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For All the SaintsBy Greg Garrett
It is early January and I am writing at Gladstone’s Library in Northern Wales. The Library is a long way from home—7000 miles, a good two-day journey—but I’ve discovered that I work well here. As any of you who have been on retreat or attended CREDO know, distance can be a good thing as well as a hard thing. Distance can focus you. It can reduce the distractions that daily keep you from doing important work. And that’s why I’m here in a library created over a hundred years ago by William E. Gladstone (four-time Prime Minister of England and a Lay Reader in nearby St. Deiniol’s Church) as a place for theological reflection and formation. For two weeks, this winter and two weeks this summer, I will come to Wales in search of time, space, and intentional community.
The last of these is increasingly important to me, and a central reason I leave behind my family and the other communities I love to take up temporary residence in Wales. Every project I’ve worked on here has been shaped by the new friends and colleagues with whom I interact at meals, and over gin and tonics in the common room. I’ve encountered priests, bishops, pastors, monks, nuns, academics, poets, and all sorts of other wondrous people here, have talked with them about their lives and work, have shared my own. I talk with the warden, the Rev. Peter Francis, who also has a passion for the intersection of religion and culture. I talk about my project and about my family with Chef Alan Hurst in the kitchen, with Sian at the front desk, with Annette in the fundraising office. I won’t say that a collective cheer goes up when I walk in the front door of the Library after my long trip from Austin. But I won’t say it doesn’t in some way feel that I am coming home.
I’m writing my next book for Oxford University Press at my usual desk, where I am surrounded by the saints—literally. The bookshelves to either side of me are marked “Church History.” On my immediate right, you can find collections of the Lives of the Saints, including Butler’s four-volume “Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Saints.” Near that there’s three volumes on “The Life of the Blessed Paul of the Cross,” a volume on St. Angela, a five-volume (!) life of St. Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori, whose acquaintance I have only just now made via Wikipedia. So many saints, so little time!
The books surrounding my desk—and the Library itself—offer a potent reminder for me that we are accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses, both the dead and the living, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Blessed David of Wales, as well as Blessed Grahame, the young priest from London with whom I had breakfast this morning after Eucharist.
Grahame is here for a week to read and reflect. He’s facing a crossroads as he finishes his curacy and is thinking about what comes next. We had a talk two nights ago about college chaplaincy, something I know a bit about and about which I care a great deal. Last night at dinner, he asked some probing questions about the project I’m writing here. This morning, Geoffrey—a young priest from Liverpool, who is here to read and reflect as well, and Grahame’s friend from seminary days—asked a question that shaped our breakfast conversation.
“What makes a story good?” he asked, a question so pointed that I’ve never actually answered it out loud before.
I stammered through an answer that actually seemed to make some sense. We mentioned some stories that seemed to fit those requirements. We shared what we each intended to work on today.
We sat there for a moment, reflective, sipping at our tea. Then we all nodded, to ourselves, at each other, and we departed to do the work that God has given us to do.
We went, though, knowing that even though we’ll be sitting alone, confronting the printed page or the blank computer screen, we are accompanying each other.
At 5:30, we will each pour ourselves a drink, sit down in front of the roaring fire, and begin to unburden ourselves of the things we’ve done today.
Grahame will tell us of his reading in contemporary theology.
I will tell them about writing this post.
Though we are many, we are one body, for we all share in one bread.
And when I come home from Wales, I will remind myself, again, how important it is to share my life, my work, my fears, my hopes, with my communities. Jesus called us to be together, and in my busy life in Austin, I sometimes forget that central and salient fact.
We are surrounded by all the saints, the living and the dead, and we will recall that if we will only slow down long enough to notice.
Who are the saints who surround you now?
Greg Garret (@Greg1Garrett) currently serves as the Writer-in-Residence at Seminary of the Southwest. As a member of the adjunct faculty of the seminary, Greg helps future leaders of the Church to write, interpret, and communicate effectively.
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