While the Episcopal church, where I was raised, technically recognizes the communion of saints and the spiritual practice of venerating saints, I never felt like I had a special connection to any saint growing up. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything by not having a personal understanding of saints until last year, when God put it on my heart to seriously explore the richness of the communion of saints. In studying the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, I was pointed to the Book of Wisdom for a portrayal of the communion of saints. Wisdom 7:27 says, “[Sophia] renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets.” Through this verse, I came to understand that these friends of God and prophets are not just those deceased and distant saints we read about, but also people whose holiness has had a profound impact on our own personal lives. However, figuring out how to relate to individuals in the communion of saints, or find meaning in the “great cloud of witnesses,” proved a more difficult task.
This semester I have the pleasure of taking Prof. John Makransky’s class, “Meditation in Action: Interfaith Explorations,” in which we are learning about meditation as a tool for cultivating love and compassion which will ultimately lead us to social activism. Even though I am certainly still in the early stages of learning a meditation practice, in the first few weeks, I have found that one meditation in particular offers a deep way of connecting to the communion of saints.
A typical first point of entry into meditation in Tibetan Buddhism is to meditate on a powerfully holy figure like the Buddha or other bodhisattva. However, Makransky—understanding that some Eastern practices cannot be fully appreciated by Western students of meditation—teaches meditation on a personal or spiritual benefactor as an alternative. Benefactor meditation is a way of contemplating reception of love, which ultimately helps towards the Buddhist goal of cultivating an awareness of love and the interconnectedness of all beings. In a Christian context, this could be called the communion of saints, and that which connects them all, God who is Love and the ground of all being.
Benefactor meditation begins with recalling a benefactor moment, which Makransky describes as: “a moment when someone was with you in a simple loving way, taking joy in you, wishing you well—a moment of care, play, laughter, deep listening or simple presence,” which you bring to mind as if it were happening right now. Settling into the moment, Makransky says to “imagine this person is communing with you in your deep worth and potential beyond limiting judgments, just taking joy in you, wishing you well.” Then, receive this loving energy into every part of our bodies, mind, and thoughts. Finally, “let the images fade, and simply let go into that feeling of loving care and deep acceptance, letting that help your heart and mind relax and fall completely open.”
This meditation can also be done with a spiritual benefactor, a saint or holy figure you may never have personally known, or a deity, by bringing to mind an image of them and internalizing their wish for love and joy for all people. Makransky teaches that regular practice of benefactor meditations leads the contemplative to uncover more and more loving moments from throughout our lives, and to grow more aware of the love that constantly surrounds us.
While I have often felt that contemplation does not come naturally to me, the active remembering of benefactor moments has led me to a deeper awareness of that flows from God, into and throughout the communion of saints. In recalling moments that I have experienced someone truly desiring joy and happiness for me, the great cloud of witnesses is made more real and tangible. As I became more aware of the love and well-wishes of people I have known, I also became more able to imagine the love and prayers offered by saints in the generations before me, and more aware of the love of God. Perhaps, in meditating on those living and dead who have shown us their love in simple and beautiful ways, we can cultivate a greater awareness to the presence of love in the world.