The Communion of Saints and Pastoral Care

All Saints Icon

We believe in…the communion of saints!

I return to connecting pastoral care to the saints because when Christian ministers say that we believe in the communion of saints, part of what we are saying is that we cannot do ministry apart from the communion of saints. A reactionary Protestantism (not to be confused with all of Protestantism, as if there were any “all of Protestantism”) limits this truth to the living community while forgetting (or ignoring) that Jesus names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob among God’s living community.

When we do ministry, we are not ministering alone. We are the hands, feet, hearts, and bodies of Christ in the room. We are also the hands, feet, hearts, and bodies of those who have died in Christ and continue to do the work of Christ with Christ and in Christ. The whole Church prays from under the altar. This is that noisy Church which the lucky ones among us have already experienced, the church that talks back and prays back: “Help him, Lord!” and “Help her, Lord!” and “Amen,” while we as Christian ministers are offering ourselves at the bedside, in the hospital, in the prison, at the gravesite.


Saints’ Stories as Pastoral Care

One night this week, a woman asked me why God had allowed her to be hospitalized near death when all she had ever tried to do in life was to serve God.

In the course of our conversation, I told her a story: “There was once a woman of God named Saint Teresa, one of the saint Teresas. As she was journeying one day, her horse reared up and threw her into the mud. And from the ground she yelled out at God, ‘If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!'”

I love that story, and my patient was Lutheran and she knew the story too, and she then shared with me a couple other stories of saints. Soon we were in a different place than our starting point: she knew that her story was particular but that she was not alone in it.

This experience has me wondering if one facet of bringing the Christian Tradition to bear on pastoral care is knowing those stories of the saints better. Actually, I find myself wondering why I’ve heard so little talk of it in my own pastoral care training, reading, and conversations. Everyone is talking about narrative, but we so underuse both the stories of Scripture and the stories of the saints. Something is short-circuiting intellectually inside of us: we are excited to talk about the centrality of narrative to human experience and meaning-making, but we fail to notice that the stories of the saints are all about human experience and meaning-making. That is, after all, why they have been so important to popular Christian spirituality since there has been something called “Christianity.”

So why not bring the stories of the saints back to bear in ministry? Just a note: the answer that they are too primitive or premodern or unsophisticated for us is the wrong answer.

One Gorgeous Bee Meditation

Himalayan Honeybee

Who knew that Merton cared so much for the bees? Not I, until Kathleen Deignan gathered all of them together in one place in her edited collection of Merton’s nature writings (which I am loving more each page), When the Trees Say Nothing. The following is just one gorgeous bee meditation, excerpted from the final volume of Merton’s journals, The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey. (It’s worth noting that in his hermitage years at Gethsemani, Merton was increasingly drawn to nature and nature writers such as Thoreau):

Nonviolent Himalayan bees: after one had lit on me quietly three times without stinging, I let it crawl on my head a while, picking up sweat for some eclectic and gentle honeycomb, or just picking up sweat for no reason. Another crawled on my hand and I studied it. Certainly a bee. I could not determine whether it was stingless, or just well behaved.

A Reading Plan for 2014

My intention is to create a reading plan for the year which is ambitious but leaves space for lots of side reading. So I’m beginning with these six books for the first six months of 2014 (while, of course, continuing my improbable campaign through all of Thomas Merton):

On the Trinity by St. Augustine
The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth
Conferences by John Cassian
Angels in America by Tony Kushner
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Utility vs. Communion: Receiving the Gift of Creation

In the beginning

There is a certain futility in the efforts being made–truly sincere, dedicated, and intelligent efforts–to remedy our environmental devastation simply by activating renewable sources of energy and by reducing the deleterious impact of the industrial world. The difficulty is that the natural world is seen primarily for human use, not as a mode of sacred presence primarily to be communed with in wonder and beauty and intimacy. In our present attitude the natural world remains a commodity to be bought and sold, not a sacred reality to be venerated. The deep psychic change needed to withdraw us from the fascination of the industrial world, and the deceptive gifts it gives us, is too difficult for simply the avoidance of its difficulties or the attractions of its benefits. Eventually only our sense of the sacred will save us.

From Thomas Berry’s Foreword to When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature by Thomas Merton, edited by Kathleen Deignan


Berry’s read of the West’s environmental conversation as we normally have it is devastating in its accuracy: talk of renewable resources and conservation is the other side of the coin from talk of our “right” to use the earth however we see fit. The question we ask in both cases–although we have differing answers–is ever, “How much can we take? How much can we use?” and never, “In what ways might we grow in loving relationship with the rest of Creation?”

For Christians–in particular those who wish to emphasize the gift of the earth to humankind in the beginning of Genesis–the challenge is to show our thankfulness for God’s very good gifts. We as recipients need to recognize that the Creation is not an object or a thing. A pet given to a child is not a thing the child can do with whatever she pleases, and a pet given to a child is a poor metaphor for how God has placed the earth and its creatures in our care.

This gift is not a thing or an object, and it’s not even a mere place. God’s good gift is a home and a family. (This particular home is even part of the family!) And the gifts of home and family are (as anyone who lacks either can tell you) not for utility but for communion.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

Merton's Palace of Nowhere

When James Finley finished high school, he did what so many other 18-year-olds do: he made his way to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he knew that Thomas Merton was a monk. Finley spent over five years at the monastery, part of that time with Merton as his spiritual director, before leaving at his superiors’ suggestion to continue his formal education. Finley eventually earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Although he never made final vows as a monk, Finley’s practice as a psychologist and retreat leader up to the present day has integrated contemplative practice and insight.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere is Finley’s most well-known and celebrated book, but he has written others (including The Contemplative Heartwhich I reviewed here). The most immediate difference between Merton’s Palace of Nowhere and The Contemplative Heart is that the earlier book is much more Christian, at least overtly. I don’t know if the difference is merely due to different intended audiences or to an author whose views have evolved into a more universal view of contemplative spirituality over time (much as Merton’s did).

Reviewed most simply, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere is an excellent book which well deserves its status as a contemporary spiritual classic. Anyone who has benefited from the works of Thomas Merton, and even anyone who has not yet read a word of Merton could gain much for their spiritual life and growth from these pages. In fact, it can be effectively read as an entryway into Merton’s life work.

And that crazy title? Surely a reference to Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle (and I’d love if anyone’s made the in-depth comparison) in a quote original to Merton, the Palace of Nowhere is the contemplative life, a spacious and beautiful place but which is no-where because there is no-arriving at its no-final-destination, which has no-door which can only be opened by no-one. Or as someone else once said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Finally, because I love sharing excerpts:

An unborn baby that could think and have its way might choose not to be born. The violent wrenching from its dark, warm world into a horizon beyond its fingertips might seem like a transformation too great to bear. Yet, mercifully, it has no choice. The child finds itself, screaming in protest, flung by the heels into an unfamiliar world.


The spiritual life is a kind of birth. In fact, Jesus proclaimed that unless we are born again we will never enter into that life that knows no death. But every birth is a kind of dying. Every new stage of growth calls for a letting go of what went before it. And this letting go hurts. The cross is the source of life yet it pierces us and drains us of the the only life we know.


The Father, Jesus said, prunes every fruit tree clean to increase its yield. Prayer unveils our heart, allowing it to be cut by God’s delicate touch. There is no growth in prayer without some degree of exposure to this purification process out of which the true self emerges in its unexpected splendor.

In Which T.S. Eliot Helps Us All Celebrate Epiphany

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

(h/t to Jason Byassee for the video)