It was a warm spring afternoon when I first visited the ruined priory.
King Henry’s Commissioners had done a good job but even after 500 years the remains of the old church were impressive. Wandering slowly through the ruined nave I came to a large stone slab which, so the information plaque said, marked the site of the High Altar.
Today the priory site is a testimony in stone to past faith and past conflict. Yet as I stood where the altar once stood, contemplating the past, I had a growing sense that this was not just a memorial to a long-dead community: here, worship was alive; prayer lived on. I could not see it or hear it; but my spirit sensed I was on the threshold of something eternal. The more I tried to shake off the feeling, the stronger came an awareness that this place, as Jacob said (Gen 28:17), ‘is none other than the house of God’.
This weekend we celebrate first All Saints’ Day and then the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, All Souls’. Extending our focus beyond those labelled ‘saints’ enables us to focus on our own family and friends; those who hold a special place in our lives and affections. We all have memory days such as a birthday, a wedding anniversary or the day a person died. These are personal; special to us. A shared event, in contrast, is a reminder that we are not alone; grief and loss are shared experiences, common to us all.
Commemoration is not just about the past, good or bad. We commemorate someone because their life continues to have meaning for us. Before his arrest Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them … and would return and take them to himself (Jn14:2,3). Our Christian faith is founded on his resurrection, and on the promise that he is the first fruit from the dead (1 Cor 15:20). Through baptism we share in this promise with our loved ones, with each other, in Christ.
I began this reflection in a long-abandoned, ruined priory church. I had gone seeking the past. Instead, I had encountered a new experience of God in the present. As we take time to remember those whom we have known and loved but see no more; as we thank God for what they have meant, and continue to mean to us. It is only fitting then that we give Jesus the last word, ‘He (the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob – our God) is God not of the dead but of the living’ (Mk 12:27).
Rev Philip Payne
Pew sheet for 1st November available in Downloads