Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reflection: Communion of Saints

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints…

The small Methodist congregation began in the 1820s, meeting in a log cabin in the Cades Cove area of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Almost a century later their descendants built the present structure, a simple, white siding building with two front doors – one for the men, the other for the women. The story goes that one man, a blacksmith and carpenter named J. D. McCampbell actually built it in 1915 in 115 days for $115, and then served as the congregation’s minister for several years.

The chapel sits empty now, the children of the builders evicted by the government when the Cove and the surrounding mountains were given national park status. The building is occupied only momentarily and sporadically by visitors who poke their heads in the doors and wander through the adjacent cemetery, or by wedding parties who sometimes seek out the beauty of Cades Cove and the novelty of the old church for their ceremonies, or by local churches who sometimes hold services there as prelude to their annual picnics in the park. But, it is still a holy place, made so by the worship and prayers and sacrifice of generations of mountain folk seeking – and finding – God in that place, by those who, by the grace of God, took their place in the communion of saints.

Just yesterday my wife and I visited this church again for the first time in several years. We said our prayers there and we sang the familiar hymns. As Clare played the old piano – which sounds now as tinny as any old western barroom piano – played “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and as we sang together, our choir of two swelled in size to include angels and archangels, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and all the company of heaven – the communion of saints – and those holy men and women of that small Methodist church lifted again their hymns of praise with us to our one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So the Scriptures and the Liturgy assure us.

The church of my childhood met in this old building several times, and saints of both groups – visible and invisible – mingled: Merl and Kathleen, Homer, Bob and Blanche, Carl and Mary Kate, Daisy, Edith, Wilsie – the names roll onward like a flood in my memory, all now in the heavenly kingdom. Those saints taught me of the great communion of saints, though they gave it a different emphasis. To them, the communion of saints was a present reality in the visible church, in the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic church of our Lord Jesus Christ – a communion that extended to the Baptists one street over, to the Methodist a couple of blocks east, to the Holiness Church on the corner, and yes, to the African-American church that met just across the alley running behind my house. Had they known of the Orthodox Church on Kingston Pike they would have included it, too, and the Catholic churches spread all over Knoxville. For them, the communion of saints was the reality of Paul’s words to the Ephesian saints:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph 4:5-6, NKJV).

I come from less mystical than practical stock, but I believe they were right in what they taught me: if you can’t commune with those you see, it’s not likely that you can commune with the great, invisible host gone before.

And so, I celebrate this great communion of saints in that holy place in Cades Cove and in every holy place where the Gospel is truly proclaimed, the sacraments faithfully administered, and the faith fully embraced.

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers (and Mothers), Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.

1 comment:

Father Robert Lyons said...


I believe I've been to this Church as well... though I am not 100% sure. Are there several Churches in the Cove?

At any rate, if it is the Church I am thinking of, I remember sitting in there with my Office book one afternoon in May 2006 remembering those who had gone before as I offered my own prayers there. I remember being struck also by the utter disregard for God's house... the "I was here" grafitti spread all over the place.

Anyway, it's a blessing to know that we've both offered prayer there, separated by time and space, as well as in person together with one another... and that all those prayers ascend to our Father, in union with the prayers of his people of every time and place.