Witnesses

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.)

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7 Comments

Filed under Contemplations

7 responses to “Witnesses

  1. Debbie

    Sarah, it is such a blessing to read your your blog. I always look forward to your posts. Thank you for allowing me to come along on your journey to places I may never get to myself.

    While I agree with you on your thoughts today, I think churches are afraid to put pictures up of saints passed because of the fear of them looking to them as they should be looking to Christ.

    My husband’s family is Catholic and speaks of saints and Mary more often than Jesus Christ. I know there are Catholic Christians but the majority I know of have saints at the same level as Jesus. They are worshipping them and praying to them instead of Jesus.

    It would be wonderful to have pictures up of those that have walked the path before us as a reminder and encouragement that God is faithful to his children.

    May God continue to bless you with His grace and truth on your journey.

  2. Sarah

    Thanks for your post Debbie- lovely encouragement!

    I do agree with you that many churches have refrained from any display of saints or pictures out of a right desire to keep the focus on Christ. And I think it is often good.

    But it has just struck me of late that we are surrounded with images and messages every day from secular culture; movies, advertisements, computer, billboards, but rarely see an equal picturing of Biblical truth, even in our homes. I just wonder if the presence of a couple of pictures, or stories to center our thoughts would help.

    It’s an interesting discusion!

  3. Friend of idealists

    Wonderful post. And beautifully written. You are a gifted writer. Write more!

    It seems to me that in the “modern” evangelical church we don’t really fear that images of past saints (the biblical kind, not the Catholic kind) are somehow improper or might lead to idolatry. Rather, I think we simply disdain anything that smacks of being not new and contemporary. We certainly have no problem using copious video and still images of current popular “saints” in and around church to promote new books, movies, movements, conferences, and such, but godly men and women from previous centuries might make “seekers” think we are not contemporary, so they are out. Pictures of past saints in the church are not dangerous; they’re just not popular.

    It’s not about worshipping the saints of previous generations, and it’s not about “venerating” them. It’s about remembering them. It’s about being able to see some of the faces in that great “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us all the time. Those saints don’t need to be permanently enshrined in costly cathedrals as in the past, but certainly they should be occasionally remembered in our communings as the body of Christ. We have no history as a church, except the history of those who have been faithful before us, and we make no history except as we follow their witness to be faithful in our own time.

    Personally, I would be edified and encouraged by creative and even artistic expressions of faithful saints displayed and changed regularly in the narthex of my church. I tire of seeing all the latest faces of sellable saints on books in the church bookstore, in bulletin handouts, and in the video announcements, as though popular, mediagenic, saints are the only ones worth seeing today. If we fail to remember the faithful who have gone before us with as much desire as we consume the faithful that marketing keeps before us now, we are training ourselves to forget. God wants us to remember, and I think your thoughts are right on. Thank you for expressing them.

  4. Debbie

    Sarah, I so agree with you and friend of idealists. I would love to see more pictures of the faithful saints that have walked before us. Thankfully, my church doesn’t bring in a lot of the advertising and video presentations that so many churches are bombarded with. My family left a very large church 10 years ago because of that reason. So many churches are now all fun and games and children (and adults) do not know how to be still before God.

    My church went through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology several years ago and our church grew spiritually.
    I believe he was just teaching at Cambridge recently.

    Thanks again for being such an encouragement to. I met you several years ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan at a homeschool conference. You are a lovely young woman.

  5. Sarah

    Friend of Idealists- Exactly! I think what I am sensing is the lack of any sense of history, any acknowledgment of the grand past of which we are part within the modern church. We have taken autonomy to such an extreme that we have lost our connection with the past and the people whose faith was supposed to be a model for our own.
    And yet we unconsciously replace the vacant spaces of saints with celebrity and in the process have become impatient with the life-giving and sometimes difficult tales of the saints, relying instead on the entertainment of the latest in “Christian” media/book/display/music. We do have saints. But somehow the latest Christian rock star just doesn’t compare with St. Patrick. No need to enshrine the old saints, I just wonder if their stories, and even the lesser known tales of Biblical heroes would renew and convict us in a poignant way.

    Debbie- Thank you! I agree so much with you; sounds like you are in such a good church. And yes, Wayne Grudem not only is in Cambridge, he’s speaking for the conference I am helping to run! Christian Heritage is having him in for their Summer School of Theology. There’s coincidence for you!

  6. Wow, Sarah. Something stirs in me as I read your post tonight. I hear Steve Green’s voice charging forward, “Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful!” I feel my back stiffen a little and I sit a bit taller. I’m weary tonight. Weary of the battle, the brokenness that surrounds me in this tired world. But your words (so eloquently shared) strengthen. Thanks.

  7. Sarah

    Thanks Paula. Grace to you. We so need encouragement in this time. May the Lord go with you.

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