Twenty years ago, I found myself in the middle of an online group of Anglicans. We were linked in cyberspace by a listserv, an internet mailing list, but we were a definite community. Not a peaceful community either. The list was extremely lively, contentious, and full of strong personalities. We were redeemed by a wonderful sense of silliness and by a sense of community that grew stronger and stronger the more we became aware of it.
We called ourselves the international cyberparish of St. Sam’s (long story). Our motto was “Via media via modem” and our song was “Shall we gather at the River,” as performed by the Miserable Offenders, Deb Bly and Ana Hernandez. Sometimes we managed on-the-ground meetings, but mostly we lived community through the flow of electrons.
Why bring this up? Because it was at St. Sam’s that I first truly encountered something I’d never really encountered before – the sense that church was much, much more than a gathering of mostly middle-aged or elderly nice white folks in pretty Gothic buildings, coming together on Sunday to sing familiar hymns and say familiar prayers, and gathering at other times to squabble over budgets, gay marriage, and the state of the parish plant. Not that St. Sam’s didn’t squabble – although in our case, it was more usually troll attacks or flame wars – but we were more than that.
We were a community that existed around the world, in Europe and Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, all U.S. states and a good many Canadian provinces. We brought together people who were otherwise isolated: a homebound woman, a priest with near-complete hearing loss, another who served the remoteness of South Dakota.
And aside from the fun and the fighting, we had one essential function: we prayed. My mother was a member of St. Sam’s, and when she was starting the long slow slide to her death, she spoke of being held by St. Sam’s in a golden hammock of prayer. The golden hammock. When someone was in particular need, we used to post prayers and say where they were coming from: praying in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia; in Oahu; in Canberra; in Chicago. Prayers arising from all over.
Through St. Sam’s, I discovered the community of saints. Since we had little physical contact, we could be souls with each other. And when individuals died – I count about 20 members who left this life – we knew that they had only gone to the other side of the River that flows by the throne of God, and that they were waiting for us there.
Deb Bly, our Debele; Matt Tracy, the Muttster; Andrew Auld, the Official List Curmudgeon whom I called Mudge; Mary Jane, Lane, Carol, Diana, the blessed Cynthia McFarland of Anglicans Online, my mother Barbara, the wise Wolfmama – all of these and more died as the grass dies, but their souls are in God. And there’s a hell of a good picnic going on, on those further shores.
I know that when I myself come to death, I’ll plunge into that cold water, only to find it warm, and that when I get to the other side, the Muttster and the Mudge will swing me up onto the shore, swat my butt, and get back to arguing about the Only Correct Way to perform Real Barbecue, while Deb will lift her considerable voice in a jazz scat that will shake the stars.
There we will all become the souls God intended us to be, every mark of sin erased, every wound healed, every tear gently and lovingly dried. And our joy will be complete in the glow of God’s presence.
The community of saints is huge and ancient and it binds us together with hermits in the Egyptian wilderness and nuns in medieval Germany, with martyrs in Japan and preachers in Nigeria, with Christians far and near, past and present and future, for we are all one in the one body. I learned that first and best from St. Sam’s.
Lately, though, I’ve been spreading the margin wider. Yes, we are all one in Christ, but we are one in God with all souls past, present and future, Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu and Aboriginal and unfaithed, even Richard Dawkins, for we are all the children of God, and each one of us is precious in God’s eyes. As are all God’s critters, from land snail to sperm whale and from galaxy to paramecium. God loves God’s creation, and we are God’s creatures. And so we have a deep duty to do right by one another.
I still miss my Debele and the Muttster and the Mudge; I still miss the heady days when a torrent of mail came from around the world, arguing, rejoicing, bemoaning, praying, loving. But I know that this was just a taste of what is to come.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Alleluia!