This post was written by Amy Pringle.
Since I was a little kid, I’ve had a thing for empty churches. Back then I had to be dragged in kicking and screaming on Sundays, but loved exploring the building when no one was there. I loved the holy hush of the stone walls, the sacred mysteries swirling in stained glass sunbeams, the creak of the wooden floors, and the sense—as the church doors closed behind you—of having entered a space where all the tenses of time converged, or were suspended.
And everywhere I’ve worked as an adult, it’s still one of my favorite things, to go hang out in the empty church. I can feel my people there, and the lingering spirits of all the previous generations who have bathed that house in prayer. When no one’s looking, I sometimes walk down the aisle, arms outspread, gathering inspiration and commissioning from the unseen People of God.
It is, of course, the communion of saints, gathered in our empty churches. Not the famous saints but the dear and everyday ones, the ones who passed the offering plates and ironed the linens and thumbed through the hymnals decades and centuries ago, and the ones who still do. Their spirits fill the place, and open out its walls and windows into the ethereal eternity of the heart of God.
But here’s the rub: It’s awfully hard to have a worship service centered around an empty church. Come All Saints’ Sunday, when we want to offer some experiential sense of the communion of saints, it would be awkward indeed to gather everyone in the courtyard and send them into the church one by one, saying, “Go, listen, absorb the timeless generations of faith. The rest of us will be very very quiet, waiting our turn.”
So the best we can do is try to get at that same sense of ourselves as individuals and communities of faith, carried along in the larger stream of all the faithful through all the years. And the two best ways I know to do that are creating a ‘cloud of witnesses,’ either by sound or by sight.
By sound: Hand out lists of saints’ names to multiple readers scattered throughout the congregation, to be read aloud during a time of prayer. The names can be classic saints, more modern saints like Dorothy Day and Gandhi, the names of our loved ones who have died in recent years, or some combination of these. And you can either have everyone reading from the same list, one highlighted name at a time; or you can give each reader a set of 10-12 different names and have all readers read their list at once, in a ‘holy babble’ of saints.
By sight: You’ve probably seen these variations—
- a table of votive candles, with lengths of fishing wire dipped in glitter suspended over it, (or glass stars, or gauzy butterflies, or…) so that as people light candles to honor the departed, they light up the streamers overhead
- high sections of walls (maybe from the crossbeams up) covered with collages of saints—large colorful icon images, photos, and printed names, same mix of classic, modern and local saints as above
- the same names, each on a ribbon hanging overhead (an almost literal ‘cloud’ of witnesses)
My ultimate fantasy for All Saints’ Sunday? Simple. Just engineer the roof of the church to open (silently, of course) at the moment the Sanctus is sung—an expensive effect, to be sure. But picture it: the veil between heaven and earth parting, and the people of God gathered in that place joining with everyone worshiping everywhere, and with the countless saints and sinners of all the unfolding centuries, so that every corner and atom of creation, past and present and maybe future too, cries at once: Holy! Holy! Holy!
That, baby, would be a good All Saints’ Sunday.
© Amy Pringle
Image © iStockphoto
Amy Pringle is the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in La Canada, California. Her husband Bryan Jones is the rector of a church three miles away. His office is bigger, but hers is better decorated.
Other than the usual clergy reference books, Amy’s shelves are populated by the books she still can’t bring herself to let go of from her English Lit major days; a broad collection of scriptures from world religions, some parts of which she has read; poetry books she has pored over, turned over page corners and penciled little stars in the margins of; and a relatively new section on California native plants.
Her liturgical passions are all about the people who venture into a church wanting to actually find and feel God’s presence, not just hear talking heads talking about God. She’s still convinced that such holy encounters can be had within a service that also passes on the best of the church’s ancient beauty.