Monday, November 2, 2009

All Saints - Fr Andrew Davison

This homily was given by Fr Andrew Davison at both Fairacres Convent and St Stephen's House on this year's Solemnity of All Saints.

I begin this sermon, uncharacteristically, with reference to an electronica remix of a speech by Winston Churchill. I have an MTh student to thank for this particular piece of music, of a kind so far outside my listening habits that I really have no idea how to begin to describe it.

It works with Churchill’s 1941 speech to the allied delegates. ‘Every stain of [Hitler’s] insipid, corroding fingers’ intones the prime minister against what I take to be a drum and bass background ‘will be sponged and purged’. What a perfect beginning, I thought, for the sermon I want to preach on All Saints’ Day.

Except that Churchill did not talk about Hitler’s insipid fingers. He did not say ‘insipid’ but rather ‘infected’. All the same, he could have said ‘insipid fingers’. That would have been startling, but true. It would also have served my purposes better. It is not the infection of evil that I take as my theme today, but rather that evil is insipid and goodness is the opposite. Evil is insubstantial and goodness is solid.

Today we celebrate the saints. We celebrate holiness, and with holiness we celebrate fullness of being and solidity of personhood.

God is good, and God is real. To share God’s goodness is to share his reality. Quite simply, to be holy is to be more real. This is not a statement that would go down well in Oxford’s philosophy faculty, but it is true. To be holy is to be more real. It is theme that has been explored in quite a bit of Christian art and literature.

Take, for instance, The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. In that book, goodness is so real, and evil is so insipid, that when the residents of hell take a day-trip to heaven the grass there cuts their feet. Even the grass of heaven is weightier than those who have chosen to make themselves evil.

As another example, think of the ring wraiths in The Lord of the Rings. After years of evil they are hardly there any more, just shadows beneath their cloaks. That is more, the ring wraiths are almost indistinguishable. Evil is dull. It blunts the edge of God-given individuality.

The evil of the ring wraiths has reduced them to the level of the same. Goodness does exactly the opposite. Goodness makes thing more what they are, not less, more individual, not less.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the saints, whom we celebrate today. There is no more diverse and characterful collection of people than the company of saints. The saints are individual, different, interesting.

Fra Angelico knew a thing or two about sanctity. He is a saint himself, or at least a blessed. He made the point about the characterfulness of holiness clear in his paintings. You will find at the top of [this post] a reproduction of part of one of his paintings. The original is in the National Gallery in London. It shows the saints around Christ enthroned in glory. What I love about this picture is that the saints are so individual, so characterful, so full of particularity. They abound with being, reality and character. This is exactly right.

The great Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen wrote only one opera. It was about a saint, St Francis of Assisi. It wasn’t like many operas people had heard before. Messiaen was tackled about this. There is disappointingly little sin in your work, Monsieur Messiaen. His reply: ‘sin isn’t interesting, dirt isn’t interesting. I prefer flowers. I left out sin.' [Sin isn't interesting. I prefer flowers The Guardian 29 August 2008].

Sin isn’t interesting. This is an important point. We protest against violence in film or on television. We object to obscenity in broadcasting. Rightly so. But it is just as problematic that evil is glamorised in films and on television. The truth is entirely the opposite. There is nothing glamorous about evil. As Messiaen said, ‘sin is boring’. Goodness is interesting. [Weil, Simon Gravity and Grace, pp. 62-3].

Moving on, as our reading from Wisdom put it just now, only to the foolish do God’s holy ones seem to have died. Really, ‘their hope is full of immortality’. Whilst evil saps life; goodness confirms it. Holiness, we might say, is healthy. Sanctity conquers death.I once had exactly this conversation with the wife of a student at Merton. I was working on my DPhil and I got involved with leading an Alpha course. It seemed this thing might involve rather an idiosyncratic take on the Christian Faith. I thought it would be wise if I got in on the team that organised it. It’s amazing how much you can do by opening questions after the video with the line ‘well what do you think? Did that make any sense at all?’

One Alpha session fell on the Feast of St Alban and I made some comment about St Alban praying for us. ‘How on earth can he pray for us?’, the other Alpha leader asked, ‘he’s dead!’

Perhaps impertinently – she was a consultant anaesthetist – I replied ‘you are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God … [God] is God not of the dead, but of the living’. Only to the foolish to the saints seem to have died. They are full of life because they are full of goodness – they are full of the life of Christ, which can withstand death. The saints have a fullness of being which death cannot touch.

In that holiness, in that tangible reality, God is with us. Some time ago, in first century Palestine, God was with us, walking the earth. In the life of the world to come, ‘the home of God’ will be among mortals, as we are promised in our second reading. Now, in between, God is present with us in the Blessed Sacrament and he is present with us by his Holy Spirit. Nowhere is the presence of the Holy Spirit more obvious than in the holiness of the saints. In them we encounter the presence of God with us; we encounter in the reality of their holiness the reality of God.

Evil is dull and same-ish. Goodness is interesting and full of individuality. The evil men and women of history were insipid – even if Winston Churchill didn’t quite say it. Evil, though it blights our world, is insubstantial. Goodness, however, is solid. Goodness is joyful. It is so real that it hits you in the face. To this the saints bear witness.

My favourite saint put it rather well ‘the goodness of the good is stronger than evil in its wickedness’ [Virtuosius est bonum in bonitate quam in malitia maulm. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles III.7.6].