January 15, 2021

The communion of saints


I believe . . . in the communion of saints

• The Apostles’ Creed

• • •

One of the basic teachings of Christianity that I turn to often in my work as a hospice chaplain is that of the communion of saints. It comes to mind often at this time of year, with All Saints and other celebrations that come in the waning of earthly light. Our hospice holds a memorial service in November, and I am reminded. Veterans’ Day is next week, and this reminds me. The autumn season by nature has always been a time of reflection for me on matters like this as the world dies in preparation for rising again.

Here is how Ron Rolheiser describes the communion of saints:

As Christians, this is our belief: We believe that the dead are still alive, still themselves and, very importantly, still in a living, conscious, and loving relationship with us and with each other. That’s our common concept of heaven and, however simplistic its popular expression at times, it is wonderfully correct. That’s exactly what Christian faith and Christian dogma, not to mention deep intuitive experience, invite us to. After death we live on, conscious, self-conscious, in communication with others who have died before us, in communion with those we left behind on earth, and in communion with the divine itself. That’s the Christian doctrine of the Communion of Saints.

Just today I was talking with a wonderful elderly Christian man who lost his wife earlier this year. As he reflected about her and her death, he said, “I still find myself telling her things. Something happens and the first thought in my mind is, ‘I can’t wait to get home and share this with Betty.'”

The communion of saints.

I told him about a woman I had in one of my grief support groups. One of our assignments near the end of the course, which we introduced over a few sessions to help people get used to the idea, was to write a letter to our deceased loved ones, so that we might put both our grief and gratitude into words, to let them know how we were doing, and to say anything else we felt needed to be said. This particular woman was having a hard time feeling like she could do this.

But in one of our times together I noticed she was smiling and looking more at ease. When I asked her why, she said she had figured out an alternative to the letter assignment.

“My husband and I used to sit down at the table every day around 4 or 4:30 for coffee and a few minutes of conversation. We would talk about our day, what had happened and what we had been thinking about and feeling throughout the day. It was just a simple habit, but I realized last week how much I missed that. So, instead of writing a letter, I decided to put a notebook on the table. Now, I sit down every day at our special time and write him a note, telling him the things I used to say when we had our talks. Some times I read it out loud to him. It makes me feel so close to him. I only wish I could see him and hear his voice.”

The communion of saints.

I believe that “heaven” — God’s realm — is not a “place” that is far away, but more like another dimension all around us — as the quantum world exists with the observable world. We are separated from it only because our senses cannot gain access there. It is as though an invisible curtain separates us from “the heavenlies” spoken of in places like Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I think C.S. Lewis imagined it well when he created Narnia, a world that is going on concurrently with our own. Oh, for a wardrobe portal!

I also believe in the vision that concludes the book of Revelation: that one day this heavenly realm will “come to earth” — that is, that which is now invisible and hidden from our sight and sensibility will be made visible. God will be our God, we will be his people, and he will dwell in our midst. The temple of God will be among humans on a renewed earth in a new creation. Jesus will “return.” The saints will “return with him” (1Thess. 4:14). The communion of saints which now seems like talking “long distance” will be experienced face to face.

Until then, I take great comfort in knowing that my beloved grandparents, friends, and a multitude no one can number are right here with me, beside me, unseen but not unknown.

The communion of saints.


  1. Some comforting ideas in here, CM. Thanks.

  2. Frankly, I find even the prospect of eternal conscious torment to be LESS frightening than sheer, unalterable oblivion after death.

    • I dunno. Absolute nothingness sounds pretty bad. But If I, or someone I loved, or anyone for that matter, actually existed in an irrevocable state of supernaturally sustained eternal conscious torment with no hope of ever communing with the saints, nothingness might seem welcome.

      • Regarding “nothingness”…there was a time when I wasn’t born and didn’t exist. It didn’t bother me then. It’s weird to think about non-existence now, of course, wondering “what if I’d never been born,” but before then? Meh, not so much…LOL. So if post-death turns out to be non-existence, I won’t ever know, so it’s not even worth worrying about.

        Let’s rank the states of being, then. Here’s my cut.

        1. In heaven, surrounded by the saints, face-to-face with Jesus (not sure how that all works, but I’ll put that at the top). This is where my hope is, a hope with fuels my faith and love.
        2. Living as a human being on this Great Planet Earth. Comes with some awfulness, but also with some joy.
        3. Post-death sheer, unalterable oblivion. I’m not sure what this might entail, but it sounds like some of you would rank this lower. If this is some sort of suspended “sleep-state”, yeah, then there’s not much to it. But I can’t see God putting us in this sort of existence, nor does it make sense from an agnostic/atheist point of view, so I’m not sure we need to even worry about it. But if this is kinda like living with a permanent buzz or high, what’s wrong with that? Sure, it might be a shallow existence, but it’d be PLEASANT shallow existence.
        4. Non-existence. (I view this different than “nothingness,” which I view as “existing, but with nothing.”) I guess that in some ways non-existence might be preferable to living on Earth, but for all its ills, isn’t living better than never having lived at all? And living is so TEMPORARY anyway.
        5. Existence in the midst of nothing. Can you imagine “being” yet having “nothing”, no interaction with objects or beings? This might be above eternal torment, but I can’t believe some of you would rank this above sheer, unalterable oblivion.
        6. Purgatory/holding pattern. Not sure what this would look like or if it’s real, but I’m not sure I’d put it above not living at all.
        7. Eternal torment. If it’s anything like torment here on Earth, only magnified and ETERNAL…good grief, let’s be realistic. This would SUCK. Forever.

      • I heard a very interesting concept recently. Just as physical reality is eternal, as far as we know, with atoms never ceasing but just changing form,(we are stardust) so it is in eternity. Those who absolutely, fully and finally reject Life are consigned to an oblivion of consciousness but their spiritual energy, so to speak, is not lost to darkness but co opted by light. In other words, Christ’s victory is complete even in light of some souls rejecting him. They become one with the light but have no benefit of consciousness. Sounds strange but worth some thought to me.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      They’re both Bummers.

    • Absolute nothingness sounds so peaceful. Quiet. Silence. Just…it is finished. It is over. Relax.

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    Please, lets not allow the discussion to slide into a Doug-Wilson-worthy true-Prot critique of the Cathodox habit of setting aside certain of the departed for special recognition. We love our sainties. They manifest their presence to us in a number of ways, all distinct according to their separate personalities. The great news is that we can get to know them. The better news is that the serve as a reminder that death does not have the final say. The best news is that they are transparent, and their Lord and ours is fully visible in them with no occultation.

    I like best the explanation I was given when I first started investigating catholic Christianity. “Some souls are so great that they have no need to rest. They want to get right to work.”

    • –> “Some souls are so great that they have no need to rest. They want to get right to work.”

      Sounds like the subtitle of a ton of Christian books I’ve read, the “Do More, Try Harder” kind. I think I just threw up a little.

      • Don’t Waste Your Sainthood

        • “Don’t Waste Your Sainthood: Some souls are so great that they have no need to rest and want to get right to work – AKA What’s wrong with YOU?”

          I’ll start working on the first draft today!!!

      • Burro [Mule] says


        I never took that away from Fr.’s comment at all. Orthodoxy is pretty strenuous, but I don’t feel under any pressure. No Orthodox priest will ever tell you with any degree of certainty where you will be 20 minutes after you draw your last breath, but he will tell you that Jesus saves sinners, and God is merciful and loves mankind.

        By all rights every Orthodox (and every Catholic) should be riddled with anxiety about our performances, but I never run into it existentially. When I look at a saint like St. Nektarios or St. Anthony, my response is usually one of gratitude and repentance – gratitude for the grace given to them to show me what is possible and repentance for not entirely following their example.

        “Do More – Try Harder” is not what came to mind when I hear Father’s explanation, but it’s not that bad a meme, as long as you see the denizens of Heaven as coaches instead of prosecuting attorneys. Yeah, I’m not the best at keeping the fasts. Yeah, my mind wanders all over fricktown when I pray. Yeah, I’m pretty worldly and not very compassionate. If I were to just give up, I’d join the Iron Legion and be done with it.

        BTW the same father told me that good works don’t make you righteous like paying your bills makes you solvent. It makes you righteous like exercise makes you healthy.

        Are you guys looking to euchre yourselves right out of the faith? It seems that way to me sometimes.

        • Good rebuttal, Mule, and good clarification. The idea “I stand on the shoulders of giants” comes to mind, and maybe that’s a bit of the sense you were aiming for.

          I grow weary of religion and religious-sounding stuff that seems to make it about more than Christ, and that was the reason for my reaction to that statement.

  4. I believe that “heaven” — God’s realm — is not a “place” that is far away, but more like another dimension all around us

    Sounds rather like the Force, and in the best way possible.

  5. And what would we call my very saintly Jewish friend who not only believes this but actively livs this??

  6. More and more it becomes obvious to me this connection I have with everything and everyone. I wonder what a world would look like if 2000 years of loving was the practice of us in all the things that we call creation. Instead a focus upon ourselves seems to pull at us so especially for me through younger years. I mourn that.

    It is hard to await, Like a little child who sits on a bench with feet wagging back and forth, yet easy to stay because I know this and that which is to come I don’t. Scary to me at times. Knowing that there are others like me would be comfort for my soul.

    The stray black cat whose eyes are green in the day looks through my window at night and cries as his eyes shine sapphire blue back the light that reflects off of them. He won’t let me touch him even though he desires it so. I must remember him. Keep him in my heart if only to realize how long I was this way too.

    Communion, worth contemplating on and suddenly the pain that permeates my leg fades a little and I know this fellow named Charles and my heart breaks off what my force of will could not. No insurance yet nut the one who brought me here…..Oh and you too….my insurance,,,,,,,,Peace and love this day to you. I’ve been off work this week it has been to hard to walk. What a week here. Such a keeper……My gratefulness to you all.

    • not nut, but …..typing gremlins

    • In case you missed it, Rick Ro had a book recommendation for you yesterday about a third of the way thru the comments. Hard to say what works for someone else but options are good to have. Blessing and healing sent your way.

      • Yep. I posted it as a potential aid, understanding it may not help.

        The book is “When God Breaks Your Heart: Choosing Hope in the Midst of Faith-Shattering Circumstances” by Ed Underwood. Ed has had chronic leukemia for many, many years. The pain and physical condition was so severe that he almost walked away from God. (By the way, the chronic pain still exists, he’s just learned how to manage it “better”.)

        I wrote some details in my post yesterday, in case you’re curious.

        God is with you, w. Peace and comfort.

  7. An innumerable host. Bigger. Wider. Expansive. Glorious. Energy. Life. Here.

  8. I believe in the communion of saints. I didn’t use to, but I have come to as more and more friends and family depart this life. But something else about this post alarms me.

    I am concerned about the increasing use of quotation marks on this site. Quotation marks are funny things. They can mean This Is Exactly What Was Said (Or Written) or they can mean Not Really, I’m Just Being Symbolic, Don’t Take Me Literally. A few days ago, the Trinity was described on this site as God in three “persons” and I took exception to it. I believe God exists in three persons, not in three “persons”….In today’s post it happened again. Twice. First in describing God’s realm as “heaven” and then in saying Jesus will “return”…perhaps I’m being overly pedantic and semantic, but God’s realm is real — heaven (not “heaven”) — and Jesus will return in actuality (not “return”).

    Flannery O’Connor’s famous reply to Mary McCarthy’s statement that the Eucharist was symbolic, “Well, if it’s symbolic, to hell with it.”, applies here. Heaven and God in three persons and Jesus’ return are not symbolic. They are an actual place, an actual state, and an actual event. I am not Roman Catholic (actually, I’m Methodist) — you would have a hard time getting me to accept that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven or that she is the co-mediatrix of all grace or that the pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra — but I’m with Flannery on this one. If you want me to believe in “heaven” instead of heaven, in Jesus’ “return” instead of His return, I say “to hell with it.” And you can quote me on that.

    I know this was off-topic, but I needed to get that off my chest.

    • Bob there is a difference between the reality and our conceptions of it. When I use quotation marks, as in this post, it is to highlight the fact that we have words from scripture that name what is in fact inconceivable and indescribable. I do not mean to question the reality of these things, merely to point out that the realities we are trying to describe are above our pay grade.

      This is an attempt to show humility, not deny reality.

    • I think that “quotes” are often used in recognition that some terms have a certain deeply ingrained popular usage, and that those ingrained definitions can derail a conversation if we aren’t conscious of how they’re being used. “Heaven” as fluffy cloud heaven in the sky, for example. Using quotes isn’t a sign that something isn’t real; it draws attention to the deeply ingrained ways we have of thinking about them.

      That’s how I often use quotes anyways.

  9. Growing up in my tradition there was never any real substance given to the “communion of saints” – even if the words appeared in the creed (which we mostly didn’t ever read). We could say that we “believed in the communion of saints”, sure. But all mystery had to be removed from the phrase lest one start praying to Mary.

    But I like the idea. And it makes a certain amount of sense the way that Rolheiser talks about it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      We could say that we “believed in the communion of saints”, sure. But all mystery had to be removed from the phrase lest one start praying to Mary.

      “Christian hateth Mary whom God kissed in Galilee…”
      — G.K.Chesterton, “Lepanto”

  10. “I believe that “heaven” — God’s realm — is not a “place” that is far away, but more like another dimension all around us”

    I agree, and I believe it is consistent with orthodox Christian teachings and consistent with Christ’s teachings on the Kingdom. But, I have to be careful who I say this around. It is amazing to me how many Christians consider this idea modern and liberal. It produces lots of anger in many Christians.

  11. –> “I believe that ‘heaven’ — God’s realm — is not a ‘place’ that is far away, but more like another dimension all around us…”

    My pastor literally preached a sermon a few weeks back titled “Heaven is not a place.” But rather than go the route of it being another dimension all around us, he went the route that heaven is more about “who we’re with.” To him, heaven is “being face-to-face with Jesus and in communion with the saints.” The “place” (the mansions, the rooms, the roads) is secondary to the people we’ll be surrounded by in communion.

    Just thought I’d toss that idea in there. Seems to fit a bit with the theme of this article.

  12. OldProphet says

    Is what is being said here is that we can communicate with the dead? Isn’t that anti-scriptural?

    • Witch of Endor aside (if that’s a literal story)…yeah, I’d say communicating with the dead is a no no.

    • I think the post is predicated on the idea that those who have gone before us aren’t “dead” in the way that we typically use the word. That maybe “death” isn’t what we think it is.

      Not sure what to make of that, but it is what it is.

  13. Should chili have beans or no beans? I’ve always had beans. Apparently this is a contentious debate.

  14. My parents were not observant Catholics, nor did they have a good opinion of the Catholic church, although they had a better opinion of it than any other form of Christianity. They’ve both been dead for many years now, and I wonder about their situation on the other side of death; I would like one day to be able to work out the estrangement that existed between me and them, and that never was resolved on this side of the grave. I occasionally pray for them, when it occurs to me to do so, but I have a very hard time imaging them praying for me. I don’t know how to imagine them, or what to pray for, except that somehow, someway, we will all be saved together.

  15. OldProphet says

    Witch of Endor? Saul got chewed out for that. Chili without beans is like bananas without peanut butter! Boiled peanuts make me regurgitate. Of course, Luke did talk to Obi-wan.

  16. I’ve been thinking about this post a lot today.

    It’s not so much that I’m caught up the sentimentality of it, or whether I can pray to the dead saints and whether they can pray for me or how the whole thing “works”.

    I’ve wondered why “the communion of saints” is phrased the way that it is in the creed. It’s not a belief that saintly individuals will experience some kind of individual bliss on their own. It’s not a solo deal, it’s the communion of the saints.

    To me, it says something about what it is to be a person; that there is a connectedness and that peoples fates are, in a way, shared. The creed isn’t framed with a rugged american individualism as the backdrop. No man is an island, Entire of itself. My own well being is tied to the well being of others. I mean, take away my relationships and experiences, my associations and memories of loved ones, what is left of me as a person? No…the “communion of the saints” is needed as the culmination. Dare I wonder out loud if there truly could be “salvation” for me apart from the salvation and restoration of my loved ones – especially (at this stage of life) my 2 year old? Is this a dangerous idolatry? Or is it to be human? To live in a blissful ignorance, unaware that my loved ones ever existed (or worse in some cases, where it’s speculated that the suffering of the damned will increase the joy of the “saved”) would be to lose myself, to be somebody else all together.

    But even in my closest (or least dysfunctional) relationships there is always a lack of connection, a sense of being separate. I have my own inner life and you have yours. Even in a crowd I’m alone. So the communion part of “communion of the saints” seems to speak of a certain quality of relating to others that is the fulfillment of what it is to be human.

    And then there’s the bad or damaged relationships. The ones that are painful, that have little to no hope of being any different, that at some level I don’t even want to be different, or that can’t be different because it’s too late. I’m bad to others and others are bad to me. There’s the deep existential fear that hell is other people. But that cannot be right. If the communion of the saints is true, then heaven is other people.

    • There is wisdom in the reverence that ancient cultures had for their ancestors.

      We can only be damned alone, but we must be saved together.

    • Good thoughts, Mike.

      Although it’s not quite the topic of today’s post, my mind drifts over to the question of the wideness and inclusivity of love.

      It seems entirely possible to me that death is oblivion, but if it is not – that is, if someone cares enough to sustain what would otherwise be lost – then it seems that there’s such an affirmation of life and people contained in this fact that there are grounds to be hopeful about a great many things.

      Likewise, as you say, I have a hard time imagining how a person could ever be themselves if they didn’t remember anything. And if they do remember, how they could ever be happy if people they knew were utterly gone, or even worse in pain or distress, especially of the kind commonly envisioned in notions of Hell. And if they were particularly good people, or had an eternity to become better or larger than they had been previously, the greater the distress, even at the loss of people they didn’t know well. In fact, wouldn’t one of the least tolerable things be the loss of someone who never really was even known by anyone in the first place? If I were not so excellent at self-absorption and pre-occupation, how could I stand this? So I have a hard time conceiving of how anything could ultimately be OK, unless a great deal were set right. If it were not already set right, it seems that one would want turn back again, as one were able, to set it right.

      This is not really an solid argument – it’s circular; I assume that was is good is what I feel to be good, and that what disturbs me the most ought to disturb me. That is, that if were better, I would care more, rather than acquiring some new, better set of thoughts. But from the limited world in which I find myself, it just seems to me that if one were ever loved by an immortal thing, that one would expect it to come back. Someday. It would come back.

      What I’ve said so far hints at particular ideas and how I feel about them, but I mean it to strike a little broader, at a larger question: whether there is at the heart of things something like a communion that binds people and things together, that what feels vital in human experience matters. That it is good, and that it is possible to imagine one’s self a part of it, or at least of being found by it.

    • You sound pretty darned human to me, Mike H.

      As to any sentimentality in CM’s post, I’m not sering it. Sentiment, absolutely yes. But the older i get – and the more friends and family i lose, year by year – the more i find myself thinking along the lines of ehst CM says here.

      As to writing to tnose we have lost, or talking aloud to them: it is a healthy thing, and doesn’t mean that people are engaging in spiritualism, or indulging in sentimentality. Pretty much the opposite. I have my own stories about working through grief for an estranged sibling (which involved a lot of yelling and pounding pillows with my fists), because i really needed to get it all out in the open. It was the only time i ever got to say how i really felt, because this person refused to,listen when they were alive. Did i think that they actually heard me? No. But i needed to say (and shout) it all out, the good and the bad. It was cathartic. If I’d kept a lid on it all, i would hsve it eating away at my insides, including my mind and emotions.

      I bet I’m not the only one here who has done this.

      • What CM says here…

        Phone keyboards were designed for capuchin monkeys, not humans like me.

      • numo,

        I hear you. I didn’t intend to infer that the post was merely sentimental. The temptation for me (initially) was to read the post, see something like “our loved ones are always with us in our hearts” and to leave it at that. Something sort of ….nice. But the more I thought about it, the way the post talks about the communion of the saints is much bolder and more substantive than that. The way I read it anyways.

        • Mike – I hear you, and I can see why the opening graph might seem like that, but given that Mike is a hospice chaplain, and very experienced in working with bereaved/grieving people, well…

          I don’t know if you’ve experienced any significant losses in your life (of people you love) as yet. It forcibly changes one’s perspective on a lot of things. (“Forcibly” because there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to change the fact that someone has died.)

          • and also, the most obvious thing – because it is hard for those who are still here to grieve. The person who has died is, I believe, fine.

  17. Do I believe in “the communion of the saints”? (Notice my use of quotes.) How can I, I have no idea what that means. It sounds like more religious blathering and I’m almost out of patience with that. Oh, you say it’s shorthand for this concept that you are going to spell out for me at length? Well, run it by me and I’ll see if it resonates. (Notice my use of a term from physics to explain a mental process, a metaphor of sorts.) Okay, wait a minute, here’s someone else saying something that appears to be quite the opposite. Which of you is right? Or does it mean something else altogether?

    I’m on board with what CM lays out here as a reasonable explanation of what things may well be like on the other side. No quarrel with any of it. I pray for the dead daily and believe that it makes a difference. I have no objection to thinking that certain spiritually advanced people who have left the planet are able to intercede for me on request and help guide my path toward higher ends, tho I prefer to deal with the CEO direct. I fully believe that my conscious awareness will continue without break upon leaving my body behind, and I believe this is the norm for everyone who has opted for life on Planet Earth. I expect to be able to visit with friends and make new friends from all ages past.

    I am also aware that there are good sincere believing followers of Jesus who think that we enter a state of some kind of sleep or lack of consciousness when we die and have to wait to be awoken from this state at the discretion of God. Who is right? Some people believe in a binary either/or, heaven or hell. I don’t mind if you believe this. I don’t mind if you want to call your private club “the communion of the saints”. I do mind if you proclaim that I am a heretic and heading for hell in a handbasket because I do not agree with your definitions or translations or understandings.

    I also don’t agree with you if you think that God consists of three people sitting around a card table playing Canasta. Or that heaven consists of convincing “Saint” Peter to let you thru the “Pearly Gates” where you spend eternity loudly singing hymns ad nauseum. This is no skin off my nose unless you demand that I sign on to your belief that mostly consists of language I don’t understand and mostly is not agreed upon by most people if you get right down to the details.

    If you want to call me a heretic because I won’t agree to language I don’t understand and consider secondary matters of private belief, go right ahead. If this is somehow your loyalty oath you are determined to enforce, go right ahead. I’ll just continue following Jesus as best I can in the meantime and we can sort this out on the other side when we all get judged as we have judged others. Oh, you say it’s just poetic language for things we can’t understand? Then why is it called a “creed” and not a poem or a metaphor? How do you believe a poem?

    This post today by Chaplain Mike is reasonable and very likely a good approximation of how things are going to come out in the warsh. It’s as good an explanation as any I have run across. I will be surprised if things turn out to be far different, but I’m set on taking things like they come. If our healing depends on lining up our intellectual understanding with some set of words, I’m really going to be surprised. And greatly disappointed.

    • Charles, Your comment seems to include quite a bit of inveighing against dogmatic, intolerant Christians who demand that you tow the orthodox line, and if you refuse to, threatening to throw you out of the party. But I’ve read the post, I’ve just scanned the comments, and with the possible exception of one comment, there is nothing like that here. Aren’t you, in a manner of speaking, preaching to the choir?

      • Not very many dogmatic, intolerant people here, but some very nice people I think the world of who won’t share bread and wine with me based on lack of assent to a particular intellectual belief. Even more here would agree that the Nicene Creed is where you begin in reaching some kind of ecumenical accord. I might be a little more sympathetic to this idea if I could find the word “love” in there somewhere. Communion of the saints is approaching that in my private understanding, but it’s not part of the Nicene bedrock, and in any case creeds demand public and universal understanding to be more than nice sounding words.

  18. I fervently hope l’m not the one commenter because I don’t want Charles or anybody else to get in a tizzy. God knows I don’t agree with myself half the time. I’m trying to follow Jesus to the best of my ability — I didn’t say a thing about works righteousness — just as I trust everyone else around here is also trying to follow Jesus. We probably all fail more often than we succeed. I know I do.

    I do look to scripture more often than not, but I am not Ken Hamm. Tradition, reason, and experience have a seat at the table as well (thank you, John Wesley). Speaking of tables, I couldn’t find Canasta in any concordance. The nearest anyone has ever come to describing the mystery that is the Trinity is hypostatic union and perichoretic dance, but it’s still Greek to me.

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