Communio Sanctorum

As a boy I thought of All Saints Day and the Communio Sanctorum, the Communion of Saints, the way I felt about Halloween. It was spooky.

Today it’s no longer spooky. I’m thinking about all the people who have touched my life along the way. Few of them are saints in the sense our culture has come to understand the word, but they were all saints in my book. The extraordinary thing about saints is that they know they are not extraordinary. They refuse to believe they are exceptional.

The people I’m remembering drew little attention to themselves, for the most part. Some of them, like Uncle Dick Lewis, who was an uncle not by blood but by affection only, were people of few words. Uncle Dick stood under the maple tree every Sunday morning waiting for our weekly routine: nothing more than a handshake, the strength of which tested and honored my growing toward manhood. The handshake is the only speech I remember. During the week Uncle Dick’s hands painted houses. On Sunday morning he clasped his hands together after painting a boy into a man under the maple tree.

The place where I grew up was a working class community with a working class church. Its members were house painters, plumbers, carpenters, and bus drivers with a few middle management people sprinkled in, and one generous rich man named George. George and Phoebe always sat in the front row.

Marple Presbyterian Church, Broomall, PA

Marple Presbyterian Church, Broomall, PA

George decided one day to donate a stained glass window. Although much of the money for the new building had come from George, a stained glass window was inappropriate for Colonial architecture. The church board, with some fear and trepidation, refused the proposed gift. George left the church in a huff. He moved his and Phoebe’s membership to the wealthy church in Bryn Mawr, leaving the carpenters, plumbers, and bus drivers with a clear message: “Good luck. You won’t have George to kick around any more! You’re on your own.”

Karl Marx observed that the rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs, and that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of its ruling class. After George left, they didn’t love Karl, the man everyone at Marple loved to hate, any less than before, but they re-discovered the Beatitudes of Jesus: “Blessed are you poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are you who mourn.” Blessed are the peacemakers.”

George was always kind to me in a distant kind of way. He got a chuckle watching the mischievous tow-head preacher’s kid break the rules he didn’t dare break. My only pictures from childhood were taken by Phoebe’s camera. I still see George in his three-piece suit with a big cigar, looking like a statue of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate – not quite that rich, but likely every bit as lonely before and after the church refused his stained glass window.

Approaching All Saints’ Day this year, I see them all compacted, you might say, into a single communion, the communion of the dead who have left behind every illusion that they were exceptional to the common lot of humankind. I see them gathered again at Marple Church, but gathered differently: George in Uncle Dick’s painter’s coveralls and Uncle Dick dressed in George’s three piece suit smoking George’s Cuban cigar, and Phoebe still taking her snapshots of a community now repaired by the common threads of love and death, dragged kicking and screaming into the Communion of Saints that knows no exceptions.

4 thoughts on “Communio Sanctorum

  1. Beautiful, Gordon….love “dragged, kicking and screaming, into the communion of saints that knows no exceptions.”. brilliant. I will find those photos. We have one of George, sans the cigar, but with the three piece suit and pocket watch chain hanging out…

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  2. Gordon, you brought tears to my old eyes, and filled in a bit of facts I never knew (why George and Phoebe left). I remember as if it were yesterday the Armstrongs and Mom and Dad closing the Church every Sunday. The Wardles, the Wessels (especially Eleanor 😉 ), so many kind and good people….
    We have several wonderful pictures of the whole family and members of it taken by Phoebe, and digitized and adjusted for contrast, definition, etc., so they look as if taken a week or so ago, and they are some of our favorite photos of all of us. I’ll see if I can send you one or two from BJ’s computer.

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    • Carolyn, I’d LOVE to see those pictures. FYI. Quite by happenstance, I noticed an announcement that the Presbyterian Foundation had received the largest bequest in its history. It was from the remaining estate of one George Dunlap following the death of his last relative. The announcement said that the Foundation had no knowledge of George Dunlap. I was furious. “He was a member of Marple Presbyterian Church in Boomall, PA. How could you not have done your homework!” I called the Foundation. They said they had contacted his church but that they had no memory of him.

      I called Marple. They had NO MEMORY of anyone named George Dunlap. “All flesh is grass.” It was only later that I learned that George and Phoebe had transferred their letters to Bryn Mawr. The irony of it all is that by moving to the wealthiest church in Philadelphia Presbytery, George became at best an average-sized fish filled with very big fish in a very big pond. When the Presbyterian Foundation notified the Bryn Mawr church, they knew nothing about him.

      It was chilling and humbling. I never knew George and Phoebe had left Marple. It came as a shock. When I learned the story of their departure, I couldn’t help but wonder what the Session and Trustee meetings must have been like that led to the refusal of the gift. I was proud of the Session and sad that George and Phoebe had left. But my memories of them have not changed.

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