I was watched the other day; scrutinized by countless eyes whose gaze I could not catch. Not a single person else stood near and yet I was hemmed and hedged by souls who saw the going and the coming of my way. I was in a church you see. One of the old kinds of soaring, bright-storied windows and weathered old stone. The sort of place that is hushed by the very intensity of the life it represents. Words aren’t forbidden, they are inadequate. The vault of the ancient ceiling and the gigantic stone pillars made it an echoing place, an eerie space of live silence that paced the empty corridors beside me as I tiptoed in. Yet as I went I never felt myself alone. The hugeness never settled full because I walked in view of countless, silent faces, surrounded by a cloud of silent, ceaseless witnesses.
I could not escape them; the faces of saints, jewel bright in the thousand stained-glass windows. The woeful eyes of the prophets as they kept their constant vigil. The sorrow-laden heads of saints caught in eternal prayer, the confident gaze of the apostles from their perch in the golden altar. The glance of angels, the gaze of gentle Mary, the gaze of a little lamb. And then the eyes of Christ; playing in ‘ten thousand places’ round the quiet church. All of these followed my way and clutched at my heart, their faces a bright and silent challenge to my thought.
A challenge? Yes. A call, an unheard plea for recognition. For though silent, the very presence of those countless, waiting faces set a call upon my thought; how, o soul of mine, will you live, when such as we have walked before you? The mere sight of them in their storied forms reminded me of who I was and what I was called to do. I remembered again that I do not walk alone in this thing called faith; that many have gone before me, and some will come behind and they are all of them waiting, watching, to see with what mettle I will live the portion of my days. These witnesses demand of me a goodness that I have at times forgotten. And in their faces, I have found a grace. An extra bit of reason in the living well of these slow days. I carried the faces of those saints and angels with me even as I left the church. They walk with me and call to me. They are, in a way, my witnesses.
And that set me to thinking. For our churches in this later time are almost never graced by picture or form. I wonder if we lose by it. Surely somehow, the sight of those ancient figures could spur our spirits to remember who we are and just what it is we are called to do. We are bombarded in every instant of the day with the faces and voices of modern culture. But where are the spiritual witnesses in our time? When do we see the artful faces of our own, faith-driven heroes except in the occasional Biblical tale? Where are our pictures of the saints and prophets and martyrs and mystics? These are the people who have gone before us into the kingdom, they are the pilgrims whose feet have trodden out the path along which we travel today. But we never think of them. We never see them. We are never seen by them. And so there is no silent face to call us to a fresh made faith when ours is running low.
This modern world at times, seems emptier than it used to. Faith seems harder. Goodness a less tangible, graspable thing. I’ve seen a lot of people in the last year who were grasping at esoteric ideas, wrangling out a theory of truth, an intellectual structure of goodness. But the saints never lived in theory. They lived in fact; loving and serving and praying and working. I remember this when I see them, when they are present to my sight, their stories vivid, their faces close. I think perhaps our modern world is hungering for witnesses like these to tell us how to live and hold us to the truth we find. We need those “clouds of witnesses”. It’s part of faith. It’s part of life. So maybe somehow we need to return to the older ways, at least a bit. Find a way to bring the old witnesses back to spur us on to goodness. In this age of autonomy, perhaps a friendly eye would be welcome. It certainly was to me.
(I ought to mention that these thoughts and this picture began in Magdelene College Chapel, Oxford. The same one where C.S. Lewis worshiped every morning. (Now there is a great witness.) It was the sheer number of faces on that far wall that began my musings.)