latin Chapel; then we visited the picture gallery to have a look at the 15th century fragments of the lives of the Desert Fathers.  We looked at the Burne Jones window on the east wall of the Latin Chapel, which, as you know well, depicts, scene by scene, the events and exploits of St Frideswide and her followers in a sort of vertical cartoon strip: her fleeing from the prospect of being engaged to marry; going into hiding; crossing field and river; her miracles; her poor fiancé being struck blind; her setting up a religious community; her death. Then, going round the corner to the Picture Gallery, we contemplated the scenes from the lives of the early Christians who fled the world to go and live in huts and caves in the Egyptian desert. Again, it was like looking at episodes from a cartoon: their battles with devilish demons; their fording of rivers sitting on inflated goat’s bladders; their taming of wild beasts; their miraculous healings; their visions; their heroic feats of renunciation – of food, clothing, sleep.

When we eventually got to my office, I hoped that looking at the window and the fragments had prompted the right questions in the minds of my students: just what was going on here? Why all this running away; this renunciation of the world and marriage; this devotion to a life of prayer, reading and meditating on Scripture. How did these people find such strength of mind, character and purpose?

The answers aren’t, I think, to be found in the individuals themselves – either Frideswide or the Desert Fathers; instead, I think we have to look in, through and beyond them to the one who inspired them, motivated them, sustained them; the one without whom they could have done none of these things, but would have remained as weak, faltering, fragile and fearful as the rest of us. In other words, we must look in and through and beyond the saints to God, who has called them, given them the grace to respond, the grace to endure, the grace to believe, hope and love; the God who lives and works in and through the saints to turn them towards Himself.

It is this turning of the saints towards God, so that their lives, minds and hearts are directed by God towards himself, that really makes them holy. And everything else – their renunciation, their heroic acts, their healing miracles – follow from this. They come, not from them, but from God.

The saints, then, are those who might describe as chosen by God to be vessels, mediators, examples of his grace; to reveal Him to others. What this requires of them is first of all submission: submission to God’s will; to his commandments; to his love; in single-minded, single-hearted devotion. This might sound odd, but I think it is the single-mindedness of the saints that really sets them apart. They focus on nothing but God: and if this requires them to set aside worldly distractions or temptations, then they are given the grace to do so – albeit, in some cases, with some difficulty. If you think of any saint they will, I’m sure, fit this description: someone with a single-minded, single-hearted devotion to and submission to God. Everything they have done or achieved follows from this.

The lives of the saints also often emphasize the fact that they followed Christ’s example: Christ’s own single-minded, single-hearted devotion to God; his giving up all worldly ties and possessions; his living in trust, obedience and love for his father, even to the point of death. This is the model and example he has given all of us of what it is to live a human life in faith, hope and love towards God.  The saints are those who follow him more closely and in doing so, provide an example and inspiration for us to follow.

But the lives of the saints always, also, emphasize their devotion to prayer, contemplation and study of the Scriptures. These are ways in which they turn towards God, focus single-mindedly on Him, and are nourished and nurtured by his gracious presence to them. These are the ways, in other words, in which God comes to dwell in them and act in and through them.

And so, I think of a different image of St Frideswide – not the dramatic events of her life in the window – they will come afterwards – but of the statue placed in the corner of the Latin Chapel. She stands upright, in prayer, in still, silent contemplation; present with God in single-minded, single-hearted contemplation, with face uplifted, turned towards God’s light and reflecting it for us.

We, too – even if we aren’t saints, ascetics or martyrs – can follow Christ with them, pray and meditate on the Scriptures as they did, so that, with them and following their example, we can be still and stand before God; be single-mindedly and single-heartedly present to the God who is always present to us, and like Frideswide, know his deep peace.  [Who knows, the heroic deed may follow!]

Still my restless heart, O God,
That I may breathe your love.
Still my restless mind, O God,
That I may hear you speak.
Still my restless body, O God,
That I may know you are near.
Still my restless desires, O God,
That I may feel your love.
Still my restless spirit, O God,
That I may trust your will.
Still my restless work, O God,
That I may receive your grace.
In your peace may I find true blessing
Through Jesus Christ, Amen.