“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
–The Apostles Creed
“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”
A Communion of the Saintly
Toward the end of the Nicaean and Apostle’s Creeds, Christians from many denominations affirm the belief in the Communion of the Saints. In practice, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Oriental, and Easter Orthodox traditions commonly integrate saints into our liturgies, calendars and even patronal names at baptism. My own patron saint is Saint Kevin of Ireland. Not only is he the patron saint of very ordinary names like mine, but as a hermit, he embodied the deep love of Creation at the heart of Irish Paganism and Christianity.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines a saint as someone who is closer or more united with Christ in heaven. Intercessory prayer, which seems to pick up where Pagan polytheism leaves off, sees this proximity to heaven as a legitimate and effective way of amplifying one’s prayers. It emphasizes the idea that the church is a communal structure that is not confined to the living.
Saints are also culture-heroes that elevate our eyes toward heavenly virtues through the prism of their unique gifts. Saints are the celebrities and athletes of the spiritual life. They are role models and icons of holiness and character. For example, sounding a bit like a Catholic Bodhisattva, 19th century French Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.” Saints are heroic in virtue, and yet they are often keenly aware of their own woundedness. Contemporary Catholic commentator and YouTube evangelist Bishop Robert Barron uses the analogy of a pane of glass to describe the saintly heart. As it becomes more directly illuminated by light, even the slightest smudges and blemishes become readily apparent. As Barron puts it, saints are simply people who know they are sinners. Saints don’t earn this merit, they simply orient their lives toward the light already there.
In a broader sense, all Christians, or even all people, are saints. In his letters, the Apostle Paul refers to the ordinary members of his churches as Saints—as contemporary Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continue to do. For Paul, the Saints (Gk: hagiois, holy ones) were those who had chosen to bask in the Grace of the risen Christ.
This notion of ordinary folks being Saints shouldn’t surprise us. Think of Paul’s stark transformation from a persecutor of the church to a Christic visionary; or of Peter’s penchant for cowardly self-preservation at the time of the crucifixion, to a miracle working evangelist-martyr who tradition holds was crucified upside down. From the earliest moments of Christianity there is a notion that each of us are saints in embryo, holy not just through extraordinary feats of virtue, but through our createdness, our belovedness, and our utter dependence on God, who brings us into being and sustains us in each moment.
Making Room for Creation in the Communion of the Saints
For most of Christian history, Sainthood has been seen as a human affair. However, it seems like the time has come to decenter the human person as the only creature in Creation worthy of the title. I don’t want to devalue us, I want to decenter us, there is a difference. I want to think about this with the help of 20th century spiritual writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the patron saint of ecology Saint Francis of Assisi, and a few other geologians.
It isn’t actually that much of a leap to go from the notion of a primordial sainthood at the heart of our human createdness, which emerges from no merit of our own, to the saintliness of the rest of Creation with whom we share our evolutionary morphology and instincts. As a monk explained to me on retreat regarding his belief in animal souls: “Do we have the same Father? Ok, then we are siblings!”
In his poem Canticle to Creation, Saint Francis of Assisi affirmed this close kinship with creation in the 12th century. In writing with the reconciliation of two rival cities in mind, Francis declared with the Psalms that all of creation rightly gives God praise. However, he also went a step further by referring to Sun, Moon, Water, Plants, Earth, and Fire as our siblings. He wrote: “Praise be to you Lord God through Brother Sun…” This kinship language is striking for a pre-ecological age that affirms the interrelatedness of all creation. And yet, there is no confusing Creation and Creator, only a more directly aligned prism that is able to see God’s loving presence in Creation.
In his foundational book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton meditates on the depth of contemplative spirituality in the Catholic tradition. Merton’s writing had a great deal to do with bringing mysticism and contemplative spirituality to an entirely new generation of Catholics, and his influence has reached into the generations of the 21st century through the efforts of the International Thomas Merton Society. One of the most startling and beautiful passages in New Seeds beautifully amplifies saintliness beyond the more than human Creation in a way that would have turned Henry David Thoreau’s scruffy head. Merton writes:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
A tree’s substance, its tree-ness, is its praise, and because that substance owes its very being to God, it is fundamentally united with God, or, in other words, a Saint. Merton continues:
“The forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape is their sanctity.”
Here, Merton alludes to a word coined by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Inscape for Hopkins is a creature’s most intimate uniqueness, which bears the very finger print of God. As Dan Horan has written, this is a deeply Franciscan idea, which echoes the heady theology of 14th century theologian John Duns Scotus. Merton, say on!
“The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this April day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by His own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.”
Swoon. This is one of my very favorite passages from Merton, and when I first read it as a seasonal forester in Utah in 2012, it changed the way I saw the woods. It is recalling this passage that I affirm the idea that the Communion of Saints is ready for an update.
Extinction is Martyrdom
Death is a fact of evolution. Most species have an ecological life span of about a million or so years. Human beings may be no different if we don’t shape up. Extinction, the death of a species, happens naturally. Admittedly difficult to calculate, the background rate of natural extinctions is about one species per million species per year. The industrial machine is speeding up that rate so by estimates of between 100 to 1000 times the background rate. There have been five major extinctions of life on this planet, reducing species diversity by 75-90 per cent. Human expansion out of Africa, but especially the activities of industrial humanity initiated what some are calling the Sixth Extinction event.
For those of us who see the world as more than a God-given grocery store, extinction caused by human beings is a travesty. Extinction has been likened to the silencing of an instrument in the symphony of Creation. Said another way, if each creature is a word of God, unique and singular in its particularity and bespokeness, a species, is an epic cosmic poem. Extinction at the hands of human expansion impoverishes the vocabulary of this cosmic epic that makes up an earthly Communion of Saints. Just as murder is not just death, extinction by our hands is a kind of martyrdom.
In his Letter to the Romans chapter 8:22, Paul writes that “all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” There is a sense that Christ is a cosmic event, and salvation an earthly affair. In the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world”, after all. Eschatology is the study of last things, final words, and end times. For many Christians, only humans will accompany God into post-moral eternities. But in an era of ecological conscience, eschatology needs an earthy reassessment. As ecological theologian Sallie McFague has written, “Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.” Salvation was not just a single event, but an ongoing trajectory of Creation as the Body of God.
Theologians like the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, see Big Bang cosmology as affirming the idea that Creation is moving toward its fulfillment in God. For Teilhard the Omega point was synonymous with the Logos of John Ch. 1, where the author states that the Word (Logos) was with God from the beginning and is God.
Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and Teilhard used this as an image of the entirety of Creation being drawn into God through the humanity of Christ (Logos). Of course for Teilhard, the Omega point insinuated that the Noosphere, or mental realm, would become independent of the physical world, but Delio’s writings make a stronger claim that all of creation is involved in this ongoing cosmic soteriology. She writes, “Rather, reality is a single, organic, evolutionary flowing.” The lives of Saints are powerful because they give us a taste of heaven on earth. To expand the Communion of Saints is acknowledge that like the Our Father prayer, salvation is the ongoing process of earth merging with heaven.
Finally, if a human can be a saint, perhaps we should consider whether or not her gut flora, eye mites, viruses, lice, skin and mouth bacteria, fungi, and parasites might be as well. Perhaps as well, we should wonder whether the species that have been domesticated with us are Saints: Heather, corn, wheat, barley, millet, cows, chickens, dogs, pigs. Perhaps as well those that have accompanied us as we made our cities: Cats, rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, squirrels, starlings, coyotes, dandelions, and crows. And perhaps those species and ecologies that provided the materials, medicines, and wild foods that nourished us. And all those that populated our symbols, languages and stories. Perhaps the Communion of Saints is nothing less than an ongoing Being-One-With the Holy-Ones-of-Creation.
A Litany of Ten Salish Sea Rainforest Trees
Saint Western Red Cedar pray for us…
Saint Douglas fir pray for us…
Saint Western Hemlock pray for us…
Saint Grant Fir pray for us…
Saint Sitka Spruce pray for us…
Saint Amabilis Fir pray for us…
Saint Big Leaf Maple pray for us…
Saint Red Alder pray for us…
Saint Paper Birch pray for us…
Saint Yew pray for us…
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 27.
 St. Therese of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, (Washington: ICS, 1977), 102.
 Here is a link to the whole poem! https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=3188
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 31.
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 32.
 Sally McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Fortress Press: 1993), 287.
 Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, (Orbis Books 2020), 176.