Practicing our faith more intentionally

All Saint’s Day – 2015

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us all to live with courage, faith and faithfulness. Amen.

One of the consequences of the Reformation was that the various churches that formed as a result either stopped or curtailed the worship or recognition of saints. The Anglican Church belongs in the latter category. Reformers on the Continent and in England felt that the Church of Rome had overlaid the practice of the faith with a vast number of things that could not be justified with reference to scripture. Some of these are listed in Article XXII that, (in what today would be considered inflammatory language), states: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond things vainly invented, and grounded up not warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

The worship of saints was considered a distraction from the worship of God who, through Jesus, was now directly accessible to every individual through prayer. There was no need for intermediaries, no matter how holy. Anglicans were still happy to recognise that there were among the faithful those who lives were so exemplary that they provided a model for others, but they seriously culled the number who were so acknowledged and since the Reformation have only formally added one person – King Charles I – to the list of saints recognised by Anglican Church.

That is not to say that Anglicans do not recognise that there are those among us whose lives of faith are so outstanding that we might wish to continue to remember them or to follow their examples. To that end a number of people have been acknowledged as “holy men and women” without the requirement of a lengthy process to determine whether or not they have been responsible for a pre-determined number of miracles. Within Anglicanism there is freedom for each Province to add to their yearly Calendar persons of particular significance for their part of the world. There is also within our tradition the possibility of adding to our liturgical year those whose faith-life is deemed to have universal significance – whether or not they belong to the Anglican tradition.

These include a number of twentieth century martyrs – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran), Oscar Romero (a Roman Catholic) and William Wilberforce (an Evangelical Christian). In Australia we pay tribute to many who have made a significant contribution to the life of faith and of the church in Australia. These include – Sister Emma[1], Eliza Darling[2], William Broughton,[3] and John Wollaston.[4][5]

One holy woman whose writings and spiritual direction were a significant part of the twentieth century is Evelyn Underhill. Though a layperson and a woman, Evelyn was much in demand as a Retreat Leader and Spiritual director. She was also a prolific writer, penning some 39 books, 350 reviews and countless letters during her career. Evelyn was unusual in many ways. She was not only an independent thinker, but also an independent woman. At a time when women did not work unless they had to, Evelyn earned money from her writings and had the freedom to leave her husband behind on those occasions when she required time to write or was called upon to lead Retreats and give Seminars.

Not only was Evelyn independent at a time when many women were not, she was also unconventional in her approach to organized religion. She was critical of the church once stating: “not only the Vicar and the Curate and the Mother’s Union Committee …. the Church is an ‘essential service’ like the Post Office, but there will always be some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter and you will always be tempted to exasperation by them”[6]. It appears that she had a great sense of fun that sometimes took by surprise those who were expecting a serious spiritual guide.

According to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Underhill’s book Mysticism that was published in 1911 remains a “classic in the field”. In it she reflects that one could find the central element of mysticism in the experience of the mystic, which, she thought was “an overwhelming consciousness of God and of his (sic) own soul: a consciousness which absorbs or eclipses all other centres of interest” (p 3)[7]. From this we can gather that Underhill was not interested in the theory of spirituality (as were other writers of the time), but in the practical nature of mysticism and in mysticism as experience. This may have been in part because the book was written to help her explain her own early experiences of the spiritual. In Mysticism, she argues that: (1) mysticism is practical, not theoretical, (2) it is an entirely spiritual activity, (3) the business and method of which is love. (4) Mysticism entails a definite psychological experience.

During the course of her life Underhill influenced a great many people through both through her writing (books and letters) and through personal contact. Through her life and the impact that she had on the faith lives of others, Underhill is a reminder that saints (holy people) are not always quiet, pious people who withdraw from the world to pray. She demonstrates that holiness does not require separation from the world, but can thrive just as well when it engages fully with the world. Importantly, Underhill is just one person who is evidence that saints do not belong to a past era but continue to be raised up in every generation.

Our Articles of Religion may tell us that “the invocation of saints .. is repugnant to scripture” but our tradition reminds us that among us are holy people whose faith and life can support and uphold our own, giving us reasons to explore our faith more deeply and to practice our faith more intentionally.

On this day, we remember all the saints – those known to all and those known only to a few. We give thanks for their lives and examples and endeavour to model our practice and our faithfulness on theirs.

[1] Superior of the Society of the Sacred Advent.

[2] Prison reform

[3] First Bishop of Australia.

[4] Priest and missionary.

[5] For more details put “Holy Persons and Holy Days in Australian Anglicanism” into your search engine or go to this link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_of_saints_(Anglican_Church_of_Australia)

[6] Quoted by Oberg, Delroy, in Evelyn Underhill and the Making of “Mysticism”: Celebrating the Centenary of the 1st Edition – March 2, 1911. Self Published by Delroy Oberg, 2015, 14.

[7] Mysticism can be downloaded as a pdf file from a number of sites including: http://christianmystics.com/Ebooks/The_Essentials_Mysticism/teom.pdf

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