Called to be Saints (December 2004)

December 2004


Called to be Saints ©

When I meet someone in a social or business setting and he or she learns of my involvement with religion and the Church, I often hear a disclaimer that strikes me as odd on several levels. They say, “I believe in God but I am no saint!”

I smile because, as a sinner, I know what they mean. Still, I sometimes want to challenge them on that statement but the circumstance just never seems appropriate. So for all the times that I have failed to make the point about what it means to be a saint, I wrote this reflection.

To begin with, it is no wonder that people say what they say. In Catholic tradition, we have a solemn process, which results in beatification and then canonization that permits us as a community to affirm with conviction that the person duly processed is indeed with God.

As a result of this careful scrutiny of their lives, those officially declared saints often appear to have been otherworldly even when they were alive. We quite instinctively think of them as being different from us as well as most of the people that we know. Though we say they led exemplary lives, theirs is an example that we conveniently set aside in the conduct of our daily lives.

This is a twofold tragedy. First, it is sad to see how we have tended to understate the struggles that “saints” faced in their own lives. This is both unjust and unhelpful. That attitude both disregards the courage that is necessary to achieve sainthood and disconnects our religious activities from our secular lives as though one was unrelated to the other.

This problem was not intended in the earliest days of our Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The word “saints” appears dozens of times in Scripture, including numerous references in the Book of Psalms. There are a great many in the Pauline letters and notable ones in the Book of Revelation.

What does the word “saint” mean anyway? We know it is derived from the Latin word sanctus, which mean “holy.” In both Jewish and Christian tradition, “holy ones” are, first and foremost, those in communion with God. The notion of perfection, as we commonly understand that word, is not necessarily implied, but it does signify a person who is in conscious relationship with God.

Holiness is something that comes to us by association. In the case of Jewish tradition, God is the fullness of holiness while Jesus Christ is the holy one who is the focus of New Testament writings.

The word saint almost never appears in the singular in Scripture. It is almost always plural. What is implied is a communion, not only with God, but also with the people of God: “The communion of saints has a threefold meaning in the New Testament. First, those who share holy things, the sacraments and faith. …Second, those united to Jesus Christ and, in him, to one another….Third, those who share their lives and who show active concern for the poor and less fortunate.” (Shawn Madigan in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality)

Despite the variety of factors cited by different authors, there is one consistent element, namely that ours is but a partial expression of the holiness of God. What is evident is that believers are called to holiness in God.

This reality can be viewed in many ways. Perhaps the simplest is to view holiness as wholesomeness. Wholesomeness, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is a state conducive to well-being in general, especially of mind and character; tending or calculated to do good; promoting or conducive to good health; and sound in physical or moral condition. It is the fruit of an earnest and conscious effort to be fully who and what we are.

Our faith teaches us that we are God’s creation and made in his image. This says a great deal about who and what we are. When we divorce ourselves from the true divine image within ourselves, even in the smallest details of daily living, we deny something life-giving within ourselves.

We are, therefore, created to be saints in communion with the source of all life and beneficiaries of his benevolence. We are creatures in need of love and in need of giving love: God is love, John tells us (1 John 4:8). We are creatures who live by hope: Jesus is our hope, writes Paul in his letter to Timothy (1:1). We are created to live fully and freely: Jesus said that he came into our lives so that we might have abundant life through his way of truth (cf John 8:32; 10:10; 14:6.)

We are created as relational beings; the supreme model being the trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. The Holy Trinity is the dynamic model for self-giving love in relationship with others.

While it is true that ours is a fallen and frail condition, we still derive our very identity from the fact that we are created for life, for freedom and for love. This is the legacy of our communion with God. The desire imbedded deep within our souls for communion is a call to holiness.

This desire is a compelling cry that leaps within our hearts whenever we feel safe. When we are assailed by evil, as we often are, we shrink into compulsive, obsessive and self-absorbed habits. We go so far as to call them sources of pleasure or signs of liberty.

But their value is shallow and ephemeral. Deep down, we know that they are the shackles of slavery and not the dance of true freedom. For some, this reality becomes overwhelming. The result is further enslavement.

But for people of God, this ought not be the case. We are invited to wholesomeness as only faith can yield. We are called to freedom as only Christ-centred hope can provide. We are led to love as only other-centred caring can deliver.

In its opening verses, we note that Paul’s letter to Romans is addressed “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” This address is not limited to those who would later be named by church officials as “public saints.” Indeed, this includes all those who are the People of God.

If that is the case, why should we think of ourselves as anything but saints or, at least, saints-in-formation? If we confess ourselves to be people of God and if our deepest desire is to be in communion with God, we cannot reasonably set aside the words holy or saint. They are badges that belong to us.

Does this mean that we will never sin? Of course not. But it does mean that we want something more for ourselves than these ephemeral pleasures or the stubborn illusions that limit our ability to act freely and authentically. Rather, we want our daily lives to be powered by God’s cosmic energy of truth and love. We begin to change our lives to be better connected with that energy.

Interestingly enough, those who shrink from any idea that they might be or even would aspire to be a saint would not be as uncomfortable saying, “I believe in God and I am a good person.”

We say that God is good. We say this with as much ease as saying that God is love. Yet, without straining the definition of sainthood, we might say that to be a saint means to be in Love. Moreover, to be a saint is to be seeking Goodness, which is another way of saying in Godliness.

When we say that we want to feel good, as people of faith, we can think of that visceral desire as wanting to feel God. We all want to feel good, so we all need to feel God who is by his very nature Good. We all want to be in love, so we all need to be in God.

The moment that we come to recognise this profound desire and need, and we embrace it, we are in communion with God. And, the moment we recognise that the most natural way of expressing that deep desire is to be in communion with the People of God, we are part of the communion of saints.

What does a saint do in this world? Does being a saint detach us from the world? After all, we are both spirit and flesh. We were made that way. When God looked at humans made of spirit and flesh, he looked with satisfaction and said that it was good. To be human – of spirit and flesh – is indeed good provided that our lives are intended for good and love.

The measure of holiness, according to Madigan, is the extent to which the Christian community gives over its life to the urgency of the kingdom and to the formation of the new creation. We believe that this new creation is a kingdom of good and love. Who among us does not believe that? Who among us do not see ourselves doing a part in its advent?

While many of us fail to see or to act upon the urgency of the kingdom, we are inclined to the good and compelled by love, which are manifestations of God’s presence among us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the following point: “All of us…in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbours, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God. All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together.” (Lumen Gentium, 1964)

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Lord, grant all those who believe in you the grace to acknowledge that we are both sinners and saints – bound to the Father by the Son in the Spirit of holiness, that is goodness and love. Remove from us any inhabitation we might have to confess, particularly during this Advent season, that our joy is in you.