“We believe in the communion of saints.”
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the assembly and church of the firstborn registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men and women made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than Abel.
Still fairly fresh off the “death” of my father, Lloyd Jersak, I’ve been giving special attention to what the Apostles’ Creed affirms, “We believe in the communion of saints,” and meditating on the imagery of our fellowship now at Mount Zion, as described in Hebrews 12.
1. Practicing the Presence of God
We begin practicing communion of the saints by practicing the presence of God. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection was the 17th-century lay-brother whose four conversations and fifteen letters are so accessible, profound, and fruitful that they became a classic on spirituality that is still in print and online under the title, The Practice of the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life. In it, he basically describes acting as if God is at your side and in your heart all the time… because it’s actually true. Talk to God as if God is right there with you because God IS there, listening to our prayers. Brother Lawrence came to believe by experience that it was no advantage to him to tuck away in his prayer cell, focusing on prayer, when Christ could be experienced just as authentically while washing pots and pans in the monastery kitchen. Simply living life knowing you are in God’s presence gradually makes it real to you, not as a way to play tricks on ourselves, but as a way of faith that leads to encounter.
2. Practicing the Presence of the Saints (West)
In the Christian West, one practical way to practice communion of the saints is through contemplative prayer. Specifically, the Spanish mystics knew the value of picturing biblical imagery in prayer. In their hearts, they could prayerfully behold the throne of God so vividly described in Revelation 4-5. In fact, John the Revelator tells us to. “Behold! Look! A throne! And Someone sitting on it! And at the center of the throne, a Lamb, standing as if slain.”
We’re absolutely beckoned to “come up here” and “behold” this imagery “in our spirit.” So, people like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola did so. On purpose. And they discovered that their active meditation (picturing the scene) would, by the Holy Spirit, ascend into contemplation (seeing Reality).
In that space, then, as we meditate on the multitude (in Hebrews 12 or Revelation 5 or 7) that surrounds the throne in worship and in prayer, we move into contemplation of our real presence there, with the angels and the saints, with our loved ones who are in the presence of Jesus. We share that space.
3. Practicing the Presence of the Saints (East)
In the East, where believers are nervous of images in the imagination, they prefer to practice the presence of God through iconography. The icons of heroes of the faith are, to begin with, pictures created of paint and gold. We can use them to meditate on the lives of these saints and draw inspiration from them.
But we also use the icons to remind ourselves that when we gather to worship, we gather with them. Again, the meditation becomes contemplation so that we experience these saints as alive, attentive, and joyfully welcoming us to worship the same Lord they perpetually adore. In Eastern cultures, where kisses are a sign of respect and affection, believers may kiss the icons as a blessing of gratitude to the living saint, who receives the affection as if through a window or video call on our smartphones.
4. Practicing the Communion of Saints (Conversation)
My mom, Irene Jersak, a conservative Baptist woman of prayer, finds Eastern Orthodox services bewildering. It’s not her journey. She finds the veneration of the saints and the kissing of icons strange and foreign. But since her husband’s death, she has found two portrait photos of my dad to be helpful tools in her grieving. She catches Dad smiling at her in the photos, then talks to him about the things he wasn’t ready or willing or able to hear before his death.
A modern therapist might say it’s a helpful and healthy way for her to process her feelings. But I suspect it is also a critical part of my dad’s process, too, however that may work. He needs to hear these things… and I think he does. It’s a mystery, but the communion of saints may be for their benefit (their “theosis”) as much as it is ours.
And again, not as necromancy. My mom isn’t contacting the dead. She doesn’t need a Ouija board or spiritualist medium. She is simply in communion with a fellow believer (and prayer partner) whose mode of being has shifted but whose fellowship remains and grows as we lean into these practices.
If you’ve not learned the practice of the communion of saints but would like to try, here’s a starter:
- Think about someone you admire who is no longer here in the flesh. It could be (1) a departed mentor, (2) a historical example, (3) or a biblical character. Right away, I think of (1) my dad, (2) Simone Weil, and (3) the Virgin Mary.
- Write their names across the top of a piece of paper. Use cursive writing. No, really. Under each of their names, write three virtues or fruits of the Spirit that you see in their lives. Think about an example of each virtue from their history.
- Find or print a picture or photo of them. You could find a hi-def image online, email it to a local photo store, and have them print it for you.
- Have a look at each photo and say, “I see these virtues in you. I think they are evidence of God’s grace. I need that same grace. I’d like to grow those same virtues. So, when you pray, would you join me in asking Jesus for that fruit in my life?”
- Now, it’s time to pray. Imagine going with them in the presence of Jesus on this throne. They are already there. But picture that. Notice how they gaze at Jesus with gratitude and adoration. See how open and attentive they are to his love and to his will. Now, join them in that moment and emulate their gaze. Focus on Jesus’ face just as they do. Tell him how thankful you are for all he’s done for you. You and these saints are worshiping him together… you’re in communion at the same throne.
- Together, you can now welcome God’s grace to produce those virtues you see in these saints in you.