By Timothy George
The following is a meditation for All Saints Day presented at Christchurch in Montgomery, Alabama.
Several years ago, my son Christian and I, along with our friend David from Brazil, made a pilgrimage to Skellig Michael. Skellig is the Irish word for “rock,” and Skellig Michael is a rocky mountain island jutting 700 feet out of the icy waters of the North Atlantic, just off the coast of County Kerry in western Ireland. When Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Skellig Michael was the very first thing he saw of Europe.
Five hundred years after the birth of Christ, Celtic monks came to live and worship on this island. Buffeted by howling winds and rough seas, enveloped in fog and rain and mist, they huddled together in the little beehive huts they had constructed out of stone. (These sanctuaries of solitude are weathered but still intact today.) They prayed. They copied the Scriptures and lifted their voices in praise to God, morning, noon, and night. Earlier, St. Antony had retreated to the African desert to preserve a Christianity that was being contaminated by secularized Roman society. Irish monks of the sixth century did not have a desert to flee to, but they did have an ocean. Skellig Michael was the most obscure and distant island of the known world. Shrouded in darkness, it became a lighthouse to the world. From places like Skellig Michael, the Gospel was carried forth by Celtic monks and missionaries back to Clonmacnoise and Glendalough in Ireland, and on to Iona and Lindisfarne in Scotland, and eventually to Fulda, St. Gallen, and Bobbio on the continent.
Sites like Skellig Michael are called “thin places” by the Irish. Thin places—not because the air is rarified or the land is narrow but because the distance between heaven and earth shrinks, and time and eternity embrace. A thin place is where the veil between this world and the next is lifted for a moment, and it may be possible to get a glimpse of what one’s life is all about—perhaps of what life itself is all about.
In 2014 the three Skellig pilgrims, with two other friends, traveled to the Island of Patmos, another thin place in the ancient world. John, who wrote the book of Revelation, had come to Patmos not as a tourist, nor even as a pilgrim, but as a prisoner “because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:2). The church in John’s day was facing severe persecution. Already, Paul had been beheaded and Peter crucified upside down during the reign of the emperor Nero. Now a new emperor, Domitian, was on the throne. He had his likeness stamped on the coins of the Roman Empire with an inscription to himself, Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God.” The Christians refused to acknowledge Domitian in this way. They said that there was one and only one Dominus et Deus, and that is Jesus Christ. According to historian Eusebius, some of them were put to death for their refusal. John, who had earlier survived both the cup of poison and a cauldron of boiling oil, was living in Ephesus at the time. He was taken in chains as a prisoner to Patmos, a thin place where he was given an extraordinary vision which found its way into the last book of the Christian canon.
What is the book of Revelation about? It is a shame that this writing is regarded by many as a bizarre science fiction fantasy. Some see it as a precise timetable of the end of the world so that, if you just get the code right, you know how history will unfold and exactly when Christ will come again. To think this way is to miss the great crescendo of biblical revelation: the triumph of God over sin, suffering, and the devil. Revelation is the answer to the question of Habakkuk: “How long, O Lord?” (Hab. 1:2). It is about the struggles of the people of God in this life and the place of rest and glory for which they are destined—the church militant here on earth and the church triumphant in heaven. Sitting in the Cave of the Apocalypse, looking out as John did on the Aegean Sea, it is not hard to think of Patmos as a thin place where these two realities converge.
The word for revelation in Greek is apocalupsis, and it literally means an unveiling, to lift the veil. We think about veils in terms of weddings, when the veil is lifted to show the face of the bride. Or, we think about a great work of art shrouded behind a veil until the moment of apocalupsis when the veil is removed and we can see the masterpiece. In Revelation the curtain goes up, the veil is lifted. We are given a glimpse of the saints of God in heaven who wait for us beyond the veil.
And who are these saints? In Revelation 7, John describes a great multitude, an innumerable host beyond counting from every nation, tribe, people, and language group on the face of the earth: a multicolored, transnational, polylingual company of God’s people gathered in heaven. They are united by the music they sing, by the hymn they offer: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). “Their robes are made white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). Christ is at the center and they have all been cleansed by what the Book of Common Prayer calls “the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice” of Christ on the cross.
The saints in heaven are not there by virtue of the good works and merits they have achieved in this life. No, they are there sola gratia, by grace alone. In the words of this hymn by Carl P. Daw Jr.: “The light saints bear is not their own/but shines through them as gift and sign:/to show how God can use and bless/frail human means for ends divine.”
There is a connection between blessedness and bloodiness. The old English word bledsian, “blessed,” comes from the proto-Germanic blodision, which means “to hallow with blood, to mark or consecrate with blood.” Thus, “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matt. 5:10). Blessed are the saints and martyrs who have been witnesses to Christ unto the shedding of their blood, the company of God’s martyrs whose number is growing exponentially in our troubled, hostile world.
In our culture today, saints have been replaced by celebrities. We know a lot about celebrities. Movie stars, sports figures, icons of politics and business. Celebrities have something about them that attract our attention: they are wealthy, they are glamorous, they are charismatic—they are celebrities! But saints are not celebrities. Saints are those whose lives, shaped by holiness, have been given freely in service for others. True, some of the great saints in the history of the church have become well known across time: St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Francis. Yet most of the saints were not well-known in their own time. Some of them were little known at all. Perpetua was a mother pregnant with her child when she was called to witness to her faith in the arena at Carthage. Patrick, the apostle to the Irish, was a slave, taken away from his homeland to a foreign land. He declared, “I was like a rock stuck in mud until God by his grace lifted me up and gave me a new life.”
A little closer to our time is Jim Eliot, who, with his four friends, was speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador, where he had gone to share the message of Jesus Christ and his love. Or Maximilian Kolbe, a forty-seven year old Polish priest, number 16620 at Auschwitz, where he offered his life in exchange for another prisoner whom he hardly knew. In their own day, saints often received little reward, little applause. But now in glory they shine. Now in glory they are at rest. Christina Rossetti wrote a special poem for All Saints Day. It reads in part:
As grains of sand as drops of dew
Numbered and treasured by the Almighty hand,
The saints triumphant throng that Holy Land
Where all things and Jerusalem are new.
We know not half they sing
Or half they do,
But this we know
They rest and understand.
In this life we have little time for rest. Many, many times we do not understand. But in that place God is preparing for all those who know and love him, there will be rest and there will be understanding. In the meanwhile, when and where God so wills it, in the thin places we can look through the gossamer veil and get a glimpse of what it will be like when we are together with all the saints in the presence of God for all eternity. And we can sing with St. Bernard of Cluny:
O sweet and blessèd country,
the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessèd country
that eager hearts expect!
Jesus in mercy bring us
to that dear land above,
where you, with God the Father
and Spirit, reign in love.
Published at First Things, 11.2.15
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture