For All the Saints – 29/10/23

Musical Prelude: Song to the Moon – Antonin Dvorak (played by Holly Redshaw and Andrew Robinson)

Opening Words: ‘It is Good to be Together’ by Rev. Linda Hart (adapted)

We enter into this time and this space
to join our hearts and minds together.

What is it that we come here seeking?
Many things, too many to mention them all.

Yet, it is likely that some common longings
draw us to be with one another once again:

To remember what is most important in life.
To be challenged to live more truly, more deeply,
to live with integrity and kindness and with hope and love,
To feel the company of those who seek a common path,
To be renewed in our faith in the promise of this life,
To be strengthened and to find the courage to continue to do
what we must do, day after day, world without end.

Even if your longings are different than these, you are welcome here.
You are welcome in your grief and your joy
to be within this circle of companions.

We gather here. It is good to be together.

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words – by Linda Hart – welcome all who have gathered this morning, for our Sunday service. Welcome to those of you who have gathered in-person at Essex Church and also to all who are joining us via Zoom from far and wide. For anyone who doesn’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall and I’m Minister with Kensington Unitarians. It’s been a while! It’s good to be back.

This morning’s service is titled ‘For All the Saints’. This coming Wednesday is All Saints’ Day, which is as good a reason as any to reflect on the lives of the saints, and take time to consider what wisdom and encouragement we might glean from their (often weird and wonderful) lives and legends. Who might we hold up as ‘models of holiness’ and what chance do we have of following their example?

But before we go any further let’s take a moment to get settled and centred and ready to worship. This is an hour in which we can catch up with ourselves and connect with what matters most in life. A time for spiritual nourishment. So let’s just take a few breaths – slow right down – be here now.

Chalice Lighting: ‘Love Can Transform the World’ by Maureen Killoran

Let’s light our chalice flame now, as we do each week. This simple ritual connects us in solidarity with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proud and historic progressive religious tradition of which we are a part.

(light chalice)

Love is the aspiration, the spirit that moves and inspires this faith we share.
Rightly understood, love can nurture our spirits and transform the world.
May the flame of this chalice honour and embody the power
and the blessing of the love we need, the love we give,
the love-in-action we are challenged always to remember and to share.

Hymn (on sheet): ‘When We Gather Here to Worship’

Let’s sing together now. Our first hymn is on your hymn sheet and it’s titled ‘When We Gather Here to Worship’. This is a new hymn to an old tune; the words were written by my friend and colleague, Stephanie Bisby, who’s led worship for us a couple of times. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on screen. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer as we sing. And sing up as best you can.

When we gather here to worship,
Though we may be two or three,
In the name of what is holy,
We are touched by mystery.

When we sit in gentle silence
Reaching deep within our hearts,
We find hidden threads within us,
To bind up our broken parts.

When we speak our pain and sorrow
And confess where we fall short,
We find solace in the sharing,
Wisdom gained and lessons taught.

When we listen to the music,
Whether instrument or song,
We are touched by deep emotion
And our spirits sing along.

We find cause for celebration,
Ev’n amid the cold world’s strife,
When we sing our joyful praises,
For the glory that is life.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve an opportunity now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. This time we’re going to go to the people in the building first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people on Zoom to come forward.

So I invite some of you here in person to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for. Please do get up close to the microphone as that will help everyone hear (including the people at home). You can take the microphone out of the stand if it’s not at a good height and have it microphone pointing right at your mouth. And if you can’t get to the microphone give me a wave and I’ll bring it over to you. Thank you.

(in person candles)

And if that’s everyone in the room we’ll go over to the people on Zoom next – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in the church.

(zoom candles)

And I’m going to light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, but which we don’t feel able to speak out loud. (light candle)

Time of Prayer & Reflection: based on words by Elizabeth Bukey

Let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer. This prayer is based on some words by Elizabeth Bukey. You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, in whom we live and move and have our being,
we turn our full attention to you, the light within and without,
as we tune in to the depths of this life, and the greater wisdom
to which – and through which – we are all intimately connected.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the
silence and stillness at the very centre of our being. (pause)

We gather in reverence and thanks for You,
Ground of our Being, Source of all Good.
We are grateful for the gift of another breath,
and for each moment of connection, beauty, and truth.

Cry with us in our pain for our world.
Remind us that we are loved, just as we are.
Remind us that we are connected with all that is.
Remind us that we do not journey alone.

Give us what we need for today.
Call us back to our promises, commitments, and values.
Help us love ourselves and each other,
And to show that love in our actions.

Make us instruments of justice, equity, and compassion.
Free us from all that is evil; keep us from wrong.
We declare that life and love are stronger than tyranny and fear,
That a world of beauty and love is coming,
And we must shape it together. (pause)

And in a quiet moment now, let us look back over the week just gone, to take stock of it all –
the many everyday cares and concerns of our own lives – and concentric circles of concern
rippling outwards – ‘til they enfold the entire world and all those lives which touch our own.
There is much suffering and struggle wherever we look; it is tough to witness the world’s pain.
Let’s take a while to sit quietly in prayer with that which weighs heavy on our hearts this day.
(long pause)

And let us also take a moment to notice all the good that has happened in the past week –
moments of uplift and delight; beauty and pleasure; all those acts of generosity and kindness.
The hopes and dreams and possibilities that are bubbling up and reminding us that we’re alive.
There’s lots to be grateful for. So let’s take a little while to sit quietly in prayer and give thanks. (long pause)

Spirit of Life – God of all Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close, we offer up
our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness,
and we call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen

Hymn 191 (green): ‘To Worship Rightly’

Let’s sing together now. Our next hymn is in your green books, number 191, ‘To Worship Rightly’. The words will be up on screen as usual. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer.

Now let us sing in loving celebration;
The holier worship, which our God may bless,
Restores the lost, binds up the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the parentless.
Fold to thy heart thy sister and thy brother;
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other;
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of those whose holy work was doing good:
So shall the wide earth seem our daily temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.
Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangour
Of wild war-music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.

In-Person Reading: ‘Lives of the Improbable Saints’ by Rev. Richard Coles (excerpts) – (read by Brian)

Rev. Richard Coles – recently-retired celebrity vicar – published a couple of books about a decade ago titled ‘Lives and Legends of the Improbable Saints’. This was a spin-off of his habit of posting a potted history of a saint each day to social media. The stories were quite weird and wonderful – often a bit gory in cartoonish ways – and they established quite a following. So Richard Coles published these collections of the lives of the saints; here are a few words from the first book’s introduction:

The Anglican Calendar celebrates most days its saints, or quasi-saints, Anglicans being characteristically undecided about such things; other churches do the same, in fact there are a great many sources for the lives of those men and women and children – and even a baby – which Christians over the years have venerated for their spectacular holiness. Sometimes this holiness could be very spectacular indeed, and these are the stories to which I was most drawn; not the A-list saints, but the B-listers, C-listers and beyond, stories of such strangeness, comedy, cruelty and surprise that I found them quite fascinating.

I was not alone. Over the following weeks and months others started following their stories on social media too and if I missed a day they would send messages insisting on updates. Naturally, I tried to oblige. The most common replies, however, to these postings are (a) surely you are making them up, and (b) surely you don’t really believe this. In answer to (a), I have never made one up, though I have permitted myself some latitude in presenting material from ancient sources in a way my contemporaries would more readily recognise. The answer to (b) is a bit more complicated. Do I think a three-day-old baby preached a sermon? Do I think the cephalophores took their severed heads for a walk while singing a hymn? Do I think the Flying Friar had to be crossly summoned down from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel whence he’d floated during an audience with the Pope? No, I don’t. But I do think that all these stories, legends, and lives enabled people remote from us in time, place, and custom to experience the reality of God coming into focus, experiences significant enough for them to be preserved, if sometimes haphazardly.

I often think of a lady I once met who told me how much she admired a certain churchman for the way he ‘demythologised religion’. Conversely, I would very much like to remythologise religion, and recommend the lives of these improbable saints in that spirit. (short pause)

And here’s just one of the saints he writes about: St John of the Ladder was a seventh-century monk who lived at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. He entered as a novice aged 16 but seeking seclusion he moved into a hermitage at the bottom of the mountain where he remained in total isolation for forty years. He acquired the gifts of clairvoyance and wonder-working, and he once prevented a brother monk from being squashed by a rock by calling to him in a vision. When he was 75 the monks sent someone down to see him and asked if he would become their Abbot. He was greatly loved and admired in this role, but his greatest work is the ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’, which shows how one might raise one’s soul and body to God through the step-by-step acquisition and practice of ascetic virtues. It is a great favourite with monks. There is a famous icon showing the ladder and those trying to get to heaven on it. On every rung they are beset by devils, who try to poke them off, so they have to start all over again at the bottom. Anyone trying to live a good life will know what this feels like.

Meditation: ‘Of Saints’ by Kevin Hart

Thanks Brian. We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a poem, ‘Of Saints’ by Kevin Hart, the poem and the poet were new to me this week, but it spoke to me, so I’ve put the text in your order of service and it’s on the website too. The poem will take us into three minutes of silence which will end with the sound of a bell. During that time I invite you to reflect on your own concept of Saints – what stories of Saints and Holy People do you know – what do they represent to you about relating to God and to Goodness? Then we’ll hear some music from Holly and Andrew to continue the meditative mood. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – adjust your position if you need to – put your feet flat on the floor to ground yourself – close your eyes. As we always say, the words are an offering, feel free to use this time to meditate in your own way.

“There are three sorts of saint,” the angel said,
“The first don’t seem to do that much at all,
“Some simply walk barefoot on summer grass

“Yet people seeing them lament their lives.
“You’ll find them, once or twice, half in a smile,
“And then God leaps the void to hold them tight.

“The second sort of saint,” he seemed to say
(I felt his thought burn darkly in my mind),
“Feel God must tick each single thing they do,

“No deed goes by without Him seeing it,
“Each thought is wrung and rinsed for Him alone;
“Difficult men, and women too, they are,

“And yet without them stones would snap in half.
(That angel looked at me the way cliffs do.)
“The third,” he said (and paused), “will live as though

“The love of God must open all of time,
“Not even twenty thousand lives would do
“To show the wonder of a drop of rain,

“Each word, each silence too, is sung, not said,
“And each deflects death’s No into a Yes.”
The angel looked out calmly from my fear,

A night was falling hard, like an eclipse,
A question bit its way into my heart:
“Which one are you? Not that you have a choice,

“But day must see you be the one you are.”
He gazed from deep within my darkest self
And disappeared into the grainy air.

Period of Silence and Stillness (~3 minutes) – end with a bell

Interlude: Die Stille Lotusblume – Clara Schumann (played by Holly Redshaw and Andrew Robinson)

Reading: ‘Saints and the Desire for Holiness’ by James Martin, SJ (adapted) (read by Pat)

This piece, a short excerpt from ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything’ by the Jesuit writer James Martin, needs a bit of context to set the scene: James Martin makes reference to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, and the way that Ignatius came to embrace the religious life and start this religious order. In 1491, he was born into a family of the minor nobility, in the Basque region of Spain, and by all accounts is early life was all about revelry and gambling; he joined the army, where he got a reputation as a womaniser, and someone who fancied himself a bit, someone who was driven by a desire for fame, and it was said he was ‘a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes’.

He got away with it for a while but in 1521 he got injured in the Battle of Pamplona, where a cannonball hit his right leg, and that was the end of his military career; he suffered a lot of horrible operations to try and patch it up, and was laid up, convalescing, at the home of his sister-in-law with nothing to do and a lot of time on his hands. She brought him something to read – not his usual chivalric fare – but ‘Lives of the Saints’ – and this was the beginning of his religious conversion. He was drawn to the Saints’ example and dreamed of following in their footsteps (he was especially inspired by another military man, Francis of Assisi). So in the second half of his life he took a new direction, devoted his life to God, and founded the Society of Jesus, which is still going strong today. In due course Ignatius was also canonised.

So, with that brief sketch of the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in mind, here’s this short piece from James Martin about ‘Saints and the Desire for Holiness’. He writes:

An attraction to examples of holiness is another sign of the desire for God. This can be triggered in at least two ways: first, learning about holy people in the past; and second, meeting holy people today.

In the first case, one famous example of this experience is that of Ignatius of Loyola. There he was, lying on his sick bed, reading about the lives of the saints, when he started to think, in essence, ‘Hey, I could do something like that.’ His vanity was attracted to their great deeds, but a more authentic part of himself was attracted to their holiness. This is one way that God can call you to holiness – through a heartfelt attraction to holy men and women and a real desire to emulate their lives.

But holiness resides not only in canonised saints like Ignatius but also in the holy ones who walk among us – that includes the holy father who takes care of his young children, the holy daughter who attends to her ageing parents, the holy grandmother who works hard for her community. Nor does holiness mean perfection: the saints were always flawed, human. Holiness always makes its home in humanity. So we can be attracted to models of holiness both past and present. Learning about past examples of holiness and meeting holy people today often makes us want to be like them.

Reflection: ‘Models of Holiness’ by Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

We Unitarians don’t really make a big thing about Saints, do we, as a rule? Contrary to other denominations, it’s very rare to find a Unitarian church named after a saint – apparently the only one remaining in the UK is St. Mark’s in Edinburgh – though I recently read a blog post by Rev Dr David Steers (an expert in Unitarian history) which reckoned there were two others that had existed in the past: St. Michael’s in Selby, Yorkshire, and St. Thomas’ in Ringwood, Hampshire, two chapels which closed in the 60s and 70s respectively. This is quite a contrast to other denominations, in the wider Christian tradition (especially in Catholicism), where the significance of saints is much more evident in names, icons, and feast days. And, of course, saints are not just a Christian phenomenon, there are parallel roles in most faith traditions: Bodhisattvas in Buddhism come readily to mind. So I find myself wondering: are we missing out by shying away from the saints? What might we gain from engaging with them? And can we do so in a way that is in keeping with our tradition?

Let’s start here: What is a saint, anyway? The simplest definition, our starting point, probably has to be: ‘a holy person’. A saint is a holy person. Perhaps our next question should be: what is it to be holy? It seems the most common answer to that is: ‘devoted to God’ or ‘dedicated to the Good’; I’ve also seen ‘perfect in goodness and righteousness’. And the etymology of ‘holy’ is derived from ‘whole’ and connected to ‘health’. So perhaps a saint is a person dedicated to God, to goodness, righteousness, wholeness. Another account, by John A. Coleman, SJ (another Jesuit) suggests that those considered saints are usually an exemplary model of how to live, an extraordinary teacher, a source of benevolent power who can work wonders, and someone with special and revelatory relation to God and the holy. I particularly like Lawrence Babb’s metaphor describing saints as ‘focal points of spiritual force-fields’.

In the Christian tradition, the process of officially recognising someone as a saint – declaring a person to be worthy of public veneration and entering their name in the canon – is known as canonisation. It seems that the necessary qualifications to become an official saint, in the Catholic church at least, have tightened up a lot over the centuries! Nowadays, if you want to put someone forward for sainthood, it’s quite a procedure, requiring a prolonged investigation to gather supporting evidence, and at least a couple of posthumous miracles to your name (though Mother Teresa got fast-tracked).

But official saints – those officially rubber-stamped by the Pope – or by leaders of other traditions – they’re only part of the picture. There are plenty more of what we might call ‘folk saints’, often folk heroes with a local following, a connection to a particular area. This is especially a thing in Latin America, where indigenous communities often have their own saints, not approved by the church. And there’s a sense in which, even in mainstream Christianity, all of the ‘faithful deceased in heaven’ are considered to be saints. Although extraordinary souls are marked out, as worthy of special honour or emulation, we can consider anyone who lived a good and faithful life to be deserving of the name.

I was particularly taken with the James Martin’s phrase, from the piece Pat just read for us, the idea that saints are ‘models of holiness’, and that we can be inspired to live differently by their example. Laurence Housman wrote that ‘a saint is someone who makes goodness attractive.’ And Ann Gordon has this to say: ‘In the Buddhist tradition… the faithful are encouraged to study the lives of the great bodhisattvas, the compassionate ones who could have chosen Nirvana but chose instead to remain on earth to assist the suffering. Likewise, in the Catholic tradition, we have the saints — those whose lives serve as living embodiments of Christian principles in action. They endure not only because they lived with great spiritual purpose but because they call each of us to do the same today.’

Words from Ann Gordon. So given all this: can we – should we – aspire to be saints ourselves? It sounds like quite an ask, but Matthew Fox seems to think it’s an appropriate aspiration, for people of faith. He wrote: ‘I am reminded of the biblical use of the term saint in the book of Acts. That it applies to each of us. All who are attempting to imitate the Christ in their lives merit the title of “saint.” Some do it more fully than others and are willing to let go of more to get the job done.’ Words by Matthew Fox (and if his phrase ‘attempting to imitate the Christ’ doesn’t’ work for you there are of course various substitutions you could make: ‘to follow the Buddha’, ‘to grow in virtue’, ‘to do good’.)

Also note that Fox says ‘attempting’ – not necessarily doing it perfectly – even the big-name saints are flawed. Their life stories are complicated, often morally ambivalent, and occasionally improbable (as Richard Coles put it), but they have ultimately all dedicated their lives to God or to the Good, and for all their stumblings and mis-steps this is the guiding principle that shapes everything they do. When they (inevitably) encounter challenges, or things go awry, they insistently return to this North Star. Saints are at least as messed-up as the rest of us, and yet, they (and we) are holy too. And, as James Fadiman and Robert Frager observe, in their book Essential Sufism, ‘many saints are hidden. Their outer lives do not look any different from the lives of their neighbours, although their inner lives are radiant with the Divine Presence. It is said that God hides the saints and lovers of God so that people will think that everyone else might be a saint and will therefore love and care for one another.’

I wonder what you made of the poem for meditation, ‘Of Saints’, by Kevin Hart? In it, the angel describes three sorts of saint – the sort whose life looks simple and maybe even lamentable but who God loves dearly – the sort who is scrupulous in thought and deed for God and strives to follow a righteous path (this sort are typically quite difficult to live with) – and the sort (this one is hardest to interpret) who is full of wonder and praise and acceptance of all-that-is (perhaps?). And the poem closes with the angel’s question: ‘Which one are you? Not that you have a choice, but day must see you be the one you are.’ And I suppose that’s a question I hope you’ll take away from today’s service and ponder in your heart. Which one are you? The question reminds me of Thomas Merton’s well-known saying: ‘for me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.’

As I draw to a close I want to offer one last perspective on saints from Sam Keen. He wrote: ‘A saint is a person who is filled with wholesome desires, who is moved by an eros to become capacious, creative, magnanimous, and fully alive.’ Now, isn’t that something to aspire to?

So I want to sign off by addressing you with these words by Unitarian Universalist Susan Brown:

‘Welcome all you saints! Yes! You are saints, all of you are saints,
for it is not by perfection that we are sainted, rather it is by our actions.

It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our presence.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our giving.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our living.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our gathering together in love,
with love, to become a nurturing, welcoming, healing and faithful worshipping community.’

May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Hymn (on sheet): ‘For All the Saints’

Time for our last hymn, it’s the one for which this service was named, ‘For All the Saints’ – a famous hymn though it’s a version with somewhat Unitarian-ised words – a good stirring tune to finish. Again, please stand or sit as you prefer, and let’s sing out the Alleluias if you’ve got the puff! For All the Saints.

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name most holy be for ever blest:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
Their strength and solace in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness deep, their one true light:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion of the saints divine!
We live in struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
And hearts are brave again and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Sharing of News, Announcements, Introductions:

Thanks to Jeannene for tech-hosting. Thanks to Rachel for welcoming everyone online. Thanks to Brian and Pat for reading. Thanks to Holly and Andrew for lovely music. Thanks Julia for doing coffee and Patricia for greeting. For those of you who are in-person – please do stay for a cuppa and cake after the service – it’s served in the hall next door. If you’re joining online hang on after for a chat. Also today, Carolyn has organised lunch at a local Thai Vegetarian Buffet, that’s in Shepherd’s Bush, so please let her know if you want to go along, it’s £10 cash.

We have various small group activities during the week. Heart and Soul, our contemplative spiritual gathering, takes place twice a week online. It’s a great way to get to know people more deeply. Send me an email if you want to sign up for Sunday or Friday. The theme is ‘Perspectives’.

Next Sunday we’ll hold our All Souls service, this is a special occasion when we remember those who we love who have died. Also we’ve got a string quartet coming next week which should be a treat.

Our Community Singing group got off to a great start, it’s a collaboration with a local musician. Everyone is welcome and you don’t need to read music; the repertoire is mostly classic pop and folk. The next session this Wednesday, 1st November, at 7pm, it’s free. It’s going to be fun – do come along.

And don’t worry – the poetry group is still happening – that’s on the following week, 8th November. Have a word with Brian if you want to know more about that and let him know if you plan to come.

Details of all our various activities are printed on the back of the order of service, for you to take away, and also in the Friday email. Please do sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch, look out for each other, and do what you can to nurture supportive connections.

I think that’s everything. Just time for our closing words and closing music now.

Benediction: based on words by Robin F. Gray

As we prepare to depart, we give voice to these hopes:

May we know ourselves bound in community, even while we are apart.
May we be inspired by models of holiness to live out our calling.
May a passion for justice and equity burn throughout our lives.
May we carry the light of compassion in our hearts and in our every interaction.
May we be whole in our devotion to truth, and always carry the lamp of peace before us.

And may we truly show our faith in action, as we go out and meet the days to come. Amen.

Closing Music: La donna e mobilé from ‘Rigoletto’ – Gieuseppe Verdi (played by Holly Redshaw and Andrew Robinson)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

29th October 2023