Friday, May 7, 2010

John Wesley on the role in our lives of the faithful departed

"It has in all ages been allowed that the communion of saints extends to those in paradise as well as those upon earth as they are all one body united under one Head. And
Can death's interposing tide
Spirits one in Christ divide?
But it is difficult to say either what kind or what degree of union may be between them. It is not improbable their fellowship with us is far more sensible than ours with them. Suppose any of them are present, they are hid from our eyes, but we are not hid from their sight. They no doubt clearly discern all our words and actions, if not all our thoughts too; for it is hard to think these walls of flesh and blood can intercept the view of an angelic being. But we have in general only a faint and indistinct perception of their presence, unless in some peculiar instances, where it may answer some gracious ends of Divine Providence. Then it may please God to permit that they should be perceptible, either by some of our outward senses or by an internal sense for which human language has not any name. But I suppose this is not a common blessing. I have known but few instances of it. To keep up constant and close communion with God is the most likely means to obtain this also.
"Whatever designs a man has, whatever he is proposing to do, either for himself or his friends, when his spirit goes hence all are at an end. And it is in this sense only that ‘all our thoughts perish.’ Otherwise all our thoughts and designs, though not carried into execution, are noted in His Book who accepts us according to our willing mind and rewards intentions as well as actions. By aiming at Him in all things, by studying to please Him in all your thoughts and words and actions, you are continually sowing to the Spirit; and of the Spirit you will reap life everlasting."

John Wesley, letter to Mary Bishop dated 9 May 1773.  The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. John Telford (London:  The Epworth Press, 1960 [1931]), vol. 6, pp. 26-27.  Cf.

"But we have no reason to think they [departed souls] are confined to this place [heaven]; or, indeed, to any other.  May we not rather say that, as 'servants of his,' as well as the holy angels, they 'do his pleasure,' whether among the inhabitants of the earth or in any other part of his dominions?"

John Wesley, sermon "On faith, Hebrews 11:1," Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial edition of the works of John Wesley), ed. Albert Outler et al., vol. 4 (Sermons IV, 115-151), p. 195.

Both quotations were encountered originally in Maura Hearden, "Our lady of sacramental communion:  Marian possibilities emerging from Catholic-Methodist dialogue," Pro ecclesia 19, no. 1 (Winter 2010):  90.  Except that Hearden (a Catholic) doesn't quote the paragraph beginning, "Whatever de[s]igns a man has, whatever he is proposing to do, either for himself or his friends, when his spirit goes hence all are at an end."  How did Wesley reconcile these statements?  By restricting the designs-at-an-end to those of this life only?

Maddox:  "At least once [Wesley] suggested a participation by the 'souls of departed Christians' (saints?)" in the providential care of God (Randy L. Maddox, Responsible grace:  John Wesley's practical theology (Nashville, TN:  Kingswood Books, Abingdon Press, 1994), 60 with 282n92, where the second of the two quotations above is cited), but "valued the saints as honored exemplars, not intercessors" (208 with 352n94, where references to his "criticism of intercessory prayer to saints" are given).  For more on this according to Maddox, see Laurence Hull Stookey, "The Wesleys and the saints," Liturgy 5 (1985-1986):  77-81, and Geoffrey Wainwright, "Wesley and the communion of the saints,"  One in Christ 27 (1991):  332-345.