Listen To Article
by Liz Niehof
Confession time: I used to be a very orthodox pastor. And perhaps I still am at my core.
But after working in the midst of suffering, dying and death—truly the definition of theological murkiness, with nothing that I could look up in the index of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for reference—I decided that, God and I would just have to wing it. Theological themes and terms like, providence, theodicy, and the communion of saints came up, and were embodied, if not clearly defined. I as new pastor and person had to walk with God, patient and family, and rely on knowledge hammered into me over the course of three very dense years of seminary.
But the communion of saints—a theological concept glossed over quickly in systematic theology second semester of first year—became the single most significant term for both pastor and person. Communio sanctorum, in Latin, is the spiritual union of members in the Christian Church, and refers not necessarily to holy persons, but rather to holy things, in particular to the graces and gifts people share with one another.
In times of strife and stress, these holy gifts and graces become particularly marked, whether they are meals, cards, or phone calls. These small gestures become holy, and for the elderly or the young, they are life-changing and even can be called life-saving. One couple, who had been waiting in the hospital for a lung transplant for over nine weeks called a laughter filled phone call from a college roommate life-saving when people around them had been sterilizing their interactions. Truly a sign of holy things, and fruits of the Spirit among them.
Even in the Reformed tradition the Communion of Saints appears and is strongly defended—in the Heidelberg Catechism, citing Hebrews 8, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 John 3. In each of these examples, the Catechism makes the claim that anyone who is united with God is united in Spirit. And if this is such, we are One People, One holy catholic church as the Apostles’ Creed states. Then we must be in fellowship, truly and completely, with one another.
I too had received the holy gifts of the Communion of Saints. As a new resident of California, a recent seminary graduate, newly ordained minister, and 3000 miles away from family, the saints appeared in the form of nurses and physical and occupational therapists on my units. They cooked and prepared meals for me, prayed for me, and checked in on me. O my final days at UCSF, they prepared a progressive potluck in the different nurses stations and an origami chain of love notes to say goodbye. They became my family away from home, prayed for me when I had job interviews, illnesses, joys and crises, and constantly protected me, just as I them.
Confession time: Perhaps I still am a very orthodox pastor. And, orthodoxy looks different on the ground, when things look gray and murky, and theology meets humanity, meets community. If there is one thing the communion of saints has taught me, it was this. It is about the creation of truly holy things out of genuinely ordinary things, and that is precisely what our God does, each and every day, if I just take the time to pause and watch it happen.
Liz Niehoff is a New York native who has found her way to the rumbly city by the Bay, San Francisco, in order to serve as a hospital chaplain. Currently, Liz is discerning with God what comes next. She just finished her CPE residency at UCSF Medical Center working with heart and lung transplant patients, and is now seeking a new call as a staff chaplain.