Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, (1423–1424)

I have no idea what, exactly, the Beatific Vision will be like. I cannot begin to imagine it. I can only desire it as a “mystery gift,” a vague promise of something far beyond my experience. What I can imagine and look forward to is the revelation of what we call the “communion of the saints,” this mysterious intertwining of destinies, our solidarity in salvation. In the Creed, our profession of the communion of the saints is followed by the affirmation of our belief in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting. I think that these all go together.

But before becoming a communion of saints we are first of all a communion of sinners. There is a sense of solidarity even in sin—a sense that, in making a pact with the evil within us, we make a pact with evil itself and thus become responsible for the sins of all—from the blood of Abel to the apostasy of the last apostate. To refuse this solidarity is, in itself, a sin against communion. We are asked to carry one another’s burdens, including the burden of sin, and thus fulfill the law of Christ, who, being sinless, could assume all sin without being consumed by it. Of course, being sinners, we can do this only imperfectly. Sometimes our own burden of sin may seem like burden enough. But so long as we are members of one body, we cannot forget the other members. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.”

The communion of saints is the communion of those who have become vessels of mercy

The other side of this coin is that “when one member is honored, all the members share its joy.” And when one member is pardoned, it affects the whole Mystical Body of Christ. Pardon is not a purely individual experience. By receiving mercy we become more merciful ourselves; the communion of saints is the communion of those who have become vessels of mercy. In The City of God, St. Augustine writes that “our righteousness in this life consists rather in the pardoning of sins than in the perfection of virtue.” When Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection, he breathed on them his Holy Spirit and empowered them to forgive sins (John 20:19–23). Ever since then, the pardon of sins has remained an essential element of the pilgrim church’s mission, and it will always be linked to the resurrection of the dead, as it was on that first evening. The pardon of every sinner contributes to the general resurrection, to the death of death.

But mercy is not simply the forgiveness of sins. It is a participation in the very Holiness of God. The Kingdom of the Father is a household where all is held in common. St. Augustine has this remarkable comment: “Love is a powerful thing, my brothers and sisters. Do you wish to see how powerful love is? Whoever, through some necessity, cannot accomplish what God commands, let him love the one who accomplishes it and he accomplishes it in that other.”

We are told that there are many rooms in the Father’s house, but I doubt if they are all single-occupancy. I believe that, within the communion of saints, there are affinities of grace, that each of us is surrounded by a particular cloud of witnesses, whose quality of grace is in some mysterious way related to our own. Some of these witnesses are known to us; others are not. What I do hope to find in the Father’s house—and try to imagine—is the restoration of all that is beautiful and pure in people and in their works, the fulfillment of old friendships known and the discovery of the discreet links that have made my own joy possible. That would indeed be life everlasting

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: View Contents
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