At The Well, we have treasured words from the early mothers and fathers of the Christian faith in the writings of Carmen Acevedo Butcher and others. Sara Scheunemann confesses to having had an "impoverished understanding of this communion" of saints. As she is coming to know them, she invites us to join her in this New Year with regular posts over the next several months. She introduces the series here.
(Photo: Jorge Alejandro Preciado Oseguera)
Each time I recite the Apostle’s Creed I affirm that I believe in the “communion of saints.” I have often connected these words with the Book of Hebrews’ “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) and imagined them cheering me on as I run the race God has set before me. I have even sensed at times that some of them — particularly the women of the gospels — are close beside me, sharing insights gained on their leg of the relay.
However, I recently realized that I had a rather impoverished understanding of this communion.
As a Protestant, I have been taught to distrust the Roman Catholic cult of the saints. Even the language sounds suspicious: cult of the saints? Aren’t we supposed to run away from anything that implies brainwashing and death by Kool-Aid? Of course, scholars of religion will tell you that a cult is any system of religious beliefs and rituals. Still, it can be hard to overcome this initial, visceral reaction, even if it is based in misperceptions. Plus, aren’t we taught that all believers are saints, every one of us equal before God at the foot of the cross? We might have varying degrees of maturity, and exemplars of the faith are certainly to be respected and emulated, but they are no more worthy of the designation of sainthood than any other follower of Christ. So says my Protestant formation.
Yet, in spite of an ingrained distrust, I find myself drawn to the saints of Roman Catholicism, hungry for their wisdom about what it looks like to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Over the years, I have found myself running the race alongside several who have challenged me to pick up the pace and pointed out pitfalls I might not have seen otherwise. Guides like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross have helped me better understand the mysteries of a course that has taken me to places I never would have expected. While I am grateful for the flattened world of the Reformation — which has given me boldness to approach Jesus as my best and dearest friend, the lover of my soul — the saints of Roman Catholicism beckon me to marvelous, mountainous heights of love.
I have come to understand that the communion of saints is Jesus’s family. He is eager for me to befriend them. Slowly, a few at a time — because he knows this introvert would be overwhelmed by a big family reunion — he is introducing me to those who understand me best and whose wisdom I need. In a few upcoming posts, I’ll welcome you into our conversations. Perhaps you will find a few new friends too.