Communing with Saints

by Ryan Stander

A shoebox at a flea market changed my life. A simple Nike shoebox filled with discarded family photographs broke my heart. With each photograph of unfamiliar faces and disconnected stories I flipped through, I grew a deeper realization of our shared humanity and mortality. Each photograph – a certificate of someone’s life and existence. Each portrait – an icon of silver, paper, and light. I wondered then…as I still do today… “Who are these people?” “What are they doing in this box?” “Will this be our fate as well?”   

Now, nearly two decades later, this box still haunts me. After a few years it began to find its way into my artwork and became the muse to my most significant body of work to date. Initial works emerged in overwrought sentimentality but flipped, almost overnight, to “objective” forms of the modernist archive.

My seminary studies in hermeneutics helped shape the form of the archive, but it has taken years to organize theological connections to the faces in the photos. And that exploration continues. It struck me one day that the Apostles’ Creeds’ curious phrase “the communion of saints” or “sanctorum communio”, might provide a way forward. 

Much of the literature on the saints suggests that they inspire the church as experienced guides offering a “safe path…among the vicissitudes of this world.” However, Robert Louis Wilken has convincingly argued that that the “Latin communio [means] ‘communion with’ or ‘fellowship with’ someone or something” and suggests mutual participation. Wilken further argues that the meaning of “sanctorum” refers not to a constrained group of martyrs, local luminaries, or the great names of Church history, but primarily to all faithful who have gone before. Together, “sanctorum communio” points to the close mystical bond that exists between the church of the present and the faithful that have gone before.

We see this bond emerge throughout liturgy, the sacraments, and the church calendar. In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit bears a foretaste of the church’s future unity with Christ where “all who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ…together into one Church… are most closely united to the Church in heaven.” This is a preliminary, but no less literal, re-membering of Christ’s body. The Holy Spirit, in Eucharist knits together the body of Christ that stretches across time and place.

And yet, in spite of its prevalence in liturgy and theology, N.T. Wright rightly wonders, “What we ought to do about it?” 

This liturgical formation has shaped my creative imagination and how and why I make this artwork. My theological imagination pushes back into photography through Roland Barthes who suggested, the photograph emanates from the original subject where “light rays that once reflected off of the faces in the photograph reach toward us through a sort of umbilical cord linking us with the past.” Light is both imaged and captured in the silver of the photograph. Barthes’ comments open curious ties to iconography.

           The icon is a written testament and window to the divine, whereas the photograph is a window to a historical reality. Perhaps serendipitously, photographs are written as well, but with light carrying the likeness in silver and gelatin rather than egg tempera and pigments. For the Orthodox, icons are placed in their churches, each room of their home, and even in cars and buses. “These ever-present icons act as a point of meeting between the living members of the Church and those who have gone before. Icons help Orthodox to look on the saints not as remote and legendary figures from the past, but as contemporaries and personal friends.” Albeit of a different order, the photograph, no less than the icon, offers a similar meeting place and allows a viewer to gaze into the eyes of those known and unknown with an immediacy of an actual other recorded in vivid detail.

            The communio sanctorum now serves as a creative undercurrent in all my portraits and work with found photographs. I pray that the work might open profound discussions on the timeless nature of the church, our participation in it, and our own mortality. When those connections are made, may we join with the “heavenly chorus, with prophets, apostles and martyrs, and all those in every generation who have looked to [God] in hope, to proclaim with them [God’s] glory…”

1Lumen gentium, no. 50. Accessed from

2Robert Louis Wilken, “Sanctorum Communio,” Pro Ecclesia Vol. XI, No.2, (Spring 2002), 159. Wilken follows and expands J.N.D. Kelly’s examination of the phrase. J.N.D Kelly, Early Christian Creeds 3rd ed. (London: Longmans, 1972), 388-397, 160.

3Ibid., 162.

4Lumen gentium, no. 50.

5N.T.Wright, For all the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed, (Harrisburg: PA, Morehouse Publishing, 2003), 17.

6I have tied this line of thought to relics as well in other writings.

7Photography’s etymological root from Greek is “phos” and “graphe” meaning to write or draw with light.

8Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (New York: Penguin 1997), 256.

9The Book of Common Prayer, 371.

Ryan Stander is an Associate Professor of Art at Minot State University where he teaches photography, directs the BFA program, and co-directs Flat Tail Press. Originally from the farmlands of northwest Iowa, Stander is a transplant to central North Dakota. His education alternated between art and theology with an MFA from the University of North Dakota, MA in Theology from Sioux Falls Seminary (SD), and a BA in Art from Northwestern College (IA). Stander’s artistic practices live among photography and printmaking while his research interests reside in conversations of art and theology with memory, identity, and landscape.

Follow Ryan on Instagram: @ryanstander

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