November begins with All Saints’ Day. As I get older, I am much more interested in celebrating this often neglected holiday of the church calendar than the more popular eve of All Saints’ Day that our culture knows as Halloween. Maybe it is simply that I am not as interested in dressing up as a gypsy or pumpkin at 60 as I was at 6. I think it is more than that. The older I get, the more I understand what we are celebrating on All Saints’ Day.
The holiday reminds us annually of the Christian doctrine of the Community of Saints. When God calls us to himself, he calls us as individuals to be sure, but he also calls us to be part of a great communion of pilgrims—some who are with us on the journey and some who have gone before, cheering us on toward our eternal destination. We are, in short, celebrating the “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12.
Each year, I think with gratitude of the living “saints” that God has used over the years to shape my own pilgrimage. Some of them, like my grandparents, provided lifelong examples of individuals who found God faithful through all manner of suffering and challenge. I am inspired daily by their courage, perseverance, and joy. Some of the “saints” in my life have provided words of wisdom or encouragement at specific moments on the journey.
I also remember my debt to the vast Community of Saints over the past 2,000 years who have left their writings for us to draw upon. I think of Blaise Pascal, Simone Weil, Augustine of Hippo, Hannah Whitehall Smith, R.S. Thomas, Francis Shaeffer, J.S. Whale, Austin Farrer, John Wesley, George Herbert, John Donne, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a host of others whose words and witness have mattered to me in significant ways at various stages of my own pilgrimage.
As I have reflected on this doctrine of the Community of Saints, I have wondered if it should not also call us to question the rather widespread Enlightenment notion that history is on an inevitable journey of improvement. This “Idea of Progress” has been so deeply entrenched in the Western tradition—at least over the past 250 years. Yes, we have made advances in medicine, in sanitation, in the technology of transportation and communication and a host of other arenas where technology matters. Yes, we have succeeded in providing more people with some measure of choice in shaping the circumstances of their lives. But as I look at our world today—torn up on every side by war, violence and cruelty, shaped by persistent inequity in the distribution of the basic goods and services that make for human flourishing—I wonder if we have come very far at all.
Perhaps the picture of history is much less a story of “progress” than a story where, in every generation, in all times and places, some individuals have chosen to hear God’s call to join the Community of Saints. They have chosen to believe that, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “through every event, however untoward, there is access to God” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 167). They have chosen to see beyond their circumstances and allow their lives to be shaped by the light and hope that has come into this world in Jesus Christ. They have chosen to believe that their world is being redeemed from inside out in the present moment—rather than waiting for some vague movement of history to bring in a world that is as it should be.
Finally, as we reflect on this holiday of All Saints, may it encourage us to be faithful to those who are coming after us—who are looking to us for clues about what most matters and what is most worth giving ourselves to in this world.
Shirley A. Mullen is president of Houghton College.